Mortar and pestle from Table Mountain, Tuolomne (California, USA)

Mortar and pestle from Table Mountain, Tuolomne (California, USA)

In 1877, a Mr John H Neale, superintendent of the Montezuma Tunnel Company, was engaged in building a tunnel through Table Mountain, Tuolumne County (California, USA). The tunnel was running through gravel, sealed by lava. Between about 425 and 457 m (1400-1500 feet) from the mouth of the tunnel and between 61 and 91 m (200-300 feet) from the edge of the solid lava, a number of dark stone objects about 300 mm (one foot) long were reported to Mr Neale. Close by, he found a small bowl-like object between 75 and 101 mm (3-4 inches) in diameter; further exploration revealed a larger bowl-like object and a pestle-like object. They were all found in the gravel within 300 mm of the underlying solid bedrock. The gravels through which the tunnel was dug were estimated as being between 33 and 55 million years old, so objects found in situ within them ought to have been contemporaneous. Some years earlier, in 1857, a fragment of human skull was found close to mastodon remains, while a complete human skeleton discovered even earlier had been associated with similar material; they were thought to be evidence for Miocene humans.

It is fortunate that two original statements by those involved in this discovery have been preserved. One is by John H Neale himself and is dated Sonora, August 2, 1890, which is thirteen years after the original discovery:

In 1877 Mr. J. H. Neale was superintendent of the Montezuma Tunnel Company, and ran the Montezuma tunnel into the gravel underlying the lava of Table Mountain, Tuolumne County. The mouth of the tunnel is near the road which leads in a southerly direction from the Rawhide Camp, and about three miles from that place. The mouth is approximately 1,200 feet from the present edge of the solid lava cap of the mountain. The course of the tunnel is a little north of east. At a distance of between 1400 and 1500 feet from the mouth of the tunnel, or of between 200 and 300 feet beyond the edge of the solid lava, Mr. Neale saw several spear-heads, of some dark rock and nearly one foot in length. On exploring further, he himself found a small mortar three or four inches in diameter and of irregular shape. This was discovered within a foot or two of the spear-heads. He then found a large well-formed pestle, now the property of Dr. R. I. Bromley, and near by a large and very regular mortar, also at present the property of Dr. Bromley.
All of these relics were found the same afternoon, and were within a few feet of one another and close to the bed-rock, perhaps within a foot of it.
Mr. Neale declares it utterly impossible that these relics can have reached the position in which they were found excepting at the time the gravel was deposited, and before the lava cap formed. There was not the slightest trace of any disturbance of the mass or of any natural fissure into it by which access could have been obtained either there or in the neighborhood.
And Mr. J. H. Neale declares upon his oath that the foregoing statement is in every respect true.
(Signed) John H. Neale

The second statement is by Professor W H Holmes, taken from an interview with Mr Neale:

One of the miners coming out to lunch at noon brought with him to the superintendent’s office a stone mortar and a broken pestle which he said had been dug up in the deepest part of the tunnel, some 1500 feet from the mouth of the mine. Mr. Neale advised him on returning to work to look out for other utensils in the same place, and agreeable to his expectations two others were secured, a small ovoid mortar, 5 or 6 inches in diameter, and a flattish mortar or dish, 7 or 8 inches in diameter. These have since been lost to sight. On another occasion a lot of obsidian blades, or spear-heads, eleven in number and averaging 10 inches in length, were brought to him by workmen from the mine. They had been found in what Mr. Neale called a ‘side channel,’ that is, the bed of a branch of the main Tertiary stream about a thousand feet in from the mouth of the tunnel, and 200 or 300 feet vertically from the surface of the mountain slope. These measurements were given as estimates only, but at the same time they were, he felt sure, not far wrong. Four or five of the specimens he gave to Mr. C. D. Voy, the collector. The others also had been given away but all trace of them had been lost. Mr. Neale spoke enthusiastically of the size and perfection of these implements, and as he spoke drew outlines of long notched blades in the dust at our feet. Some had one notch, some had two notches, and others were plain leaf-shaped blades.
Desiring to find out more concerning these objects, he went on to say, he showed them to the Indians who chanced to be present, but, strangely enough, they expressed great fear of them, refusing to touch them or even speak about them; but finally, when asked whether they had any idea whence they came, said they had seen such implements far away in the mountains, but declined to speak of the place further or to undertake to procure others.

These accounts are quoted in a paper by William J Sinclair, “Recent investigations bearing on the question of the occurrence of Neocene man in the auriferous gravels of the Sierra Nevada”, published in University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, volume 7 number 2 (1908), pages 108-131. After a careful review of the evidence to date, Professor Sinclair concludes that a “review of the evidence favoring the presence of the remains of man in the auriferous gravels, compels one to regard it as insufficient to establish the fact. On the preceding pages, it has been shown either that there have been abundant opportunities for the relies in question to be mixed with the gravels accidentally, or that the geological conditions at the localities are such as to render it improbable that the implements and bones have been associated in the gravels to the extent supposed”.

There is really little to add to Professor Sinclair’s conclusions. The objects – if genuinely found inside the mine – were identical to those of recent date found outside it; this argues strongly in favour of their recent manufacture (‘recent’ in this context meaning in the past ten thousand years or so!). The use of a rock found higher up the mountain to maufacture these objects shows that it must have existed before the artefacts; if they were really buried beneath it, they must have been introduced by some means, such as tunnelling.

The story of the discovery is by no means as robust as its supporters would wish. Mr Neale’s memory of events thirteen years previously may have been flawed; he may have been the victim of a hoax; he may have been the hoaxer (although this seems unlikely). All in all, this is not good evidence for the antiquity of humans in North America.