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August 17, 2009


Backyard artifact

Paleoanthropology Division
 Smithsonian Institute
 207 Pennsylvania Avenue
 Washington, DC 20078

  Dear Sir:

  Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute, labeled "211-D, layer
  seven, next to the clothesline post. Hominid skull." We have given this
  specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we
  disagree with your theory that it represents "conclusive proof of the presence
  of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago." Rather, it appears
  that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety one of
  our staff, who has small children, believes to be the "Malibu Barbie". It is
  evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this
  specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with
  your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your
  findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes
  of the specimen which might have tipped you off to it's modern origin:

    1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically
  fossilized bone.
   2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic
  centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified
   3. The dentition pattern evident on the "skull" is more consistent with the
  common domesticated dog than it is with the "ravenous man-eating Pliocene
  clams" you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This latter finding
  is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your
  history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily
  against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that:

       A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed
       B. Clams don't have teeth.

  It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to
  have the specimen carbon dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our
  lab must bear in it's normal operation, and partly due to carbon dating's
  notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our
  knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon dating
  is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results. Sadly, we must also deny your
  request that we approach the National Science Foundation's Phylogeny
  Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name
  "Australopithecus spiff-arino." Speaking personally, I, for one, fought
  tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately
  voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn't
  really sound like it might be Latin.

  However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen
  to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a hominid fossil, it is,
  nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem
  to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has
  reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens
  you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff
  speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site
  you have discovered in your back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our
  nation's capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are
  pressing the Director to pay for it. We are particularly interested in hearing
  you expand on your theories surrounding the "trans-positating fillifitation of
  ferrous ions in a structural matrix" that makes the excellent juvenile
  Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive
  appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

  Yours in Science,
  Harvey Rowe
  Curator, Antiquities

Comments: This droll narrative was conceived as a satire and was never intended
to fool anyone, though alas, it has. Not long after it began circulating via the
Web and email during the mid-1990s, someone added a preamble claiming the letter
is authentic and the events described therein completely true. Neither, of
course, is the case.

Harvey Rowe, the putative sender, is a real person, though he is not a curator
of antiquities, nor has he ever worked for the Smithsonian Institution. By his
own admission he is the clever bugger who made up this tall tale, however. Now
living in Arizona and employed in medical informatics, Dr. Rowe was a graduate
student in South Carolina in 1994 when he first typed up the letter and emailed
it to a few friends strictly for their amusement. One or more of those early
recipients sent it on to their friends, who forwarded it on to theirs, etc.,
etc., and in short order Harvey Rowe's "totally fabricated" story had taken on a
life of its own.

"It seems to have achieved critical mass [in 1995] and there was some evidence
people were taking it seriously, despite the many hints that it was written with
humorous intent," Rowe marveled in a 1998 interview with writer E.M. Ganin.
"Shortly after that I did a search on my name and found it on about 100
Websites, which surprised the hell out of me."

When last  checked (November 2007), that number had grown to over 2,000.

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