Monday, September 16, 2013

The Cardiff Giant Lesson Remains Unlearned

"Hey, this ain't good for the womenfolk.  Anyone got a fig leaf?"

"Well, that'll have to do.  If my wife wasn't such a stick in the mud..."

There was some excitement over dere in Cardiff, NY back in October of 1869.  During a well diggin' on Stub Newell's spread the boys found a giant petrified man in the ground!  Even some of those science folks said so, so dere.
Or so the story went.  Actually it was a hoax, the carved statue placed into the ground a year before to make its discovery appear more authentic, the giant and the soil settling into place.

A great overview to the hoax is provided by the non-fiction book, The Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy (Scholastic Press).  Don't be turned off that this book is classified as "juvenile literature" for readers ten years and older: adults will also find it a ripping good read.  Sometimes non-fiction books for young readers can be just as informative but better because the writer uses an economy of words.  Murphy's book also provides extensive source notes with leads to other works that delve further into the details.

One aspect I enjoy about this hoax is how even some "experts" were fooled.  Murphy explains that some scientists believed the Cardiff Giant was man-made but not of recent origin. 

When the American Goliath was first discovered an expert climbed into the muddy excavation and conducted a close examination, even smelling and licking the stone man's visage while a crowd watched.  The expert claimed it was probably sculpted back in the 17th Century by French Jesuit missionaries.

And there were those who took stock in it in being an actual petrified man, a fossilized giant.  One explanation for the change from flesh to stone was offered by a local doctor: a combo of cold underground water and "wet alluvial oil" produced the transmutation before rot could damage the body.

Murphy does put the situation of the experts in perspective when he states that back in those days university degrees in areas such as archeology and paleontology were recent developments.  Only a few who claimed to be specialists, he notes, possessed the extensive knowledge in the subjects they studied.

So with the growth of knowledge and the great number of university graduates now out in the world a hoax like the Cardiff Giant wouldn't happen in modern times.

Well, there was that incident back in 1999, as Murphy details, after a team of experts at the National Geographic Society claimed the missing link between dinosaurs and birds had been found with the Archaeoraptor liaoningensis fossil.  An article in National Geographic magazine featured the chicken-size dinosaur and how a paradigm shift had occurred.

Actually, the only shifting that occurred was a Chinese farmer glued together two different fossils together to scam some money off visiting fossil hunters.

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1 comment:

X. Dell said...

Interesting story. I have to confess I know not much about the Cardiff giant, or the Archaeoraptor liaoningensis fossil (although I had a good time looking up the latter).

Speaking of ripping good read, I have to say you raised a couple of really good points here. (1) I'm guilty, as are probably most people, in overlooking juvenile literature when it can in fact be quite informative; (2) the academic rigor of many arts and sciences wasn't something that was really seriously taken until the 20th Century.