Packard’s Coprolite Works, where the Foxhall jaw was recognised

Packard’s Coprolite Works, Coprolite Road, Ipswich, built in 1850. The photograph dates from about 1970. [Source]

Workmen at Edward Packard’s manure factory in Ipswich discovered the jawbone of an anatomically modern human in 1855. They found it in a cart-load of coprolites, fossilised animal faeces that were widely quarried in the mid nineteenth century as a source of fertiliser. The load came from Frederick Laws’s (died 1869) pit at Foxhall (Suffolk, UK), so it was assumed that the bone also came from there. The surface had a metallic sheen and the weight of the bone showed that it had absorbed a lot of iron oxide from ground water, as the coprolites had done.

One of the workmen sold it for 2/6d (£0.12½) to John Taylor, a druggist of Fore Street, Ipswich, who gave it to Sir Thomas Beaver less than three months later. Sir Thomas then gave it to Dr Robert Hanham Collyer (1814-1891) in March 1857. Collyer was a physician originally from Jersey but whose parents had emigrated to Philadephia in 1836. He found a human fossil of such apparently early date to be worth further study and promoted it as “the oldest relic of the human animal now in existence”.

Collyer exhibited the specimen to the Ethnological Society of London in April 1863; its members seem not to have agreed with him about its status. At the meeting, George Busk (1807-1886) regarded it as most likely from a Roman woman and was dismissive of its significance. Four months later, though, he wrote to Collyer that “the “coprolite jaw” fairly claims a considerable age”. However, Thomas Henry Huxley was of the opinion that it did not have the characteristics of fossilised bones from the Red Crag deposits, which were supposed to be the source of the jaw.

Dr Robert Collyer’s drawing of the Foxhall jaw

Dr Robert Collyer’s drawing of the jaw

The Foxhall jaw explained

Collyer’s published drawing of the jaw (in The Anthropological Review of April 1867) shows its modern morphology clearly. Even Robert Collyer made no claims for it belonging to an earlier type of human. In a way, this is hardly surprising, as the evolution of life in general, not to mention humans in particular, was still a new idea. Collyer’s hypothesis was that it demonstrated the antiquity of the human species.

However, its provenance from the pit at Foxhall was never demonstrated in a satisfactory way. Although the changes in ownership are well documented, there is only the workmen’s word that it came from a pile of coprolites. There is no reason to suspect him of lying, but equally there is no way to show how it came to be with the coprolites in the first place. Mr Laws’s pit was some sixteen feet (4.9 m) deep and it was assumed that the jaw had been found at this depth. No-one saw it in situ, though. It is possible that it had fallen from a grave at a much higher level, that had been cut through by the pit digging. The iron oxide content of the jaw may be explained by iron rich ground water. Collyer states that gelatin (i.e. collagen) was found in the bone; collagen is lost rapidly after burial except in cases where degradation by enzymes is inhibited. This may well have been the case at Foxhall. In other words, the bone could have been ancient – although not as ancient as Collyer claimed – and still contain a high proportion of its original collagen. Nevertheless, the absence of other Homo sapiens remains from the Red Crag deposits make these an unlikely source for the jaw.

Interest in the Foxhall jaw waned and its whereabouts was no longer known by 1930. The obvious explanation – that this was a relatively recent bone from a burial that had been cut into Pliocene deposits – is found wanting by Cremo & Thompson for no better reasons than that some genuinely ancient fossil hominid remains had equally poorly validated provenances and some have disappeared. This is an argument based on false analogy. The contexts of these genuine ancient hominids have been studied for years and further examples of similarly dated remains have been discovered since. There are no records of human remains being discovered in Pliocene deposits since the early twentieth century. This is not, as Cremo & Thompson maintain, because these is an academic conspiracy to suppress them. They simply aren’t there. Use of Occam’s Razor suggests that nineteenth-century discoveries like the Foxhall jaw were poorly understood at the time of discovery and given a date too far into the remote past.

The Urantia Book mentions the Foxhall Peoples

The Urantia Book, an edition published in 2011

A bizarre afterlife for the Foxhall jaw

The Urantia Book contains a discussion of “The Foxhall Peoples”. The Urantia Book claims to be the final revelation to humanity (how many religious books claim that?) and to give a universal history of humanity. That is, universal in the sense of the entire cosmos. According to the Book, the Foxhall Peoples were early migrants to Britain, arriving around 900,000 years ago by way of a land bridge where the North Sea now exists.

Although the North Sea “land bridge’ is reminiscent of the genuine Doggerland, this does not mean that the account in the Urantia Book is anything more than fiction. Matthew Block and Martin Gardner independently demonstrated that large sections of the work are plagiarised from works widely available up to the mid 1930s. The Foxhall jaw may have been lost for 150 years but its legacy lives on in one of the more obscure religious cults to grow in the twentieth century.