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Siegfriedt believed that the enamel had been replaced by carbon and the roots by iron, a very strange sounding fossil!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.