The Five-Year Life of the 500,000-Year-Old Man who Never Existed


In 1922, Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced the discovery of ‘Nebraska Man’—Hesperopithecus haroldcookii—the first hominid in the New World. This was based on fossils found in Western Nebraska by the naturalist Harold J. Cook.  The discovery was almost immediately popularized and held up by some (including Osborn) as proof of the folly of antievolutionism.  However, by 1927, Osborn and the others investigating the Nebraska fossils determined that they were not from a primate and retracted their announcement of Hesperopithecus.

            My research will explore the history of the discovery, interpretation, popularization, and ultimate rejection of Hesperopithecus.  Although Nebraska Man was only considered to be a real species for a period of about five years—a very short time compared to how long it takes for some scientific hypotheses to be refuted—those five years, 1922 to 1927, include both the Scopes trial and the 1924 Nebraska evolution trial, and belief in Hesperopithecus influenced how those events unfolded.  (In fact, the public announcement of Hesperopithecus probably triggered the series of events that led directly to the Nebraska trial.)  With the exception of some good, but brief discussions of this episode, most of what has been written about Nebraska man comes from creationists and other evolution deniers who often describe Nebraska Man as a ‘hoax.’  So far in my research, there’s absolutely no evidence of deceit or duplicity on the part of anyone involved in this story.  This project will seek to provide a more thorough history of Hesperopithecus, his role in the evolution debates of the 1920s, his influence on the way field research was funded and conducted in the United States, and its role in a larger story of science in the American West.