Micah Hanks Bungles Search for Pre-Columbian Elephants, Accidentally Leads Me to Fascinating Mexican Investigation of a "Giant's" Bones
This week offers us a second round of Micah Hanks’s efforts to imitate what I do in investigating ancient mysteries. Earlier this week we saw him try and fail to explore the “telescopes” of the ancient world, and now we can watch him try to examine whether there were elephants in pre-Columbian America. If the latter claim sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a very old one, born hundreds of years ago, popularized in the Victorian period, and copied by innumerable fringe historians, creationists, and Mormon apologists ever since. His evidence, as you would expect, is somewhat disappointing. However, in his lazy reliance on secondary material, he accidentally uncovered a fascinating case study in how science is distorted by the media and new proof that “giants” are often misidentified megafauna fossils. Of course Hanks completely missed the real story in his simplistic pursuit of typical fringe material.
Hanks begins his article by quoting a 1903 hoax newspaper article later republished in the November-December 1903 edition of the American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal. The story, which claims that a lost city destroyed by a massive flood had been found in the deserts of northern Mexico, added the ridiculous detail that the city was filled with elephants whose tusks were inlaid with silver. The story first ran in the New York Herald in the fall of 1903. Some relevant highlights:
Portions of buildings so far unearthed show that the city — at least the largest of the cities that were covered by the debris of the flood, there being at least three cities destroyed — was very extensive. The indications are that there were many massive structures in the city and that they were of a class of architecture not to be found elsewhere in Mexico.
Hanks correctly notes that the story is likely a fake, but rather than investigate it, he lazily attributes it to a “liar’s club.” The real story is so much more interesting because it is based on a very small grain of truth, one that Hanks missed because he didn’t bother to try to track down the real facts.
More specifically, the claim passed under the name of “Dr. Nicholas Leon,” described as an archaeologist. Surprisingly, he was an actual real person, Dr. Nicolás León, who was indeed a researcher in Mexico and the head of the Museo Michoacano (Mexican Museum), and who had published scientific literature about Mexican archaeology, geography, and linguistics. Just before the news article was published, León released a book whose title translates to A Compendium of the General History of Mexico, from Prehistoric Times to the Year 1900. In it, he describes species of extinct elephant—the mammoth and the mastodon—whose remains, he said, were often mistaken for the bones of giants. Shortly after, he went in search of a giant at the behest of the Mexican government.
In 1903 he had actually done some work in the area around Paredon, Coahuila (specifically in Ramos Arizpe), where the cities were supposedly found, and he had reported that bones that the locals thought were human were actually those of extinct prehistoric elephants. The Mexican government had appointed him to a commission to investigate reports from locals that the bones of a giant were sticking out of a cliff.
I learned of this first from easily locatable secondary sources, albeit in Spanish. According to a much later report from 1927, bones were found “in the Paredon region, and the bones that were found were identified as elephant tusks deposited in alluvial lands.” The area is well known, even today, for its rich fossil deposits. The 1927 text, and a similar two from 1976 and 1984, all refer back to work that León had published in the early 1900s, when he investigated reports of “human” bones unearthed in a deposit at Ramos Arizpe that turned out to be two elephant tusks. This would have been enough to understand what went wrong, but you know that I don’t like to leave things with secondary sources if I can help it.
Just because I’m obsessive about tracking primary sources, I used the notes from those subsequent accounts to track down León’s account, submitted in August 1903 and published in October 1903:
The collapse of a portion of the wall of the ravine that faces north-west revealed parts of a gigantic skeleton supposed to be human, but the only object that led the Commission to explore this land opened by an act of nature was precisely the resolution of this problem. Indeed, in the indicated place could be seen two large bones solidly embedded in the sediment of that wall; each one placed parallel in a vertical position, maintaining a distance of 40 centimeters between one another; they had been mistaken for two humerus bones that presented only their back faces; they were located about 8 meters above the water and 14 meters below the bank or edge of the ravine. It was sufficient for the Commission to make a brief examination to ascertain that they were two perfectly fossilized tusks or defenses of elephants of regular size. (my trans.; emphasis in original)
I posted a translation of the full text in my Library. I believe it is the first translation ever published, and, so far as I can tell, the first time in 114 years that anyone in the English-speaking world checked the source of the newspaper story.
I think there is enough here to see the outlines of what happened. The Commission did its job, and wild rumors and exaggerations turned two elephant tusks into a lost city of giant humans from before the Flood. The word “Paredon,” means “wall,” and the claim of a “city” or “cities” comes out of the fact that the ravine where the bones were uncovered looked like the walls of a massive building.
It is so rare that we have the original scientific report and the bonkers sensational media account of it to compare, and this is a fascinating case study in how sensationalism, fantasy, and lies combined to turn a mundane situation—locals mistook megafauna bones for those of a human giant—and turned it into something outrageous.
So, one might ask, why was Micah Hanks unaware of this? I wonder whether he even read the original primary sources or if he simply borrowed the story from its reprinted versions, taken from the American Antiquarian, in the works of William Corliss, Zecharia Sitchin, or Mormon apologists.
It’s an important lesson: Don’t trust newspaper and magazine stories, and even when you are attempting to debunk them, don’t do so by wildly guessing about “liar’s clubs” and other nonsense before actually doing the damned research to get to the bottom of things. In other words, Micah, this is how you actually investigate a mystery, and solve one.
The rest of Hanks’s evidence rests on the credibility of the dubious Davenport Elephant Pipes, some elephant-shaped artifacts uncovered in the nineteenth century and widely believed then and now to be hoaxes. Some of the hoaxers confessed many decades later.
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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