Nebraska Man-- briefly known as Hesperopithecus haroldcookii --should be a forgotten footnote to the history of paleontology and anthropology. Even in its brief heyday, many scientists expressed skepticism regarding the identification of a single tooth with an entire reconstruction of a human being. The only illustration of the curious beast was done by one Amadee Forestier for The Illustrated London News. This highly speculative interpretation was roundly criticized in scientific circles, even at the time, and quickly forgotten. By 1927, the tooth had been identified as coming from an extinct peccary: a pig. This sounds ridiculous, but, in fact, certain extinct swine have premolars remarkably close to the molars of primates. In any case, Hesperopithecus was forgotten. Prior to the 1980s, most students of natural history had never heard of the Nebraska Man.
Then along came hardcore Creationism. Beginning in the 1980s, some evangelicals began touting Nebraska Man as proof of either fraud or incompetence in science. Some even claimed-- falsely-- that the fossil was used in the Scopes Monkey Trial as evidence for the theory of evolution. In fact, by 1925 doubts were significant enough that, despite earlier discussions with William Jennings Bryan, its discoverer refrained from promoting the identification of the tooth with a human ancestor. Hesperopithecus didn't rate a mention from Clarence Darrow or any of his witnesses. In a defence of evolution published in the New York Times just before the famous trial, the very man who had pronounced the fossil a hominid did not mention it once.
A Nebraska rancher, Harold Cook, first discovered the tooth in 1917 at a site where the fossils of many miocene mammals had been found. He waited until 1922 to seek the tooth's possible origin, and approached Henry Fairfield Obsorn, a vertebrate paleontologist with the American Museum of Natural History. He was convinced the finding was anthropoid in origin, gave it a tentative scientific nomenclature, and sent casts to 26 institutions around the world. Some of his colleagues accepted Hesperopithecus as an American fossil hominid or ape; others expressed skepticism. One fossilized tooth, even at a time when the hunt for human ancestors held great popular as well as scientific interest, did not seem like definitive evidence. By 1927, additional work at the site led to the announcement that the tooth almost certainly came from a fossil peccary.
In recent years, Nebraska man has become the darling of creationists; its non-existent role in the Scopes Trial has been touted, and some have even claimed that the Nebraska Man illustration continues to appear in text-books as an example of a human ancestor. In fact, it never appeared in a scientific source, until very recently-- as a cautionary device illustrating trial and error in scientific discovery. Scientists can be overly zealous and simply wrong; science, done properly, eventually self-corrects.
Jack Chick. "Big Daddy?" http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0055/0055_01.asp
"Creationist Arguments: Nebraska Man." TalkOrigins. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/a_nebraska.html
Stephen Jay Gould. Bully for Brontosaurus. Reflections in Natural History. W.W. Norton, 1991.
"Nebraska Man and Creationist Lies." Creationist Lies and Blunders. http://members.cox.net/ardipithecus/evol/lies/lie020.html
John Wolfe and James S. Millet. "The Role of Nebraska Man in the Creation-Evolution Debate." TalkOrigins. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/wolfmellett.html
Originally published in Creation/Evolution 16:31-43, 1985, by the National Center for Science Education.