Myth Busted

Cutting Ancient Americans Down to Size

Among those interested in prehistory — and presumably that’s everyone reading this — there is the knowledge that the average ancient Indian of the Ohio River Valley was rather taller than most of us today.

Maybe even much taller.

Myth. Myth. Myth.

It turns out, if you were to meet a prehistoric American walking down the street, they would likely be no taller than most people today.

Current formulas for estimating stature based on bone length indicate their average height was almost identical to ours.

But wait! Respected scientists have found and reported evidence that a giant “superior” race of people once lived here.

How I know they were wrong, and how the myth developed, is what this post is about.

The Mythbuster

My mythbuster is Dr. Robyn Wakefield-Murphy.

She got to measure bones of the Ancient Ones stored at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History using modern devices and methods.

Her research is in a doctoral thesis she wrote at the University of Pittsburgh in 2017.

DR. WAKEFIELD-MURPHY

Dr. Wakefield-Murphy was investigating differences and similarities in how ancient men and women were buried.

How tall they were — or weren’t — was incidental to her.

But, I noticed in her thesis that the woman long thought to have been the first person buried in the McKees Rocks burial mound — and therefore presumably special — was only five feet, four inches tall.

That’s a respectable enough height for a modern woman.

But, archaeologists who pulled her bones from the mound in 1896 reported this important woman would have stood six foot, two inches.

They said the men in the 2,500-year-old mound, which sat atop a stone bluff overlooking the Ohio River, were well over seven feet tall. All of them.

The main publishers of scientific discoveries at the time — newspapers — loved it.

Here is a linked example.

MEASURING UP TO AN AVERAGE SIZE LEG BONE

In Search of Superwoman, or Earth’s Decline

Today, websites energized by New Age philosophies, and empowerment of women, celebrate the idea of a six-foot plus, superhero female unearthed in McKees Rocks.

They imagine her as a combination shaman/warrior.

She may have been, but there is no evidence for it.

Others see the century-old stories about giant prehistoric Americans as evidence for de-evolution, something that “unbelievers” would try to cover up.

Unlike Charles Darwin’s theory that creatures tend to evolve in ways that increase fitness and survivability, de-evolution theory sees Nature in perpetual decline.

It says people, and everything else, were once bigger and stronger, and. . . well. . . better.

Everything is worse now. Those who don’t embrace that hard truth, are part of the coverup long orchestrated by the Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Wakefield-Murphy smiles when I suggest she and I are in league with the Smithsonian and other institutions of unbelievers to hide The Truth.

“I’ve looked at every bone taken out of the mound at the museum. There was no one in the McKees Rocks Indian Mound taller than 5-10,” she said.

I reached out (as people do today) to Dr. Wakefield-Murphy to ask if she was sure about her measurements. If so, how could scientists over the past century have been so wrong?

One could understand a difference of a few inches when dealing with disarticulated, decaying bones, but 10 inches?

What are we? Fishermen exaggerating prize catches?

Kind of. We’ll come back to that later.

Since I questioned her measurements, Dr. Wakefield-Murphy managed to return to the museum collection and check again.

She said she confirmed all her measurements.

It’s good she did.

There may never be another chance to check the museum’s unverified height estimates. The bones may soon be reburied to complete their “journey” according to Indian traditions.

The Seneca Nation is repatriating them. Its archaeologists and anthropologists have been sorting through the collection to separate individuals as much as they can.

Jay Toth, head Seneca archaeologist, said they want to rebury the Ancient Ones as they were before they were disturbed by the Carnegie archaeologists some 120 years ago.

The Seneca are working with McKees Rocks residents to re-establish a mound near the original site. The post detailing that is here.

Estimating Height From One Bone

So, how do you measure the height of someone who hasn’t stood for a few thousand years?

FEMUR LENGTH CONSIDERED BEST TO ESTIMATE HEIGHT

Well, your measurements need a leg to stand on — literally and figuratively. Or, a long arm bone will do, too.

Forensic anthropologists, and others into such things, have measured the heights of living people, and then recorded the length of long bones in their legs and arms.

Do that enough times and you can come up with a number to multiply the length of a bone by that accurately gets you the overall height.

Turns out, one multiplier doesn’t fit everyone.

It’s different for women and men. Asians, Africans and Europeans also are built differently.

So, they require different multipliers to arrive at the correct height.

A standardized method of estimating height based on bone length was not adopted until 1970, noted Dr. Wakefield-Murphy.

So, before that, anthropologists seeking to reveal secrets of the ancient past were left to their own devices.

Many did not follow basic scientific method, which calls for recording everything so others can duplicate and verify, or not.

No one knows exactly how the Carnegie scientists came up with their height estimates. The McKees Rocks Indian Mound excavation was such a disaster both scientifically and in terms of public relations.

A previous post covers that fiasco.

MCKEES ROCK MOUND AS IT WAS DUG

No reports were written. Only what appeared in newspapers almost as soon as the Ancient Ones were unearthed.

Subsequent archaeological reports in the 20th Century reviewing the field notes written by diggers do not confirm or deny the height estimates.

However, contemporary news accounts of the dig give a clue that it was not so much about mismeasurement as it was miscalculation.

The sample news story linked above notes that two males were found who had 18-inch femurs (upper leg bones). The story says archaeologists thought that meant they were more than seven feet tall.

But, that length femur is now considered common. Standardized formulas used today place people with such leg bones at about five and a half feet tall.

There is another factor that caused heights to be exaggerated: Everyone really wanted to find giants.

The public wanted it. Both newspapers and the new crop of museums, including the Carnegie, gave people what they wanted.

Industrial Giant Steps Up Big

POLITICAL CARTOON OF ANDREW CARNEGIE SHOWS HIM FUNDING FREE EDUCATION IN SCOTLAND. HE WAS LIKEWISE GENEROUS WITH THE STUDY AND PROMOTION OF DINOSAURS.

Keep in mind that the earliest museums were primarily privately owned collections of the macabre and freakish.

The transition to semi-public, education-centered, scientifically responsible institutions was slow, and never has been completed.

The public still prefers giants and dead people. Hence the popularity of dinosaur and mummy exhibits.

Story has it that Andrew Carnegie saw a cartoon in New York City of a dinosaur looking into a skyscraper window.

He immediately “reached out” to his newly hired museum people in Pittsburgh and allocated money to go find one — the bigger the better.

That set off dinosaur competition among the world’s top museums, and ultimately led to the immense and continued popularity of the extinct critters.

DIPLODOCUS HAS A DIFFERENT POSE NOW. THIS IS HOW IT LOOKED WHEN FIRST DISPLAYED AT THE CARNEGIE MUSEUM IN PITTSBURGH. PLASTER COPIES WERE GIVEN TO A DOZEN MUSEUMS AROUND THE WORLD. ALL REMAIN POPULAR ATTRACTIONS MORE THAN A CENTURY LATER.

A good friend of Carnegie, Dr. William Jacob Holland, orchestrated the collection and preparation of dinosaur fossils.

Along the way, he garnered worldwide recognition and honors at a time when America was still considered second rate.

He was chancellor at what became the University of Pittsburgh, and took over the helm of Carnegie’s museum in Pittsburgh.

I bring Dr. Holland up, because he is considered a credible discoverer of multiple giant Indians.

He is in newspaper stories at the turn of the last century reporting that he dug up skeletons in this region that would have stood eight or nine feet tall. And, they were human.

Here is a sample.

DOUBLE TAKE? DR HOLLAND IS PHOTOGRAPHED WHILE LEOPOLD SEYFFER PAINTS HIS PORTRAIT IN 1925

Dr. Holland, the Giant Maker

How could someone of Dr. Holland’s stature (sorry) . . . have been so wrong?

Well, I’ve not seen any story that quotes Dr. Holland directly. It may well have been reporters putting words into his mouth.

Someday I’ll go through the 17 linear feet of Holland files at the Heinz History Center to see if he wrote about such finds.

In the meantime, I’ll presume the world traveler, who dined with royalty and slept in the dust of paleontological digs, was too busy to care about such news accounts.

In addition to nurturing a young museum and college, he was one of the world’s leading lapidarists. If you don’t know, they are people who collect and categorize butterflies and moths.

He donated a few hundred thousand to the museum. He also did extensive research on Monravians and their missionary work with Indians.

Yeah, I think he probably paid little attention to stories connecting him with nine-foot homo sapiens.

Less charitably, we could surmise he simply used the same wrong bone-length multiplier as those before him.

The Tale of the Tape

I will leave the last word, though, with the guy with the moose in the photo at the top of the post.

Jeremy Turner, who has Shawnee and Wyandot ancestry, was at a film shoot on the banks of the Ohio. The moose were added for the purposes of this post. In reality, Turner is just over 5’10.”
In reality, so were his ancient male relatives.

Turner, also known as Tsizuto`o, his Wyandot name, spends a lot of time teaching others about the traditional ways of his people.

“I never bought into the nonsense that there was a group of giant prehistoric mound-building Indians,” he said.

“I have had a few folks want to talk to me about this myth.  I’ve always chalked it up to poor measurements and (poor) archaeological investigations.”

The tale of the tape, as read by Dr. Wakefield-Murphy, seems to confirm that view. 

  

Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher

Thanks to John Schalcosky, founder of The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh, for providing old newspaper clippings used in this post.

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