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Stereoscopes, Hominids, and Hoaxes

by Alethea Drexler, archives assistant
I hope you’re sitting down, because this post is gonna be a wild ride.
Archivist Philip Montgomery brought me a stereoscope image a few days ago and asked me to find out whether the fact that the card on which the photographs were mounted was curved was normal, or whether the glue on the photos had contracted with age and drawn the card up.  It turns out that curved stereoscope cards are normal after about 1885; the curve apparently enhances the 3-D effect when the images are seen through a viewer [1].
Stereoscopes [2] (notice the curved card in this photograph) or stereoviewers were a common form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially before movies became widely accessible. They seem like a ridiculously quaint and simple concept now–good grief, they don’t even move!–but they were still very novel before anyone had any thoughts of images beyond the static photograph, never mind special effects.  The two photographs on each stereoscope card are taken from slightly different angles so that, when seen through the viewer, they appear as a single, passably three-dimensional image [3].
Those of us who grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s probably remember the View-Master [4], which is a direct descendant of the stereoscope; literally, it’s what you get when you combine a stereoscope and slide film.  My brother’s was red-orange plastic and we had Return of the Jedi slide wheels for it.  We were into Ewoks[5].
If you’re really intrigued, here are some directions[6] for building a stereoscope of your own, and taking pictures for it.
The card Phil gave me predates Ewoks by . . . well, by a lot.  The curve didn’t show up on the scan.  It’s convex from the top to bottom (meaning that the top and bottom edges curve forward).  The rainbow defects are reflections from the scanner light; the card and photographs are in pristine condition.

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So, what is it we could see in three dimensions?

Click on the images to see larger versions.

Stereoscope card

That would be a human evolutionary tree.
Let’s take a closer look:

Please excuse that the enlarged images are fuzzy.

The original photographs were not very crisply focused.

A very long family tree.

I’m actually going to skip a “generation” in the middle and then come back to it because it’s particularly interesting and deserves a little extra attention.
To begin with, this is obviously an early, and consequently not very complete, edition of our biological history.  The first three “generations” are especially vague:
Prototypal and primitive

On the far left is Notharctus osborni, a fossil found in Wyoming and housed at the American Museum in New York.  Notharctus[7] was a genus of early primate that resembled, and was an ancestor of, modern lemurs.  Interestingly, the references I found to Notharctus osborni specifically were very early, 1917[8] and 1924[9].  Wikipedia has a picture[10] of it but no additional information.
The skull in the middle is Propliopithecus haeckeli[11] (spelled “Hackali” or “Heckali” here), found in Egypt in 1910 and held by the Stuttgart Museum in Germany.
The third skull in this image crop is Dryopithecus frickae.  This one was discovered in northern India in 1924[12], although the first Dryopithecus fossil specimen was found in France in 1856[13].  (Incidentally, this also suggests that this particular stereoscope card is a very late one, since it would have to have been created after the mid-1920’s.)
The lowest branch of the tree reaches from the prototypal primate and anthropoid to the great apes: The gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan, and gibbon (the gibbon is hiding behind the Neanderthal bust).
The great apes

Splitting off just above the primitive anthropoid and terminating in a dead end is the branch of Heidelberg man and the Neanderthals.  Current theories place Homo Heidelbergensis further up the twig as an ancestor of both Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis.
I’m having flashbacks to college anthropology classes, when I had to add endless genus and species names to my spell-checker so that my papers wouldn’t be seas of red, squiggly, underlines.  Apparently “australopithecine” doesn’t make it into everyday conversation often enough.
Heidelberg Man & the Neanderthals

The jury is still out on Homo neanderthalensis[15].  The poor Neanderthal has changed identities more often lately than the planet/ex-planet Pluto.
The upper branch moves on with Pithecanthropus erectus[16], the “Trinil Ape Man”.  This species is now known as Homo erectus erectus, and this example specifically is now known as Java Man[17], which sounds like a  flavor of Ben & Jerry’s[18] (espresso with dark chocolate chunks?).
Trinil Ape Man (Java Man)

Next up the branch is Cro-Magnon[19] man, first discovered in France in 1868[20], followed closely by modern humans.
Cro-Magnon & company

I don’t want to dwell on it, but I think it’s unfair to ignore the fact that the twig bearing the “Hottentot” and “Australian Black-Fellow” splits off below the “American” and “Chinese” is, sadly, not an accident or an artistic convenience.  Paleontology at this point still had a very long way to go in terms of scientific thinking.
I learned something while surfing for references for this post: Cro-Magnon is defunct[21].  I grew up with the term “Cro-Magnon” and the idea that he was modern man (and, yes, I’ll admit to having been a little freaked out by the idea that that might mean that I, too, was a Cro-Magnon, when I was six or seven), but I guess I’m older than I thought because it appears that prehistoric humans have evolved since I was a kid.  The current terminology is Anatomically Modern Humans or Early Modern Humans, although “Cro-Magnon” still refers to modern humans of a certain early time period.

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The  “generation” that I skipped is the one smack in the middle.  It’s sort of the, um, missing link amongst the other branches.
My parents are geologists, and it’s only a short step from geology to at least an armchair enthusiasm for paleontology, since both are concerned with soil strata, minerals, etc.  There was a lot of talk about fossils in our house.  Seeing Lucy[22] at the Houston Museum of Natural Science was a little like meeting my long-lost great-grandmother.
This guy is another old friend.
Say “hello” to Piltdown Man[23].

Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man was an “early hominid” skull discovered in England in 1908.  Although there were immediate suspicions that something was not quite right, he managed to hold onto the reputation of being the elusive “missing link” for forty years, until the fluorine absorption test[24], used to estimate how long an object as been in the soil,  proved incontrovertibly that he was a fake, in 1953[25].  He was created out of an antique human skull, a filed-down orangutan mandible, and some chimpanzee teeth.
It is generally accepted now that eagerness to discover a first “Englishman” led early paleontologists to overlook a lot of red flags and accept what was really a very crudely-made fake.
Piltdown Man remains one of the great hoaxes/mysteries of the twentieth century.  The identity of the perpertrator was never discovered; the list of suspects is long and includes not only several pioneering scientists but also physician/author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle[26], of Sherlock Holmes fame.
Here is another Piltdown Man[27] site.  Neither I nor the site’s creator make any claims as to its scholarship, but it has some good images and links to older source material.
Here[28] is a paper by Kenneth F. Oakley and J.S. Weiner of the British Museum and University of Oxford, two of the scientists credited with debunking Piltdown Man once and for all.
Works consulted:
[1] Paul Romaine, Biblio Wonk, stereoscope page (scroll down to the bottom).
[2] North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, The Laura Hayes and John Howard Wileman Exhibit of Optical Toys, stereoscope page.  Check out the rest of the collection, too.  Physics is fun!
[3] Stereoscope on Wikipedia.
[4] View-Master on Wikipedia.
[5] Ewok on Wikipedia.
[6] Giorgio Carboni and Ed Vogel, “Let’s Build a Sterescope,” 1996.
[7] Notharctus on Wikipedia.
[8] Bulletin of the American Museum, Volume 37, page 858, 1917.
[9] Gregory, William K, A.M, Ph.D. “Some critical stages in the evolution of the human dental apparatus,” Journal of Dental Research, Volume 6, pages 71-100, 1924, 2011.
[10] Image of Notharctus osborni from Wikipedia.
[11] Hartwig, Walter Carl, “The primate fossil record,” Cambridge University Press, 2002, page 212.
[12], Dryopithecus frickae.
[13] Dryopithecus on Wikipedia.
[14] Homo heidelbergensis on Wikipedia.
[15] Homo neanderthalensis on Wikipedia.
[16] Java Man on Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
[17] Java Man on Wikipedia.
[18] Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
[19] Cro-Magnon on Wikipedia.
[20] Cro-Magnon 1 1868 specimen at the Smithsonian Institute.
[21] Cro-Magnon,
[22] Lucy at Wikipedia.
[23] Piltdown Man at Wikipedia.
[24] Fluorine absorption dating on Wikipedia.
[25] Piltdown Hoax on the BBC.
[26] Arthur Conan Doyle on Wikipedia.
[27] Richard Harter, Piltdown Man pages.
[28] Oakley, Kenneth F. and J.S. Oakley, “Piltdown Man,” American Scientist, October 1955.