The Museum of Hoaxes
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Anthropology Hoaxes
Vilcabamba: the town of very old people, 1978
In 1970, scientists researching the link between diet and heart disease visited the small town of Vilcabamba, located high in the Ecuadorian Andes. The scientists included Dr. Alexander Leaf of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Harold Elrick of the University of California at San Diego, and a group from the University of Quito. The scientists found that the residents of Vilcabamba, who were principally of European descent, had very low cholesterol levels and very few of them ever suffered from heart disease. But more remarkable was the longevity of the Vilcabambans. Many of the town residents claimed to be over 100 years old. A few of them stated... More…
The Stone-Age Tasaday, 1971
A primitive, stone-age tribe found living in a rain forest in the Philippines was later alleged to be an elaborate fake. More…
Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan, 1968
In 1968 Carlos Castaneda, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. It described his encounters with Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui shaman from Mexico. Don Juan supposedly trained Castaneda in ancient forms of knowledge, such as how to use drugs to communicate with animals (or even to become an animal). Castaneda's book became a bestseller and was an important influence on the New Age movement. Castaneda was awarded a doctorate by UCLA in 1972. Castaneda insisted Don Juan was a real person, but this is widely doubted by scholars. Skeptics... More…
The Third Eye of T. Lobsang Rampa, 1956
The Third EyeThe Third Eye, by Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, was first published in 1956. It purported to be his autobiographical account of growing up in Tibet and studying Tibetan Buddhism. Rampa claimed he had been born into a wealthy Tibetan family and had studied in Lhasa to become a lama. He had then undergone an operation to open up the "third eye" in the middle of his forehead. This operation had bestowed upon him amazing psychic powers. More…
Margaret Mead and the Samoans, 1925
In 1925, 24-year-old Margaret Mead traveled to Samoa where she stayed for nine months. On her return she wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, which was published in 1928. It portrayed Samoa as a gentle, easy-going society where teenagers grew up free of sexual hang-ups. Premarital sex was common. Rape was unheard of. Young people grew to adulthood without enduring the adolescent trauma typical in western countries. She used these findings to support her thesis that culture, not biology, determines human behavior and personality. The book became an anthropological classic, read by generations of college students. But In 1983 New Zealand... More…
The Pictographs of Emmanuel Domenech, 1860
Domenech, a Catholic priest who had spent many years traveling through Mexico, found a curious document full of strange drawings filed away in a Parisian library. He came to believe it was an ancient Native American manuscript. But after publishing a facsimile of it, critics claimed it was actually the scribbling book of a "nasty-minded little [German] boy," that had for some reason been stored in the library. More…

The Walam Olum of Constantine Rafinesque, 1836
The naturalist Rafinesque produced a document that he claimed was an ancient text written on birch bark by early Lenape (Delaware) indians that he had been able to translate into English. Long accepted as authentic, it was exposed as a fraud, by linguistic analysis, in 1996. Rafinesque had translated the text from English into Lenape, rather than the other way around. More…
The Journal of Charles Le Raye
In 1812 a Boston printer published a journal, said to have been written by the French trader Charles Le Raye, describing his capture in 1801 by a band of Teton Sioux and subsequent travels through the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone regions. If the account is true, Le Raye would have been the first European to travel through that region and write about it, preceding the Lewis and Clark expedition by three years. But scholars now believe the journal was a hoax. They cite its gross geographical inaccuracies, inaccurate portrayal of Indian life, and the lack of any other evidence suggesting that Le Raye existed. However, a few parts of the... More…
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The Grimm's Fairy Tales, first published in German in 1812 as Kinder- und Hausmärchen, is considered to be one of the major works of 19th-century culture. Popular myth holds that the tales came from simple, peasant folk interviewed by the brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm. In reality, the bulk of the tales came from a handful of middle- and upper-class women. Some of the tales were French in origin, not German. Furthermore, the tales were heavily revised and rewritten by the Grimm brothers before publication. In his 1983 book One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and their Tales John Ellis argued that the Grimm Brothers engaged in a... More…
The Patagonian Giants, 1766
When the Dolphin returned to London after circumnavigating the globe, a rumor spread alleging the crew had discovered a race of nine-foot-tall giants living in Patagonia, South America. It was said the name Patagonia actually meant "land of the big feet". But in reality, there were no South American giants. The crew had indeed encountered a tribe of Patagonians, but the tallest among them had measured only 6 feet 6 inches. More…
Madagascar, or Robert Drury’s Journal, 1729
A book detailing an Englishman's shipwreck and enslavement on the island of Madagascar has proved controversial. It was accepted as true during the 18th century, and dismissed as a hoax during the 19th century. But in 1996, a British scholar argued that the tale may, in fact, be true since the description of early 18th century Madagascar was highly accurate. More…
The Native of Formosa, 1702
A white-skinned, blond-haired man showed up in northern Europe claiming to be from the island of Formosa (Taiwan). He regaled scholars and members of high society with tales of the bizarre practices of Formosa, such as the supposed annual sacrifice of 20,000 young boys to the gods. Luckily for him, no one in Europe knew what a Taiwanese person should look like, which allowed him to keep up his masquerade for four years before finally being exposed. More…
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Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.