When Dr Henry Fairfield Osborn, head of the Department of Palaeontology at New York’s American Museum of Natural History received the fossil tooth in February 1922, he would have thought it a gift from the gods had he believed in any god at all. Marxist in his views and prominent member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he was aware that plans were being made by the union to challenge the Christian-backed legislation that forbade the teaching of evolution in American schools. He saw the tooth as precious evidence for the test case which was eventually held in 1925 at Dayton, Tennessee, and became known as the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’.
The trial was an arranged affair, but the tooth was not brought in as evidence because there was dissension. The truth leaked out slowly and obscurely in the American Museum Novitiates for January 6, 1923, where nine authorities cited their objections to the claim that the tooth was anywhere near related to the primate. A further search was made at Snake Creek, the site of the original discovery, and by 1927 it was begrudgingly concluded that the tooth was that of a species of Prosthennops, an extinct genus related to the modern peccary or wild pig. These facts were not considered generally newsworthy but did appear in Science (1927, 66:579). The fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929, 14:767) coyly admitted that a mistake had been made and that the tooth belonged to a ‘being of another order’. The burden of embarrassment was thus eased for the now retired Henry Fairfield Osborn.
This is not the whole story, however. While the pundits dismissed the affair, believing that the tooth was that of an extinct pig, in 1972 Ralph Wetzel discovered a herd of these very animals alive and well in Paraguay’s Chaco. Wetzel gave a complete description of the discovery in Science (1975, 189:379), where the animals were consigned to the genus Catagonus ameghino. It was admitted, however, that this new species is similar to the extinct species Catagonus wagneri. Once again, the fossil record becomes a mere yesterday.