The ‘Reck skull’ (‘Oldoway Man’)

The ‘Reck skull’ (‘Oldoway Man’)

In 1913, Professor Hans Reck (1886-1937) of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Humboldt University of Berlin, at the time known as Universität unter den Linden) discovered an anatomically modern human skeleton at Olduvai Gorge in what was then German East Africa and is now Tanzania. The skeletal remains, including a complete skull, had to be removed from the highly cemented deposit in which they were contained with hammers and chisels, leading Reck to conclude that the remains were of high antiquity. He believed that the deposits above the skeleton were undisturbed, but the contracted position of the skeleton and its completeness are very different from the usual condition of hominid fossils, which tend to be of body parts rather than complete skeletons. It was partly thanks to the controversy surrounding this discovery that the young Louis Leakey (1903-1972) became fascinated with the Olduvai Gorge site. Reck’s skeleton was notorious because its age could not be established satisfactorily. As Reck could not return to the site (he was German and the United Kingdom had acquired Germany’s African colonies as a result of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles), Leakey began his lifetime’s work there.

The difficulty with accepting Reck’s skeleton as being a million years old (as some creationists have claimed) is that his work was done without any appreciation of archaeological stratigraphy. Although the deposit from which the skeleton was recovered was of that sort of age, it was not clear to Reck if the burial was intrusive (in other words, deposited more recently by digging a grave into that particular geological stratum). Indeed, geological analysis of the material surrounding the skeleton showed it to contain red pebbles and limestone chips derived from higher (i.e. later) strata than that in which the skeleton was thought to have lain. This makes it certain that it was intrusive, in other words, in a grave cut down from a higher layer. As early as 1932, Leakey’s work there showed that this has to be the most economical explanation; had there been anatomically modern humans at this date in the gorge, we would expect to find other remains in contemporary strata, and as we do not, we must question Reck’s original judgement. In fact, even Reck later came to agree that the skeleton was of a recently buried human (most estimates now put it at around 20,000 years old). The ever-useful TalkOrigins website contains a useful (and fully annotated) rebuttal of the claims.