February 25

The Calaveras Skulls


“We found more skulls in the Calaveras mine.”

“What do they ‘prove’ this time?”  Dr. Theda Jansik remained skeptical.  Why would one of the mine’s representatives call on her, claiming an important modern discovery at the site of an infamous hoax?

On February 25, 1866, miners dug deep beneath lava, uncovering a skull that was called “the oldest known human being.”  The skull was offered as proof that humans and mastodons co-existed — but why not claim humans and dinosaurs, while they were at it?  The skull was a hoax, planted by practical jokers to taunt a scholar they didn’t respect.

Dr. Jansik feared she was about to get the same treatment.

“If you want, I can take you to where the guides found them.” He wore a puffy winter jacket and stood awkwardly in her university office.  This man from the mine seemed more of a ticket-seller than a tour guide, not in the best physical shape to crawl and squeeze through twisting tunnels. “They uncovered this treasure by accident, while seeking new paths for our more adventurous customers.”

Theda Jansik had published an essay decrying the use of mines as tourist attractions.  Such places should be landmarks, or opened for professional excavations (she had argued), rather than being tramped through by gum-chewing, litter-dropping, thrill seekers.

“Here’s what they got.”  Her visitor shrugged a heavy pack off one shoulder and set it on the guest chair.  He unzipped the pack from the top, and tufts of plastic bags began to expand from the opening.  An awful smell wafted up, more intense than the usual dust and mildew of long-buried artifacts.

Dr. Jansik opened a desk drawer to retrieve a pair of latex gloves.  Her visitor began unwrapping plastic, then sheets of brown paper, then wet strands of paper towels.  “Here’s the first one,” he said, plucking off loose dirt.  “Think maybe this could be a missing link or something?”

He handed over the skull, and Dr. Jansik reluctantly leaned forward to accept it.  As she sat behind her desk and began a cursory examination, her visitor reached into the pack to begin unraveling another specimen.

The skull felt cold and damp, even through the thick latex layer of her gloves.  If this were another hoax, it had to be the worst-planned prank of all time:  the skull was obviously from the modern era.  The bits of sludge and stuck paper seemed an amateur attempt at “antiquing” — beneath, the bone was white and fresh.

Her visitor unwrapped a second skull, and placed it on the desktop, next to books and notes she’s been working with for Monday’s classroom lecture.  He turned the skull, so the empty eye sockets peered toward her.

Dr. Jansik began to worry that she shouldn’t have agreed to meet this stranger on campus during the weekend.  She stared at him across the desk, judging how easy it might be to get past him and out the open door of her office.  She wondered how loud she could scream, and if there were anybody else around to hear her.

Because she’d noticed a strange, disturbing pattern on different parts of the skull she examined.  Teeth marks.

Her visitor reached again into his backpack, pulling out another wrapped object.  It wasn’t the shape of a skull, but she saw a sharp edge of bone sticking through the butcher paper.

“We use tourist attractions to help lure young, athletic people to our sites.  Some of them, we recruit.  The rest end up…”  He trailed off, then pointed to the skull in her hand, the one on her desk.  “We don’t want some fancy teacher trying to undermine our efforts.”

He unwrapped the third item.  A long thigh bone, as fresh as the two human skulls.  Sharpened to a point.

“These skulls are probably historic in their own way.”  As he spoke, the man seemed a stronger physical presence than she’d previously judged.  The muscles on his neck stretched tighter; his biceps bulged beneath the sleeves of his jacket.  “Someday people will look back on them as evidence.  Weaker humans like yourself, once co-existed with a new, more adaptive species of cannibal.”

He reached behind, shutting the door to her office.  Raising the sharpened bone, he lunged at her across the desk.