The Curious Case of Nebraska Man

A fossil tooth, a splashy debate, and a strange chapter in America’s long history of science denialism.

By Madeline Bodin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 134

Madeline Bodin is a science and environmental journalist in Vermont. She has written for publications including Hakai, High Country News, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics.

Editors: Seyward Darby and Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Julia Shipley
Illustrator: Lan Truong

Published in December 2022.


The rancher plucked the tiny tooth out of the sand of a dry creek bed. Around him was a grassy plain studded with low, flat hills. The small, dark object in his hand was worn down by use in life and by the water it had encountered over millennia. The tooth had long since petrified into stone.

Harold J. Cook had uncovered fossils in western Nebraska for much of his life. As a teenager in 1904, he led a paleontologist from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum to a trove of early-mammal bones. The fossils practically tumbled from a hillside on his family’s ranch, known as Agate Springs. Among the bones were remnants of Dinohyus, an animal resembling a pig that stood as high as eight feet at the shoulder, and the still mysterious Moropus, a horse-like creature that dug in the earth with hooves that resembled claws.

The news that the Cooks’ land was bursting with the bones of ancient mammals set off a polite war among the leading natural history museums, which hoped to gain exclusive access to the fossil beds. Harold’s father, however, wanted the institutions to work together to wring all possible scientific knowledge from what would be known as the Agate Fossil Beds. He never profited from the treasure on his land. His family’s contributions to paleontology were celebrated in other ways: One scientist named an extinct rhinoceros in his honor, and an antelope with two of its four horns on its nose after young Harold.

Another scientist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, lured Harold Cook to New York City to work at the American Museum of Natural History and to study with him at Columbia University. Cook returned home after a year to help run the ranch when his mother became ill. That meant he both knew the land and knew fossils, making him a valuable hire for any paleontology expedition in the region.

In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, Cook assisted paleontologists from the Denver Museum and the American Museum in digs at fossil beds along Snake Creek, some 20 miles south of his family’s ranch. Whether he picked up the tooth while scouting for those excavations, during one of them, or sometime after, he never said. Broken bits of fossil, turned blue-black by iron phosphate, were common in the region, and had little scientific value compared with the bones of entire herds of pony-size rhinoceroses or the corkscrew-shaped dens of prehistoric beavers. But Cook believed he had found something truly special. Based on his knowledge of fossils, he suspected that the tooth belonged to a primate, and not a mere monkey—an ape perhaps. An even more tantalizing prospect was that the tooth belonged to an early human.

If Cook was right it would be a heady find, as scientists had yet to identify either variety of fossil in America. Meanwhile, paleontologists around the world were eager for evidence of so-called missing links—transitional fossils that could help prove that humans evolved from apes. Men who claimed to have found missing links often became famous.

Cook was correct about one thing: The tooth was important. But it would become part of history in a way he never imagined.


Four years later, in October 1921, William Jennings Bryan stood behind an ornate wooden pulpit in the auditorium of the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. The room’s delicate stained-glass windows glowed in the fading autumn light. Bryan had strong opinions about fossils and their potential to destroy the worldview that he and others in the room held dear.

The dozens of students and faculty who packed the auditorium, which also served as the seminary’s church, had every reason to expect that Bryan’s lecture would be an experience they would talk about for the rest of their lives. Bryan, then 61, was a national sensation at the age of 36, when as a Nebraska congressman his electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention swept him into position as the party’s candidate for president. He went on to receive two additional Democratic nominations, granting him the dubious honor of being among only a handful of U.S. presidential candidates to receive electoral votes in three elections without prevailing in any of them.

Bryan, a lawyer by training, supported a woman’s right to vote, an eight-hour workday, a progressive income tax, the regulation of banks and the stock market, and the prohibition of alcohol. He despised the way unchecked industrial capitalism ground down working people, sometimes robbing them of their savings in bank failures and stock market swindles. He reserved special disdain for the financier John Pierpont Morgan. That Bryan himself lived a lavish lifestyle didn’t seem to mar his reputation: His plainspoken appeals to the average citizen earned him the nickname the Great Commoner. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan secretary of state, but Bryan’s pacifism led him to resign the post two years later, when Wilson’s response to the sinking of the Lusitania signaled America’s march toward war in Europe.

Once out of office, Bryan didn’t recede from public life. He kept doing what he did best: give speeches. Public lectures were popular middle-class entertainment in the years before radio and movies were commonplace. Prior to his appointment as secretary of state, Bryan sometimes gave two of them per day on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits, sleeping in his train seat between engagements and using his coat for a pillow. Now he traveled from coast to coast to speak.

A devout Christian—among his first aspirations as a boy was to become a Baptist preacher—Bryan also wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column about the Bible and taught Sunday school classes to thousands of people in a public park in Florida, where he and his wife had moved for her health. He became such a popular religious figure that he was asked to give a week of lectures at the Union Theological Seminary, an honor typically reserved for the nation’s leading ministers. Bryan focused his talks on a topic outside his usual purview: science.

Bryan’s words, which still echo across America a century later, were some of the first shots fired in a new battle over evolution, pitting science against faith.

It was not a subject he had any special interest in prior to World War I, but during that conflict, Bryan told his listeners, European had slaughtered European without a thought that they were all children of God. He attributed that blind savagery to what in the end was his own flawed interpretation of Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution, which Darwin had introduced to the world some 50 years earlier. Bryan argued that Darwin’s painting of humans as the descendants of apes was a demotion in ontological priority that provided tacit permission for the deaths of millions. Bryan quoted liberally from The Science of Power, a book by Benjamin Kidd that linked Darwin to the “selfish” and “godless” philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. “Darwin’s doctrine leads logically to war,” Bryan declared.

War wasn’t the only thing Bryan blamed on the theory of evolution. He was also disturbed by reports, mostly from parents, that students were losing their religious faith by studying Darwin’s ideas, as well as geology, in college. “If it is contended that an instructor has a right to teach anything he likes, I reply that the parents who pay the salary have a right to decide what shall be taught,” Bryan said.

Bryan’s words, which still echo across America a century later, were some of the first shots fired in a new battle over evolution, pitting science against faith. Bryan further promoted his cause by printing hundreds of copies of a pamphlet containing one of his Richmond lectures. He sent it to editors and friends and in response to fan letters. A year later, the Union Theological Seminary published Bryan’s speeches in a book titled In His Image.

While Bryan was promoting the book, The New York Times invited him to contribute to its pages. Though he loathed big cities and East Coast elites—basically everything the Times seemed to represent—he accepted the offer. Bryan often drafted his public writings in a large scrawl, using either a soft pencil or a thick-nibbed pen. It was up to his secretary, a Mr. W. E. Thompson, to corral the wild stampede of letters into neat, typewritten lines.

Bryan’s New York Times editorial condemning Darwinism, which cribbed generously from his Richmond lectures, was published in the February 26, 1922, paper, a Sunday edition. Despite there being “millions of species,” Bryan declared, scientists “have not been able to find one single instance in which one species has changed into another, although according to the hypothesis, all species have developed from one or a few germs of life.”

Newspapers across the country reprinted the piece or ran glowing commentaries about it. If Bryan hoped to be God’s PR flack, he earned his full commission with that editorial alone.

However, one sentence from it would soon come to vex Bryan. Not only was Darwin’s theory an insult to God, Bryan had noted wryly, but it was also unpatriotic. Darwin “has us descend from European, rather than American, apes,” he wrote. An eminent scientist would soon seize the opportunity to turn Bryan’s quip into a taunt.


By the gray light of a March day in 1922, Henry Fairfield Osborn took a close look at the fossil that had just arrived from Harold Cook. Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, was perched on the window ledge in his top-floor office. He saw that the fossil was dark in color and small enough to fit in a pillbox. It had a crown and roots—undoubtedly, it was a tooth.

Osborn had taken a liking to Cook from the moment they met in Nebraska many years prior. “Harold Cook is one of the most attractive young men I have ever met,” Osborn wrote in a letter to his wife. “He knows all the fossils … is an ideal young ranchman, a good geologist—refined and charming.” Cook went on to coauthor a scientific paper with William D. Matthew, one of Osborn’s lieutenants at the museum, after finding dozens of fossils belonging to ancient rhinoceroses, rodents, and peccaries in the same fossil beds where Cook found the tooth that Osborn now held in his hand.

Two weeks before the tooth itself arrived in New York, Osborn had received a note from Cook. “I have had here, for some little time, a molar tooth from the Upper, or Hipparion phase of the Snake Creek beds, that very closely approaches the human type,” it read. Cook wanted Osborn to examine the fossil and give his expert opinion. Osborn would do more than that: The tooth was exactly what he needed in his fight against William Jennings Bryan.

While The New York Times was preparing Bryan’s article for publication, it had asked Osborn to write a rebuttal. Osborn had the swagger required to answer a former secretary of state who happened to be one of the most famous men in America. He had been museum president for 14 years and was a distinguished Columbia professor. At the age of 64, his days of digging in the earth were long over. He visited archaeological sites around the world to drum up publicity, not to get his hands dirty; with his well-tailored suits and push-broom mustache, Osborn did not object to having his picture taken.

Osborn had expanded his museum’s collections, facilities, and prominence in city life with his fundraising. His connections to wealth ran deep: He grew up in New York’s high society, with a railroad tycoon for a father and a mother who came from old New England stock. John Pierpont Morgan, a target of Bryan’s blistering political attacks, was his uncle; Theodore Roosevelt was a childhood friend. As a young man, Osborn traveled to Britain to study with the biologist and anthropologist Thomas H. Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his fierce defense of evolutionary theory. Osborn even met the great man himself when Huxley gave an aging Darwin a tour of his lab, where Osborn at the time was dissecting a lobster brain.

Like Bryan, Osborn was a Presbyterian and a pious churchgoer; also like Bryan, he read the Bible regularly. But while Bryan worried that science was eroding faith, Osborn believed the two went hand in hand.

Osborn’s steadfast faith in God, and in what he believed was life’s innate yearning for higher forms, put him at odds with the growing number of scientists who accepted that human origins were messy. He couldn’t abide natural selection and what Darwin called “chance variation” as the mechanisms of evolution. To Osborn, evolution proceeded in a straight line and toward a definite goal.

In his written response to his adversary, Osborn strove to speak the language of a believer. He mentioned St. Augustine. He quoted from the Book of Job: “We find the guiding precept of the naturalist, ‘Speak to the earth and it will teach thee.’ ” He insisted that there was no conflict between science and religion, no clash between morals and empirical facts. “Evolution by no means takes God out of the universe, as Mr. Bryan supposes,” he wrote, “but it greatly increases both the wonder, the mystery, and the marvelous order which we call ‘Natural Law.’ ” Osborn saw evolution as God’s means of creating living things. He wanted Bryan and his followers to see it that way, too.

Osborn delivered his rebuttal to the Times’ offices personally. It was published on March 5, in another Sunday edition. Bryan soon launched an additional volley in this war of words, this time via the New York Herald. “Papers full of evolution of man and religion,” Osborn wrote in his datebook.

He wondered if he should retire to the Hudson Valley mansion left to him by his father to write a book countering Bryan’s campaign. Perhaps a fellow Princeton alum could help him. “Write to Charles Scribner,” Osborn’s datebook reads. He would meet Charles and his brother Arthur for lunch a few days after jotting down this note. The argument with Bryan was one that Osborn wanted to win, presumably one he felt he needed to win—for his own pride, for his museum, and for science.

The timing of the tooth’s arrival was almost providential, as if God himself were responsible. The fossil, which Osborn guessed to be a few million years old, might influence scientists’ ongoing search for humanity’s ancestors. More important for his purposes, it would almost certainly embarrass his rival. Perhaps, contrary to Bryan’s quip in the Times, there was an American ape after all.

“Tooth just arrived safely. Looks very promising. Will report immediately,” Osborn telegraphed Cook on March 14. Later that day, he followed up with a jubilant letter. “The instant your package arrived, I sat down with the tooth, in my window, and I said to myself: ‘It looks one hundred per cent anthropoid,’ ” Osborn wrote. “I then took the tooth into Doctor Matthew’s room and we have been comparing it with all the books, all the casts and all the drawings, with the conclusion that it is the last right upper molar tooth of some higher Primate.”

Osborn was known as a snobbish sophisticate, but in his letter to Cook he gushed with excitement. “We may cool down tomorrow,” he wrote, “but it looks to me as if the first anthropoid ape of America had been found by the one man entitled to find it, namely, Harold J. Cook!”

After dispatching the letter, Osborn set in motion a publicity machine that is hard to imagine working so swiftly in today’s scientific communities, with their safeguards like peer review. It helped that Osborn controlled one of the cogs. On April 25, the museum’s own scientific journal, American Museum Novitates, published a paper by Osborn announcing “the first anthropoid primate found in America.” Osborn named the newly discovered species Hesperopithecus haroldcookii.

The same day, Osborn used his influence to obtain a last-minute speaking slot—just five minutes, he promised—at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. He stood beneath an arched proscenium and addressed the most esteemed men in his field. “A single small water-worn tooth, 10.5 millimeters by 11 millimeters in crown diameter, signalizes the arrival of a member of the family of anthropoid primates in North America,” Osborn began, with the signature mix of exactitude and significance that characterizes so many scientific presentations. Near the end of his talk, around the four-and-a-half-minute mark, Osborn’s tone shifted. “It has been suggested humorously,” he said, “that the animal should be named Bryopithecus, after the most distinguished primate which the state of Nebraska has thus far produced.”

Osborn was of course referring to Bryan, and taking aim at his New York Times article. “It is certainly singular that this discovery is announced within six weeks of the day,” Osborn continued, “that the author advised William Jennings Bryan to consult a certain passage in the Book of Job, ‘Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee,’ and it is a remarkable coincidence that the first earth to speak on this subject is the sandy earth of the Middle Pliocene Snake Creek deposits of western Nebraska.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that, at the event, jokes about Bryan were “bandied about by octogenarian members of humorous proclivities.” Soon the New York Times published a feature, complete with jibes, about the former congressman’s feud with Osborn. Later the paper issued a pointed editorial on the matter. Titled “The Tooth of Time,” the editorial invoked Shakespeare to suggest that the fossil from Nebraska had appeared at the worst possible moment for Bryan. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth it must seem to Mr. Bryan,” the editorial read.

Meanwhile, Osborn had casts of the tooth made and sent them to paleontologists around the world. If he was expecting agreement on the fossil’s significance, however, he didn’t get it. Arthur Smith Woodward, a curator at the British Museum of Natural History, needed just three paragraphs in the prestigious journal Nature to assert, gently, that the tooth was more likely to belong to a species of ancient bear known to exist in North America than to a primate. After all, no ape living or extinct was known to be native to the continent. Grafton Elliot Smith, another paleontologist in Britain, gave the early-20th-century version of a hot take: He declared the tooth to be one of a human ancestor and took the opportunity to restate, for a popular audience, his own racist notions of human evolution, which he saw as culminating in a superior northern European race. Smith’s take received splashy coverage in the Illustrated London News.

Osborn disagreed with both men’s assessments of the tooth, writing that Woodward had “shown too great incredulity” and Smith “too great optimism.” He also took issue with an unrealistic two-page illustration of “the ape-man of the Western world” that accompanied Smith’s article. In the image, drawn by Amédée Forestier, an artist who specialized in historical illustrations, two hunched, ape-like people stand on the bank of a river. Behind them are horses and camels, representing other fossils found near the tooth, and the low buttes of western Nebraska. One of the figures, a man, drags a wooden club. Though based on Forestier’s “fancy,” as Smith put it, rather than actual science, the illustration would inform the public’s conception of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii.

Osborn organized a team of researchers, including his junior colleague William K. Gregory, to study the tooth more closely. They published their findings in January 1923, along with photos, measurements, and a comparison of the tooth with one belonging to Java Man, the moniker given to what at the time was believed to be the earliest hominin fossil ever discovered. (Found in the Dutch East Indies—now Indonesia—in the early 1890s, Java Man would be formally designated a member of the species Homo erectus in 1950.) Osborn’s team concluded that the tooth belonged to a higher primate of some kind “hitherto unknown.”

Osborn was sure that the tooth would be a lasting contribution to science, crowning his illustrious career. He was a recognized expert in the study of ancient horses, elephants, and the rhino-like titanothere, and his prowess in promoting science to the public was unmatched. The tooth would distinguish him further, securing his place in the ranks of great men who studied human origins, a field maturing into what we now know as paleoanthropology.

But Osborn’s aspirations would be overtaken by events. Soon, evolution itself would be on trial.


Bryan never wavered in his quest to squelch evolutionary theory. He was a staunch advocate for laws banning schools from teaching it, but success came in half measures. Oklahoma prohibited evolution from being mentioned in textbooks, but not the teaching of it; Florida declared instruction of the theory “improper and subversive,” but passed no law against it.

Only in March 1925 did Bryan finally secure a victory, when Tennessee outlawed the teaching of “any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Mississippi followed in 1926, as did Arkansas in 1928. In the meantime, the Tennessee law became the subject of a legal case orchestrated to be a public showdown.

The case is one of the most famous in history: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it was seeking teachers willing to challenge the new law in order to bring the question of its constitutionality before the courts. John Thomas Scopes, a 24-year-old teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, volunteered to be the defendant, incriminating himself by stating that he had taught the theory of evolution to high school students. Attorneys for the town agreed to prosecute him for violating state law in the hope of bringing publicity to a community that had seen better days. Scopes was indicted in May 1925.

A clock started ticking for Osborn. If he wanted to maximize sales of his book defending evolution, the one he had proposed to Charles Scribner three years prior, he needed to publish it before the beginning of a trial that was sure to be a national spectacle. He hurriedly finished writing—his 1922 Times article criticizing Bryan made up an entire chapter—and included a foreword that placed the book in the context of the legal dispute. He dedicated the book to Scopes himself, quoting from the Bible: “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Scribner rushed the text into print, with the title The Earth Speaks to Bryan.

As the trial approached and press coverage grew to a roar, reporters and editorials quoted liberally from Osborn’s book, favoring a sentence declaring that Bryan, not Scopes, was the man really on trial in Tennessee. Osborn’s chief asset in his argument against Bryan was the Hesperopithecus haroldcookii tooth, which he described as the “still small voice” of God that spoke to Elijah in the Book of Kings. In response, Bryan, who had secured a position on the team prosecuting Scopes, penned an article criticizing Osborn for believing “that a tooth in his hand is an irresistible weapon.” Bryan continued: “The Professor’s logic leaks at every link, but it is no worse than that of his boon companions who, having rejected the authority of the word of God, are like frightened men in the dark, feeling around for something they can lean upon.”

Osborn was expected to be one of the defense’s expert witnesses in Dayton. Prior to the trial, Scopes had traveled to Manhattan to visit his ACLU sponsors, and Osborn met with him to offer advice. He provided names of people he thought would be good witnesses and told Scopes to beware of support from leftist radicals; Osborn suspected it would hurt the case. But Osborn was too late. Clarence Darrow, a well-known defender of union leaders and anarchists, had already joined Scopes’s legal team.

The day of his encounter with Scopes, Osborn declined to testify at the trial. “Mr. Scopes was a little disappointed with the meeting,” the Chattanooga Times reported. Osborn said his decision was based on the fact that his wife was ill, but there may have been other reasons, including his distaste of Darrow. Still, Osborn agreed to show members of Scopes’s legal team around his museum’s Hall of the Age of Man, which featured reconstructed busts of prehistoric humans, murals depicting how they may have lived, and of course fossils. Osborn wanted the attorneys to see evidence of evolution for themselves before mounting their defense.

The organization of the hall reflected Osborn’s views on human evolution, including the idea that the races were different species, with the white race the most advanced. Like many prominent scientists of his day, Osborn was a eugenicist. He had persuaded Scribner to publish his friend Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, an important rallying point for the eugenics movement, and even wrote the preface. (A few decades later, Adolf Hitler would call the book “my Bible.”) In 1918, Osborn helped found the Galton Society, a group of American scientists who supported selective breeding. In 1921, he hosted the Second Congress of Eugenics, where speakers discussed whether sterilization would protect desirable heredity—or, as Osborn believed, whether segregation would do the job.

How we love the stereotype of the haughty scientist, so sure that his knowledge makes him superior to most, if not all. But Osborn was not that man. It was not his erudition, nor his father’s money or his family’s place in society, that he believed made him better—it was his genetic material.

Osborn might have been content to spend the summer of 1925 promoting his ideas about evolution, inscribing copies of his book, and commenting on the Scopes trial from afar. But in mid-June, he received a dispatch from Nebraska. An Austrian paleontologist named Othenio Abel had discovered another tooth in the Snake Creek beds, and it was in much better condition than the one Harold Cook found. Albert “Bill” Thomson, a fossil collector in western Nebraska who worked for Osborn, was with Abel when he unearthed it. Thomson immediately wrote to Osborn informing him of the discovery.

Osborn wrote back to Thomson, marking the envelope “confidential.” The rancher who owned the land where the tooth was found was requesting $400 for the right to dig further, but Osborn thought it could be had for $150, as long as the rancher didn’t know how important the tooth was. “In the meantime,” Osborn wrote, “guard the tooth as if it were the Koh-I-Noor diamond, because I consider it priceless.”

Osborn sent his best fossil hunter to the scene. The man’s name was Barnum Brown. Some twenty years prior, Brown had scratched from the dry earth of Montana the bones of a large, carnivorous dinosaur that in a scientific paper Osborn had named Tyrannosaurus rex. Now Brown arrived in Nebraska with a chimpanzee skull, which Osborn had sent along so the team could compare the new tooth, and anything else they turned up, with a higher primate’s features.

As it happened, the rancher wouldn’t budge from his offer. With only $250, which Osborn had provided to cover expenses, Brown and Thomson resorted to sneaking around the site. In short order, they found another tooth and a jaw.

As the attorneys presented their opening statements at the Scopes trial in Tennessee, Osborn finalized plans to travel, but not to Dayton. Instead he would visit Nebraska, perhaps to convince himself that the new finds were everything he hoped they were. On the day the Scopes judge ruled against allowing the jury to hear scientific testimony, since in his view the only question at hand was whether Scopes had violated the law—a major blow to the defense’s dreams of making the case for evolution—Osborn boarded a train and headed west.

Osborn relished being back in the field. He enjoyed a camp breakfast surrounded by Nebraska’s low, flat hills. He was glad to see Cook again. In his datebook, he noted where in the timeline of early-mammal fossils his team’s new finds might belong.

But the biggest discovery would happen after Osborn returned to New York. A single day of screening gravel in dry washes at a new digging site revealed a dozen more teeth that could have belonged to primates, along with three bone fragments that everyone on hand interpreted as either human-made tools or evidence of their use. One looked like an awl with a hole in it, another was shaped like a “trowel or paddle,” and a third bore hack marks. “We discovered yesterday evidence of early man,” Bill Thomson wrote to his boss.

Osborn was “tickled to death and thinks this is the greatest find of the season,” Barnum Brown wrote in a letter of his own. Not least this was because Osborn was hopeful that the bones would mean defeat for his nemesis. Bryan could mock one tooth, but how could he deny a growing body of evidence that ancient primates, and possibly human ancestors, had inhabited his home state?

In Dayton, despite a fellow prosecutor’s protest, Bryan had agreed to answer questions on the stand. His testimony set the stage for the trial’s most dramatic day; the judge had to move the proceedings outside because of the number of spectators who showed up. Darrow peppered Bryan with questions about the Bible. Did he believe, as was implied in the story of Joshua, that the sun revolved around the Earth? He did not. Did he believe that Eve was literally made from Adam’s rib? He did. Darrow asked Bryan if he believed that the Earth was only some thousands of years old, where Cain’s wife came from, and if the first rainbow appeared following the flood that had necessitated Noah building his ark.

Finally, Bryan jumped to his feet and accused Darrow of slandering the Bible. “I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes,” Darrow replied.

The next day, the jury spent only a few minutes finding Scopes guilty, after Darrow had asked them to do just that. The trial had always been for show, and since the judge wouldn’t allow scientific testimony, Darrow wanted to hustle ahead to an appeal, seeing it as a second chance to bring evidence of evolution to a national audience by way of press coverage. (The ruling was overturned on a technicality, however, so the defense never got quite the case it wanted. The Tennessee law would remain on the books until 1967.)

Scopes was fined $100, which the ACLU intended to pay. Bryan also offered to cover the amount—a token of appreciation, presumably, for helping to bring the debate that was his life’s work to such prominence.

Osborn never got the chance to find out how Bryan would react to the new fossils from Nebraska. According to his biographer, Lawrence W. Levine, immediately after the trial Bryan seemed happy enough. He spent the next few days writing, traveling, and lecturing. Then, on the afternoon of the Sunday following the verdict, he laid down for a nap after dinner in Dayton and never woke up.

Bryan’s body was sent to Washington, D.C., by train. According to Edward J. Larson in his book about the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods, admirers lined the tracks. Bryan was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. “What really moved him was a lust for revenge,” journalist H. L. Mencken wrote after Bryan’s death. “The men of the cities had destroyed him … now he would lead the yokels against them.”

An enduring effect of the Scopes trial was to help cement cultural stereotypes and deepen divisions like the ones Mencken described. In the years and decades that followed, the battle over evolution would continue to ebb and flow. And while Osborn’s primary foe was dead, his position on the front lines would soon shift.


The intellectual empires of paleoanthropologists rise and fall based on fragments of rock and bone. So do their reputations. Osborn undoubtedly knew this, which might explain why he didn’t carpet the press or the scientific world with announcements about the 1925 finds in Nebraska like he had after Harold Cook’s discovery of the tooth.

Some of his colleagues expressed doubt soon after the new fossils appeared. Back in New York that August, Barnum Brown sent a letter to Bill Thomson. “In looking over the teeth,” he wrote, “I am still very doubtful as to whether they are ‘primate.’ ” Determining the truth would require locating a specimen attached to a larger fossil that could be more easily identified. “I think the question will not be settled until you find a jaw containing one or more of these questionable teeth,” Brown wrote. “So good luck to you.”

No conclusive judgment would be made for a few years. In the meantime, Osborn kept pushing his ideas about evolution. On at least one occasion he referenced the recent discoveries in Nebraska: In April 1927, at the bicentennial conference of the American Philosophical Society, he cited the tool-like bone fragments as “ancient evidence of man.”

The bulk of what he said at the meeting, however, meant that afterward nobody was talking about the tools. “I regard the ape-human theory as totally false and misleading,” Osborn told those assembled. In its account of the lecture, a newspaper in South Carolina wrote, “ ‘Fundamentalists’ may derive cheer, perhaps, from the recent statement from Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, who takes issue with the ‘monkey theory’ of evolution.”

Osborn, of course, wasn’t a creationist, nor did his comments before the American Philosophical Society represent an about-face. Rather, he was laying out a theory he had been working toward for years. Osborn argued that modern apes and humans had evolved independently through distinct lines of ancestors, each having sprung from “neutral stock” millions of years ago. “We should now resolutely set our faces toward the discovery of our actual pro-human ancestors,” he said. Osborn believed those ancestors would be found in Asia.

Three weeks later, Osborn again presented his theory, this time closer to home, at the Medical Society of Kings County, in Brooklyn. Spectators filled every seat and spilled out the door, according to the Brooklyn Times Union. A neurologist joined Osborn to talk about the evolution of the human brain. The third speaker was William K. Gregory, Osborn’s deputy at the museum and one of the coauthors of the 1923 paper on Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. Gregory vehemently disagreed with Osborn’s ideas about human evolution, and it was he who grabbed the Times Union’s headline: “Suffer from Pithecophobia? Many Do, Says Dr. Gregory.” Pithecophobia, the paper explained, is “the dread of apes, or at least the dread of them as our ancestors or relatives.”

Gregory wasn’t done challenging Osborn. In December 1927, he published a retraction in the journal Science distancing himself from the previous findings about Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. The man Osborn once described as having “an eagle eye on Primate teeth” now argued that the tooth plucked from obscurity by Harold Cook did not come from a primate at all—it belonged to a kind of peccary. (Similar to boars, peccaries are native to North and South America; the javelina of the desert Southwest is a species of peccary.) “This much may be said: Nearly every conspicuous character of the type can be matched in one or another of the Prosthennops teeth,” Gregory wrote, referring to an extinct genus. In short, he claimed, Hesperopithecus haroldcookii had never existed.

Ironically, the whole affair was more or less anticipated in 1909, when on a dig in Nebraska, Cook and William D. Matthew wrote that some fossilized peccary teeth showed a “startling resemblance” to those of primates, “and might well be mistaken for them by anyone not familiar.” Cook himself was the person who would misidentify the first Nebraska tooth, setting in motion an unfortunate chain of errors. But in retrospect, he could be forgiven for the lapse, as could the men who subsequently examined the tooth. Scientists John Wolf and James Mellett wrote in a 1985 paper that it had wear patterns more typically seen on primate teeth than on those of peccaries. The most reasonable explanation, they wrote, is that “the tooth … was rotated in the jaw in life, and that its odd position produced the primate-like wear pattern.” It is rare for a tooth to twist in the jaw like that, but not unheard of—similar mammal fossils have been found. (As for the bone fragments, they weren’t tools at all. Wolf and Mellett noted that they had likely been “crushed and split” into their unusual shapes by hyena-like dogs.)

The New York Times covered Gregory’s retraction of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii with a front-page article and an editorial. “On the whole, it was a bad day for science,” the paper said. But science triumphs when mistakes are corrected. As the Times also pointed out, “Osborn and his colleagues can snatch consolation from the extinct jaws of the toothsome wild peccary. For science, as this incident shows, demands proofs even from its most exalted.”

Osborn appeared to take his disappointment like a gentleman, quietly accepting Gregory’s explanation of the tooth’s provenance. It may have helped that, except for the Times’ article and editorial, there was little coverage of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii’s abrupt erasure from the scientific record. In no small part this was because there seemed to be nobody to wield Osborn’s mistake against him—or, more precisely, no one of Bryan’s stature, deemed worthy of front-page headlines.

John Roach Straton, the pastor of Manhattan’s Calvary Baptist Church, which sat a few blocks from Osborn’s museum, tried to take up Bryan’s mantle. “I am writing to President Henry Fairfield Osborn respectfully suggesting … that he put this tooth in a handsome glass case … but change the name … to Hesperopigdonefoolem osborniicuckoo,” Straton wrote in a lengthy telegram to The New York Times, which published it. But even with his church’s radio station, capable of broadcasting his sermons over a 500-mile radius, Straton didn’t have Bryan’s name recognition or popularity. He died in 1929 without making much of a dent in the evolution debate.

Challenges to teaching evolution petered out, too. As Larson writes in Summer for the Gods, “Discussion did not resolve disagreement; each side so deeply believed its position that further information simply increased its vehemence.” But the country also had bigger things to worry about: the Depression, namely, and soon enough World War II.

Over the years, new scientific data would strengthen evolutionary theory—Darwin’s version, not Osborn’s. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that humans likely evolved in Africa because chimpanzees and gorillas, the great apes he believed to be humans’ closest relatives, lived there. But in the early 20th century, Asia had its supporters as the cradle of humanity, with Osborn leading the way. Given fossils such as Java Man, there was a logic to this thinking. Fossils, however, were only part of the reason Osborn placed his hopes on Asia. The other reason was his racism: Like many of his fellow eugenicists—and today’s white supremacists—Osborn believed that a light-haired, blue-eyed Aryan people had risen from central Asia and swept westward, becoming the Nordics, the pinnacle of humanity. However, as more remains of human ancestors were unearthed in Africa, including the first australopithecine fossils, discovered by Raymond Dart in South Africa and Louis and Mary Leakey in Tanzania, it became clear that the Asia-centric view of human evolution was illegitimate.

In 1930, Gregory published another paper challenging Osborn’s work in the study of human origins. Despite their differences, the two men remained coworkers and friends. When Osborn retired, he recommended that Gregory replace him as head of the museum. (The trustees selected someone else.) “It was greatly to Osborn’s credit that he refrained from using his power to silence his former assistant,” Gregory wrote in a biographical article about his longtime boss, “and that he always treated the latter not only with perfect fairness but with unfailing friendship, so that to the day of his death there was never a cloud between them.” Osborn died in 1935.

Most scientists forgot about Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. The tooth pulled from the Nebraska sand wasn’t even terribly useful as a peccary fossil. Still, there were some who would cling to what they insisted on calling Nebraska Man. These people, fueled by anti-science beliefs, would keep the memory of Osborn’s mistake alive for a century—and likely beyond.


The Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum is the second largest of its kind in Montana, but you won’t find it on the state’s official “dinosaur trail.” The reason is hinted at in a sign at the reception desk. “The Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum is proud to present its exhibits in the context of Biblical history,” it reads. As visitors enter the exhibit area, they pass the same Bible quote that Osborn used in his articles against Bryan 100 years ago, displayed in ornate lettering: “Speak to the earth, and it will teach you.”

In a small display on the second floor are illustrations and descriptions of “fraudulent attempts to find the missing link.” There are three examples: Java Man, Peking Man, and Nebraska Man. The first two are still part of the scientific canon as human ancestors, but opponents of science are keen to flaunt doubt, however fleeting, as proof of absolute error. Peking Man, discovered in the 1920s in northern China, was lost during World War II, and at least one influential creationist has asserted that the fossil casts and drawings scientists have worked with ever since were falsified to support evolutionary theory. Eugène Dubois, the Dutch geologist who discovered Java Man in 1891, prevented other scientists from examining the bones for years, raising the question of whether they were fake. Despite being untrue, the hoax claim persists among creationists.

As for Nebraska Man, Robert Canen, the director of the Glendive museum, pointed me to the website of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) for insight. Articles on the site herald William Jennings Bryan as an important figure in the field of “creation science,” such as it is, and nearly everything Bryan said or wrote with regard to evolution after 1922 includes something dismissive about the tooth. “We use [Nebraska Man] to illustrate that many times attempts are made to fill in the evolutionary progression from an ape-like ancestor to humanity,” Canen himself writes. “Even things like a single tooth can be misinterpreted, often because of the researcher’s worldview and attempts to justify that worldview.”

That much is true, but other claims about Nebraska Man made by creationists are patently false. For example, some creationist websites claim the tooth was offered as evidence of human evolution at the Scopes trial. As court transcripts and newspaper accounts from the time show, the jury heard no scientific testimony about the tooth or anything else. Still, many Bible literalists have put Nebraska Man on the witness stand and kept him there.

Nebraska Man has become a tool wielded by the anti-science set to support the very arguments Osborn once hoped it would help refute.

Creationism regained ground as a political cause among fundamentalist Christians in the 1960s, likely because anti-evolution laws such as Tennessee’s were finally being overturned. In 1972, Nebraska Man made an appearance in a popular creationist book titled Evolution? The Fossils Say No! References to it have been widespread in creationist advocacy materials ever since. Nebraska Man is mentioned in books, on websites such as and, and in children’s workshop and museum displays, including one at Kentucky’s Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park that claims to have attracted millions of visitors since opening in 2016. These venues often suggest that Nebraska Man was more than an embarrassing scientific mistake—it was a hoax. “It looks very much like part of a deliberate campaign or even a confidence trick on the part of the leading American paleontologists and cannot be dismissed as a simple error,” a 2009 creationist article states. Amédée Forestier’s illustration of “the ape-man of the Western world,” despite being just a rendering for a newspaper, is presented as artistic “propaganda” for the fraud.  

If Osborn hadn’t been so eager to confront Bryan with evidence of evolution found in Bryan’s own backyard, if Bryan hadn’t let Osborn get under his skin, and if the press hadn’t been so keen to amplify their feud, perhaps an American ape would be just another disproved idea, quietly shoved deep into science’s junk drawer, alongside a geocentric universe and the lost continent of Lemuria. Instead, Nebraska Man has become a tool wielded by the anti-science set to support the very arguments Osborn once hoped it would help refute. If there’s an axiom in this strange tale, perhaps it’s that truth isn’t always enough to skewer lies.

This is never more the case than when lies have power on their side. Today, conservative state legislatures are attempting to ban matters of scientific consensus from being taught in schools: that human sexuality is diverse, that human-caused climate change is real. Meanwhile, conservative Christian leaders are some of the foremost kingmakers of U.S. politics and have the ear of multiple members of the Supreme Court—a potential boon for lawmakers in several states who over the past two decades have supported policies limiting the teaching of evolution. Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization that provides resources for teachers, said that the court’s summer 2022 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton, allowing a public high school football coach to pray midfield after games, may well influence how evolution is treated in classrooms. “While there is a difference between a football coach praying on the 50-yard line and teaching creationism in biology class,” Branch said, “it remains to be seen what the new legal landscape is like.”

In contrast to its status among creationists, Nebraska Man could hardly be more invisible to scientists. Broken into pieces after a nervous X-ray technician dropped it in 1925, then glued back together, the tooth is kept in storage at the American Museum of Natural History, stashed in a clear plastic box surrounded by the casts Osborn made of it 100 years ago. This description comes from the noted geologist Donald R. Prothero of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona: “The crown is completely worn away, so there’s not much that can be said about it.” It is “smaller than your pinky fingernail.” By email via a spokesperson, the museum stated that its collections staff couldn’t provide any details about the tooth.

Seen from a clear vantage, the story of Nebraska Man is one of how science works: Claims are made, developments veer in unexpected directions, our understanding of the natural world lurches forward. But vanity, zeal, and misinformation complicate that view. Osborn wrote in a 1925 article, “Nature is full of lurking surprises.” So too is history, as the fate of Nebraska Man shows.

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