The ‘Beartooth Highway molar’

The supposed fossilised molar found in Eocene coal: clearly a simulacrum
The supposed fossilised molar found in Eocene coal: clearly a simulacrum

During the construction of the Beartooth Highway (Montana, USA), a supposedly fossilised tooth was found in an Eocene deposit in Number 3 shaft of the Eagle Mutual Coal Mine of Bear Creek, 88 km southwest of Billings (Montana, USA), in November 1926. The mining company doctor, J C Fred Siegfriedt (died 1940), also mayor of Bearcreek and later of Red Lodge, declared it to be a human tooth.

Siegfriedt believed that the enamel had been replaced by carbon and the roots by iron, a very strange sounding fossil! The first published account, in The Carbon County News of 11 November 1926, claims that Siegfriedt had asked several dentists to identify a mould created from the fossil, which they recognised as a human second lower left molar. The article was accompanied by a photograph, reproduced here. It is unfortunate that there is no scale provided, but there is an indication of its size from a slightly later report: according to a Dr E E Free, writing in The Literary Digest of 18 December 1926,

It is about the size of a human tooth, being about one-third inch from the top of the crown to the tips of the roots. This is slightly smaller than the average of modern human teeth, but not so small as to make human origin impossible. The crown of the tooth is relatively low in comparison with the length of the roots, but this also is not inconceivable in a human tooth. Four cusps project from the crown; which is also an appearance found in some human molars, the fifth cusp which is theoretically present being sometimes so reduced in size as to be invisible. The roots are intact and are of the same general shape as those of human teeth. The entire tooth is partially carbonized and impregnated with iron sulfid, as a result of its long burial in the coal-beds where it was found.

Siegfriedt was unable to persuade any palaeontologists that he had really discovered a fossil. In a letter of 12 January 1927, he expressed his frustration in terms that make clear his motivation:

I was simply bringing my discovery to the public notice and from the attitude that was hurled at me, one would think I was trying to hold up a bank. However I have the tooth and the most beautiful specimen at that. Since my discovery I find several gaps in the Geologic Time Table, which have not satisfactorily been explained.

From this letter, we can guess that Siegfried was what we would now term a Young Earth Creationist, who was keen to dispute evolution and geological assessments of the age of the earth. The supposed fossil is not a human molar, but a simulacrum, a natural object resembling something meaningful to human beings.

2 Replies to “The ‘Beartooth Highway molar’”

  1. Personally, I didn’t see anywhere in his letter that Mr. Siegfried called himself a ” Young Earth Creationist” nor do I think he would even know what the term meant. In his ” letter ” he was simply stating what was found and where it was found. It seems to me that the so called expert archaeologists and paleontologists were the ones who were being uncooperative and quite unprofessional by refusing to even look at the artifact. This seems to be the typical attitude taken by any so called ” expert ” when an anomalous artifact is found. Make the finder sound as uneducated as possible and stupid as well. Again, I personally think it’s the skeptics and so called ” professionals” who are up to hijinx. Naturally, they are all entitled to their beliefs ( or not ) and opinions as is everyone else. But putting words into other people’s mouths and refusing to even look at the evidence really proves nothing, does it now? Especially when the person is dead and cannot defend him or herself. Thanks for the opinion and for listening to mine. No reply necessary nor warranted.

    1. No, he doesn’t call himself such: the term hadn’t been coined in the 1920s and if you actually read what I wrote, you’ll see that is say that “we can guess that Sigfried was what we would now term a Young Earth Creationist”.

      We don’t actually know that anyone refused to look at it: you’ve jumped to an unwarranted conclusion there. All we know is that no palaeontologist could be persuaded that it was a fossil; this clearly leaves open the possibility that he’d shown it to at least one palaeontologist, possibly more.

      I have put no words into other people’s mouths and I have passed no judgement on Mr Siegfried’s intelligence. Indeed, I suspect that if he was the director of a mining company and the mayor of the town, he was both educated and intelligent. His young-earth ideas have no bearing on his intelligence!

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