Feb 19 2024

Fake Fossils

Published by under Evolution
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In 1931 a fossil lizard was recovered from the Italian Alps, believed to be a 280 million year old specimen. The fossil was also rare in that it appeared to have some preserved soft tissue. It was given the species designation Tridentinosaurus antiquus and was thought to be part of the Protorosauria group.

A recent detailed analysis of the specimen, hoping to learn more about the soft tissue elements of the fossil, revealed something unexpected. The fossil is a fake (at least mostly). What appears to have happened is that a real fossil which was poorly preserved was “enhanced” to make it more valuable. There are real fossilized femur bones and some bony scales on what was the back of the lizard. But the overall specimen was poorly preserved and of not much value. What the forger did was carve out the outline of the lizard around the preserved bones and then paint it black to make it stand out, giving the appearance of carbonized soft tissue.

How did such a fake go undetected for 93 years? Many factors contributed to this delay. First, there were real bones in the specimen and it was taken from an actual fossil deposit. Initial evaluation did reveal some kind of lacquer on the specimen, but this was common practice at the time as a way of preserving the fossils, so did not raise any red flags. Also, characterization of the nature of the black material required UV photography and microscopic examination using technology not available at the time. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t have revealed it as a fake back then, but it is certainly much easier now.

It also helps to understand how fossils are typically handled. Fossils are treated as rare and precious items. They are typically examined with non-destructive techniques. It is also common for casts to be made and photographs taken, with the original fossils then catalogued and stored away for safety. Not every fossil has a detailed examination before being put away in a museum drawer. There simply aren’t the resources for that.

No fossil fake can withstand detailed examination. There is no way to forge a fossil that cannot be detected by the many types of analysis that we have available today. Some fakes are detected immediately, usually because of some feature that a paleontologist will recognize as fake. Others require high tech analysis. The most famous fake fossil, Piltdown Man, was a chimera of modern human and ape bones aged to look old. The fraud was revealed by drilling into the bones revealing they were not fossilized.

There was also an entire industry of fake fossils coming out of China. These are mostly for sale to private collectors, exploiting the genuine fossil deposits in China, especially of feathered dinosaurs. It is illegal to export real fossils from China, but not fakes. In at least one case, paleontologists were fooled for about a year by a well-crafted fake. Some of these fakes were modified real (but not very valuable) fossils while others were entire fabrications. The work was often so good, they could have just sold them as replicas for decent amounts of money. But still, claiming they were real inflated the price.

Creationists would have you believe that all fossils are fake, and will point to known cases as evidence. But this is an absurd claim. The Smithsonian alone boasts a collection of 40 million fossil specimens. Most fossils are discovered by paleontologists looking for them in geological locations that correspond to specific periods of time and have conditions amenable to fossil preservation. There is transparency, documentation, and a provenance to the fossils that would make a forgery impossible.

There are a few features that fake fossils have in common that in fact reinforce the nature of genuine fossils. Fake fossils generally were not found by scientists. They were found by amateurs who claim to have gotten lucky. The source and provenance of the fossils are therefore often questionable. This does not automatically mean they are fakes. There is a lot of non-scientific activity that can dig up fossils or other artifacts by chance. Ideally as soon as the artifacts are detected scientists are called in to examine them first hand, in situ. But that does not always happen.

Perhaps most importantly, fake fossils rarely have an enduring impact on science. Many are just knock-offs, and therefore even if they were real they are of little scientific value. They are just copies of real fossils. Fakes purported to be of unique fossil specimens, like Piltdown, have an inherent problem. If they are unique, then they would tell us something about the evolutionary history of the group. But if they are fake, they can’t be telling us something real. Chances are the fakes will not comport to the actual fossil record. They will be enigmas, and likely will be increasingly out of step with the actual fossil record as more genuine specimens are found.

That is exactly what happened with Piltdown. Some paleontologists were immediately skeptical of the find, and it was always thought of as a quirky specimen that scientists did not know how to fit into the tree of life. As more hominid specimens were found Piltdown became increasingly the exception, until finally scientists had enough, pulled the original specimens out of the vault, and showed them to be fakes. The same is essentially true of Tridentinosaurus antiquus specimen. Paleontologists could not figure out exactly where it fit taxonomically, and did not know how it had apparent soft tissue preservation. It was an enigma, which prompted the analysis which revealed it to be a fake.

Paleontology is essentially the world’s largest puzzle, with each fossil specimen being a puzzle piece. A fake fossil is either redundant or a puzzle piece that does not fit.

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