|20 February 2005
The missing link with Neanderthals was a fraud
It appeared to be one of archaeology's most sensational finds. The skull fragment discovered in a peat bog near Hamburg (Germany) was more than 36,000 years old - and was the vital missing link between modern humans and Neanderthals. This, at least, is what Professor Reiner Protsch von Zieten - a distinguished anthropologist - told his scientific colleagues, to global acclaim, after being invited to date the extremely rare skull. However, the professor's 30-year-old academic career has now ended in disgrace after the revelation that he systematically falsified the dates on this and numerous other "stone age" relics.
His university in Frankfurt announced the professor had been forced to retire because of numerous "falsehoods and manipulations". According to experts, his deceptions may mean an entire tranche of the history of man's development will have to be rewritten. "Anthropology is going to have to completely revise its picture of modern man between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago," said Thomas Terberger, the archaeologist who discovered the hoax. "Prof Protsch's work appeared to prove that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals had co-existed, and perhaps even had children together. This now appears to be rubbish."
The scandal only came to light when Prof Protsch was caught trying to sell his department's entire chimpanzee skull collection to the United States. An inquiry later established that he had also passed off fake fossils as real ones and had plagiarised other scientists' work. His discovery appeared to show that Neanderthals had spread much further north than was previously known. But his university inquiry was told that a crucial Hamburg skull fragment, which was believed to have come from the world's oldest German, a Neanderthal known as Hahnhöfersand Man, was actually a mere 7,500 years old, according to Oxford University's radiocarbon dating unit. The unit established that other skulls had been wrongly dated too. Another of the professor's sensational finds, "Binshof-Speyer" woman, lived in 1,300 BCE and not 21,300 years ago, as he had claimed, while "Paderborn-Sande man" (dated at 27,400 BCE) only died a couple of hundred years ago, in 1750.
"It's deeply embarrassing. Of course the university feels very bad about this," Professor Ulrich Brandt, who led the investigation into Prof Protsch's activities, said yesterday. "Prof Protsch refused to meet us. But we had 10 sittings with 12 witnesses. German police also investigated the professor for fraud, following allegations that he had tried to sell the university's 278 chimpanzee skulls for $70,000 to a US dealer. The university admitted that it should have discovered the professor's fabrications far earlier. But it pointed out that, like all public servants in Germany, the high-profile anthropologist was virtually impossible to sack, and had also proved difficult to pin down.
Source: The Guardian (19 February 2005)
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