The Case of the Strange Skulls
A collection of bizarre human skulls from around the world.
by Brian Dunning
March 10, 2009
Also available in Arabic
Is it an extraterrestrial alien? Is it an unknown subspecies of human? Is it a relic from a mysterious race of subterranean or Atlantean beings? Or, could there be some other, more natural explanation for the many strange misshapen skulls found throughout the world? Let's look at some of the most popular:
The Starchild Skull
Perhaps the most famous of the "strange skulls" is the so-called "Starchild Skull", the skull of a five-year-old child found alongside a normal adult in a cave in Mexico, carbon dated to about 900 years old. Although only the top half of the skull remains, its severe deformities are clear. The skull is exceptionally broad and bulbous, not unlike modern concept sketches of "gray aliens". For this reason, the skull's current owner, Ray Young and author Lloyd Pye promote the skull as alien, or possibly an alien-human hybrid.
Neurologist Steven Novella has pointed out the probable consensus among medical professionals who have seen pictures of the Starchild, that it is likely an unfortunate case of hydrocephaly. Hydrocephaly is a condition where too much fluid accumulates inside the skull of a young child, causing the skull (which is still pliable at that age) to expand. This condition is well established to produce precisely the type of deformity seen in the Starchild skull. Victims of hydrocephaly rarely live beyond the Starchild's young age. Of course it's not possible to make a conclusive diagnosis without a direct examination. Young and Pye list a handful of specialists who they say have viewed the skull or its X-rays, but none of them (so far as I could tell) concur with the speculation that the skull is alien.
The primary strike against them is the 2003 DNA analysis. The child had normal human DNA and was male, having both X and Y chromosomes, proving that it had a human female mother and a human male father. Young and Pye state that this is consistent with the alien-human hybrid theory, which it may be, who knows; no known alien DNA exists to use as a reference. But it is also consistent with a human child with a well documented and thoroughly understood illness.
The Peruvian Coneheads
Author Robert Connolly has collected and photographed a number of skulls from ancient Peru, skulls that are surprisingly elongated. In Peru, a practice called "skull binding" involved wrapping fabric or leather straps about a child's head, molding it as it grew into this strange oval shape. There's nothing mysterious or unknown about this; we have plenty of historical and archaeological data about this practice. But Connolly disagrees, stating that this explanation "has been rejected". Well, it has, by him; but not by the anthropologists who make Peru their business. The elongated skulls of Peru are certainly interesting, but their origin is well understood and no mystery exists outside of the delusions of those who insist on alien or supernatural explanations for just about anything.
The next skulls I wanted to discuss were the strange giant skulls from Minnesota with double rows of teeth. But I quickly ran into a problem: For virtually the entire 19th century, people were reporting discoveries of skeletons with double teeth all over the United States. Double teeth sounds interesting. I found a number of repeated references that the Talmud states that some Biblical giants had double rows of teeth, but in an online searchable Talmud I found no such reference. It's also said that the Fomorians, an early Irish tribe, are known to have had double teeth. In fact, the Fomorians were a fictional race of ogres, and even so I found no mention of double teeth outside of web pages promoting strange skulls. Here are several of the double teeth stories:
- In Clearwater, Minnesota in 1888, seven skeletons were found buried in an upside-down sitting position facing a lake, all with sloping foreheads and double rows of teeth on the top and bottom.
- In Jefferson County, New York in 1878, a skeleton of "great stature" was found buried under the roots of a large maple, with entire rows of double teeth; found among the skeletons of hundreds of men, who apparently fell defending the ditch they were in.
- Proctorville, Ohio, 1892. A "very large" skull was unearthed with double teeth.
- Medina County, Ohio, 1881. Nine skeletons found while digging the cellar of a house, all with double teeth. The skulls were so large one man was able to put one on like a hat, and it rested upon his shoulders.
- Virginia, 1845, a human jawbone with transverse teeth, so large it could wrap around a man's face.
- At an Indian burial ground excavated in Michigan in 1890, three of the skulls recovered had three holes in the crown, and of these, two had double teeth in front.
- In 1829, in Chesterton, Ohio, a mound was excavated in which was found a jawbone with "more teeth" than modern humans, and which was so large that it could fit over the face of a man known for his large jaw.
- Noble County, Ohio, 1872: Three skeletons, at least eight feet in height, recovered from a mound. The skulls all had double teeth, and "upon exposure to the atmosphere, the skeletons soon crumbled back to Earth."
- Rancho Lompoc, California, 1833: Soldiers digging a pit discovered a twelve foot tall skeleton, its skull featuring double rows of teeth on the upper and lower jaws.
- A frequent visitor to Santa Rosa Island off California in 1860 often discovered numerous Indian skeletons in caves, many of which had double teeth all around.
- Mason County, Virginia, 1821: Seven skulls found, so large they could easily fit over a man's head; with double rows of teeth on the upper jaw, and but two solitary teeth on the lower jaw.
Besides the extra teeth, all of these stories have one very important fact in common: A complete lack of evidence. No photographs, and certainly no skulls in museums or private collections, at least not that I could find any record of. If you found an extraordinary skull, wouldn't you keep it? Wouldn't you show it to some professors at the local college? At a minimum, wouldn't you sell such an amazing find to someone who would display it or preserve it? But in every one of these cases, no record of the skull exists at all. And although it seems every other thrust of a shovel used to turn one of these up, apparently not a single one has been found since 1892, despite far more extensive construction and excavation since then. Even if these were hoaxes, someone would have photographed it or sketched it or preserved it. For the double-toothed skulls, I've found no reason to move from the null hypothesis that no such skull has ever actually been found. I'd love to be proven wrong.
The stories are symptomatic of a late 19th century fad. Strange skeletons and petrified people were quite popular in the United States in the 19th century, and it wasn't just limited to skulls with double teeth. It seemed that just about everyone with a circus tent or a traveling show had some enigmatic human remains, which always conveniently managed to be lost or destroyed before they could be properly scrutinized. Mark Twain lampooned these stories on a number of occasions. He once wrote:
In the fall of 1862, in Nevada and California, the people got to running wild about extraordinary petrifactions and other natural marvels. One could scarcely pick up a paper without finding in it one or two glorified discoveries of this kind. The mania was becoming a little ridiculous. I was a brand-new local editor in Virginia City, and I felt called upon to destroy this growing evil... I chose to kill the petrifaction mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire. But maybe it was altogether too delicate, for nobody ever perceived the satire part of it at all. I put my scheme in the shape of the discovery of a remarkably petrified man.
He then went on to describe the discovery of a petrified Indian making an obscene gesture. He also wrote a tale called A Ghost Story in which he is visited by the ghost of the Cardiff Giant, a 10-foot petrified man discovered in 1869 and proven to be a hoax. Twain explains to the ghost that he's been haunting P.T. Barnum's plaster copy of the Cardiff Giant instead of the original.
It's wise to understand the carnival-like atmosphere in which many of the 19th century freakshow skeletons are said to have been discovered, and the convenient lack of evidence. A few of the many stories that fit this model are:
- Skeletons were exhumed from a burial mound in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, in the 1880's. They were seven feet tall, but most extraordinarily, they had horns. Although modern replicas have been created and photographed based on the descriptions, the original horned skulls were sent to the American Investigating Museum in Philadelphia where they vanished before they could be documented. (Incidentally, the entire Internet has not a single reference to any institution called the "American Investigating Museum" outside of this one story.)
- Near Coshocton, Ohio in 1837, a number of "pygmy" skeletons are said to have been found. Various reports give the number as being "several" on the low end, to "very numerous" and "tenants of a large city" on the high end. Remains of wood found near some of them suggested that they may have originally been buried in coffins. The skeletons were three to four feet tall, and no objects were found that may have helped identify them. Unfortunately the skeletons were "reduced to chalky ashes" and could not be preserved or documented.
- A mound excavated in Ohio in 1891 revealed the skeleton known as "Copper Man", so named because of the copper jewelry and other artifacts buried with him, and said to be "enormous". Strange skull aficionados love Copper Man in part because he was actually written up in the December 17, 1891 edition of the journal Nature, issue 1155. Debunk that! In fact, the Nature article was actually a review of a book about gigantism and acromegaly that referenced the alleged discovery, and was not a peer-reviewed report of the find itself.
- A Mr. Robinson excavated a burial mound on his property in Brewersville, Indiana in either 1879 or 1891 and found a skeleton said to be nine and a half feet tall. Although Mr. Robinson declared that it had been examined by scientists from Indiana and from New York, the bones were suddenly washed away in a 1937 flood before they could be documented.
- An 1876 report mentioned in the 1978 book A Handbook of Puzzling Artifacts alleges that James Brown was plowing his field in Coffee County, Tennessee when he began turning up numerous skeletons of three foot tall pygmies. It was estimated that 75,000 to 100,000 skeletons were buried in his six acres. Sadly, not a single one of them was preserved or documented.
- Railroad workers in Hardin County, Ohio removed a 150-year-old oak stump in 1856, uncovering the bones of a man so large his vertebrae were said to be the size of those of a horse. Although the supervisor had noted they were quarrying from a burial mound and thus took appropriate caution and notes, it did not seem to occur to him to remove or preserve the extraordinary find.
Mound building was indeed common among early pre-Columbian cultures in North America, going back as far as 3,000 BCE. Thousands of such mounds have been discovered throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. Metal artifacts and human remains have been discovered, but so far nothing that has surprised archaeologists: No double teeth, no pygmies, no giants. But in the midst of such intriguing mounds, it's easy to see how farmers and fortune seekers might try to generate a little sensationalism with a wild story or two. The anecdotal evidence in the form of stories has great value to investigators looking to support the claims, but so far, these stories have led to a grand total of strange skulls of exactly zero. Always remember: No matter how much poor-quality evidence you have, it does not aggregate into a single piece of good-quality evidence. You can stack cowpies as high as you want; they won't turn into a bar of gold. When you hear lots of stories that are supported by dubious or nonexistent evidence, no matter how many there are, you have good reason to be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Case of the Strange Skulls." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
10 Mar 2009. Web.
20 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4144>
References & Further Reading
Castriota-Scanderbeg, A., Dallapiccola, B. Abnormal Skeletal Phenotypes. Berlin, Germany: Springer, 2005. 3-100, 501-931.
Gerszten, P.C. "An Investigation into the Practice of Cranial Deformation Among the Pre-Columbian Peoples of Northern Chile." International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 27 May 2005, Volume 3, Issue 2: 87-98.
Hippocrates; translated by Adams, F. On Airs, Waters, and Places. Gloucester, UK: Dodo Press, 2009. 20.
Kirks, D. (Editor). Practical pediatric imaging: Diagnostic radiology of infants and children (3rd Edition). Philadelphia: Lippincott-Raven, 1998. 80-200.
Novella, S. "The Starchild Project." The New England Skeptical Society. The New England Skeptical Society, 1 Feb. 2006. Web. 14 Jan. 2010. <http://www.theness.com/index.php/the-starchild-project/>
Smith, B. et. al. "An anatomical study of a duplication 6p based on two sibs." American Journal of Medical Genetics. 3 Jun. 2005, Volume 20, Issue 4: 649-663.
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