J. D. Whitney was a man of great achievements by anyone’s standards. His California Geological Survey, at least until it was de-funded by the California legislature, was one of the great scientific endeavors of the mid-nineteenth century. (The California legislature pulled the plug because it was upset that the survey seemed more interested in science than where to find gold.)
He also was a member of the Harvard faculty and founded their school of mines. The highest peak in the forty-eight states bears his name, which is uttered by hundreds of John Muir Trail thru-hikers as the answer to the question, “Where you headed?”
Unfortunately, he is also associated with two fairly public missteps. The first is known to most who are familiar with John Muir and the history of Yosemite: the argument between him and Muir regarding the creation of the Yosemite Valley. In this battle between Whitney (a trained scientist who believed the valley was formed when the ground sunk) and Muir (a thoughtful observer who saw signs everywhere that the valley was instead created by glacial activity), the scientist got things very wrong.
The second was the Calaveras Skull.
Miners allegedly found the skull 130 feet below ground, in February of 1866; they further reported that they had to dig through a layer of lava to reach it. The miners gave the skull to Whitney for study. In July of that same year he announced that, based on his analysis, the skull proved that humans (looking remarkably like they do today) were present during the Pliocene era, co-existent with, among other things, the North American mastodon.
The announcement was greeted with more than a little skepticism. Others (including professors Thomas Wilson and Frederick Putnam of Harvard and anthropologist William Holmes of the Smithsonian) examined the skull and concluded that the dating was incorrect.
Concurrent with all of this scientific analysis were frequent rumors that the whole episode was an elaborate hoax, played on Whitney by miners who disliked him. There was even a near-death confession by someone who lived near the original mine, to his sister, that he had planted the skull in the mine so that it could later be “discovered.”
Whitney apparently went to his grave convinced of the skull’s authenticity. It wasn’t until 1992 that a dispositive conclusion was reached, when a carbon dating test revealed that the skull was about 1,000 years old.
Good hiking, Ray