Did the Smithsonian Try to Cover Up Giant Skeletons in West Virginia? You'll Never Guess What the Facts Say
Today I want to point to an article running at Ancient Origins in which gigantologists Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer try to make the case that the Smithsonian engineered a cover-up of giants uncovered in a West Virginia mound. According to their research, Ernest Sutton of Salem College uncovered the skeletons of as many as four giants between 7.5 and 9 feet in height in mounds located on the property of Benjamin Zahn in Morgansville, West Virginia, in 1929. These “giants” were reported in local newspapers in 1930. The authors then tried to prove that the newspaper accounts were true by examining Sutton’s field report, filed 29 years later in 1958.
The field report matched the newspaper accounts in most details, but it lacked measurements of the skeletons. The authors speculate that Sutton purposely omitted the measurements after he was made aware of the official Smithsonian policy of censorship about “giants.”
As someone working outside of the establishment, Ernest Sutton may have been initially unaware of the policy of secrecy enacted under the authority of Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian, regarding the reporting of gigantic skeletons. As a result of these circumstances, Sutton may have gone public with what he considered to be very important anthropological discoveries in June of 1930, and then avoided the mention of the size of the skeletons in his official report filed almost three decades later.
This is ridiculous, and there never was a policy designed to suppress knowledge of giants. Hrdlička, the head of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was quite clear about what he thought “giants” were. As he told Science News Letter in 1934, the so-called “giants” were almost always the result of mismeasurement or mistaking Ice Age mammal bones for human ones. The evidence Jarrell and Farmer provide actually tells a very different story than the one they think it does, and one that conforms quite closely to Hrdlička’s 1934 observation.
In 1966, Sutton provided a report of some additional excavations he conducted in 1962 and 1963 to Martha Potter of the Ohio Historical Society, and the authors examined this letter in order to learn about Sutton’s methodology. There, Sutton, a professor of geography, explained that he estimated the height of the “giants” by multiplying from the length of the femur bone: “By examination and checking, I find that the length of the femur bone is approximately one-third of the total length.” Our authors miss the import of this piece of data and instead spin it as part of a conspiracy:
In the letter, Sutton also assures Potter that the “Johnson-Thompson Mound report has been revised in conformity with instructions and is now returned.” This is clear evidence that large “official” organizations were enforcing specific criteria in the publication of archeological data. In relation to this, the specific reference to the measurement of skeletal height in Sutton’s letter would indicate that this subject was among those bounded by these criteria.
The letter itself makes plain that Potter had requested revisions to the report to correct formatting issues and “errors and irregularities” in its presentation. Our authors omit that as well.
Anyway, the key issue is Sutton’s use of measurements suggest much less anthropological skill and knowledge than our authors attribute to Sutton. If he estimated the height of a living person by measurement of the femur, and used a 3:1 ratio, this would produce a significant error. The average male today is about 180 cm high, with a femur of about 48 cm in length, about 27% of the overall height, a ratio that holds across human populations. Obviously, 48 is not one-third of 180, and multiplying by three would underestimate the height. It would seem to me that Sutton has made an error, either in reporting his methodology or in measurement. Otherwise, his figures grow to ridiculous proportions.
One frequent formula for finding the height of an adult male is 2.32x + 65.53, where x is femur length in centimeters. If we take our 7.5-foot skeleton (228.6 cm) and divide it by three to get Sutton’s approximation of the original femur length (76 cm) and then plug it into our formula, we get 242 cm, or just about 8 feet in height!
That said, it is unlikely that Sutton was using that formula in 1929. According to the published accounts, he was measuring skeletons then by the length of the burial. Reporters claimed that Sutton made careful measurements of the whole body in situ. This has its own problems, as we shall see.
Now as for the Smithsonian, they did in fact take an interest in this most unusual report. Shortly after the newspaper account of “giants” was published on June 15, 1930, the Smithsonian Science Service sent anthropologist D. T. Stewart (possibly the author meant T. Dale Stewart, bone expert and later director of the Museum of Natural History) to West Virginia to meet with Sutton and view the giant bones. Science News Letter carried a story about the official investigation, in all its disappointing results. According to the unsigned piece “Archaeological No-Man’s Land” in the July 5, 1930 edition, Stewart arrived and asked to see the giant bones only to be told that they had completely disintegrated and could not be viewed!
Yes, it wasn’t the Smithsonian who made the bones disappear! In fact, Sutton reported that he didn’t consider the bones interesting or important enough to keep, and he threw them away! Stewart searched for any remains of the bones in order to glean information from them. “Fragments of arm bones which had been preserved were shown to Mr. Stewart, who said they appear to be of average size.” To try to confirm this, Stewart re-excavated the mounds with the help of a “squad” of volunteers from Salem College. He found no additional burials but uncovered a number of artifacts, the same artifacts that Jarrell and Farmer note with puzzlement were added to the Smithsonian collection on July 9, 1930. They were brought back to Washington by Stewart, the only fruit of the excavation.
Stewart told Science News that he believed that Sutton overestimated the height of the skeletons by not accounting for the disarticulation and separation that occurred as the body decayed. He failed “to allow for shrinkage” in imagining how the bones would have fit back together. To this I would add that the allegedly rapid decay of the bones upon exposure to air would suggest that they might have been waterlogged and exposed to numerous freeze-thaw cycles, which can add extra length over time as ice expands and weakens bones by pushing the bone matrix apart, particularly in long bones like femurs.
Contrary to Jarrell and Farmer’s conspiracy theory, we find that the Smithsonian not only took an active and public interest in the giants but conducted its investigation in the open, in the presence of dozens of witnesses, and with results shared with the news media within days. When Sutton later wrote up an account of his original 1929 excavation, he most likely omitted the size of the skeletons not due to pressure from the Smithsonian but due to the fact that the geographer’s conversations with a forensic anthropologist and bone expert had convinced him he had made a mistake in measuring the bones. Since they had fallen into decay and could not be re-measured, there was nothing to report.
The whole flap about “giants” lasted about three weeks in the summer of 1930 but has been rehearsed in gigantology circles ever since. The original news stories have appeared in books like Richard Dewhurst’s The Ancient Giants Who Ruled America but the real story of how the Smithsonian investigated the claim somehow never makes it into the gigantologists’ accounts.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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