The Museum of Hoaxes
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Scientific Fraud
Note: For the purpose of categorization, scientific fraud is considered to be different than scientific hoaxes. Scientific fraud implies a criminal intent. Scientific hoaxes, on the other hand, have a satirical or humorous intent. Some cases do not fit well into either category, so it is worth checking the listings for individual disciplines for a fuller listing of scientific deceptions.
The Stone Age Discoveries of Shinichi Fujimura, 2000
Shinichi Fujimura was one of Japan's leading archaeologists and was something of a celebrity because of his discovery of human settlements in Japan that appeared to be over 600,000 years old. So it caused an enormous scandal when the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper accused Fujimura of planting artifacts that he later claimed to find. But it had photos of Fujimura caught red-handed, burying artifacts at a site. Fujimura confessed to the crime, explaining, "I was tempted by the Devil. I don't know how I can apologise for what I did... I wanted to be known as the person who excavated the oldest stoneware in Japan." More…
The Piltdown Chicken, 1999
In October 1999, the National Geographic Society held a press conference to announce it had found a 125-million-year-old fossil in China that appeared to be the long-sought missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The fossil bird, when living, would have been about the size of a large chicken, but had the long tail of a dinosaur. This mixture of dinosaur and bird is what made them believe they had found the dinosaur-bird missing link. But it was not to be. A few months later, Nat Geo admitted it had fallen for a fake. A forger had taken a stone slab containing a tail fossil and affixed it to a fossil of a bird, thereby producing the hybrid dinosaur-bird creature. More…
The Himalayan Fossils Hoax
Viswa Jit Gupta was a prominent Indian fossil scientist who was discovered to have been faking fossil finds for many years. The fraud was exposed by Australian geologist John Talent in the late 1980s. 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 Case of the Midwife Toad, 1926
During the 1920s, Austrian scientist Paul Kammerer designed an experiment involving a species called the Midwife Toad. He wanted to prove that Lamarckian inheritance was possible. When his experiment produced positive results, the scientitic community was stunned. That is, until researchers had a chance to examine his toads more closely. More…

The Piltdown Man, 1912
In 1912 amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson unearthed a skull and jawbone from a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. The skull was unmistakably human, whereas the jaw appeared to be from an ape, but their proximity within the pit suggested they came from the same creature. The discovery was believed to be of great significance. The fossil was possibly the long-sought missing link between man and ape. For almost forty years the authenticity of the Piltdown fossil remained unquestioned. But in 1953 researchers at the British Museum took a closer look and realized the fossil was a fake. The skull belonged to a prehistoric human, but the jawbone... More…
The Holly Oak Pendant, 1889
In 1889 Hilborne T. Cresson, an archaeological assistant at Harvard's Peabody Museum, announced he had discovered a prehistoric seashell pendant that bore an engraving of a woolly mammoth. He said he had found it in a peat and forest layer near the Holly Oak railway station in northern Delaware. The pendant was an important find, since it suggested that prehistoric man must have been present in the Americas at the time when woolly mammoths still existed, tens of thousands of years ago. However, the pendant was almost immediately suspected of being fake. More…
Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1887
When the six-volume Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography was published between 1887 and 1889, it was one of the first and most definitive works of its kind in America. It contained biographical information about thousands of people (some famous, some obscure) in American history. It was hailed as a valuable source of information for both scholars and students alike. But thirty years after the Cyclopedia's publication, questions began to be raised about its reliability. The botanist Dr. John Hendley Barnhart published a brief article in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden suggesting some of the Cyclopedia's biographical... More…
The Calaveras Skull, 1866
When workers found a human skull buried deep inside a California mine, scholars initially identified it as Pliocene age, making it the oldest known record of human existence in North America. But other scholars challenged its authenticity, sparking a debate that dragged on for years. Eventually the skull was determined to be a fake, but it isn't known who was responsible for it, though it's suspected the skull may have been planted by miners playing a practical joke. More…
The Orgueil Meteorite, 1864
After a meteor shower fell in southern France, someone went to elaborate lengths to embed plant seeds within one of the meteorites. It may have been an attempt to hoax the French scientific community, but the hoax backfired because the seeds weren't noticed by anyone until the 1960s, almost a century later. Researchers initially thought the seeds might be of extraterrestrial origin, until they identified them as native to France. 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 Electric Kite Hoax
On October 19, 1752, the Pennsylvania Gazette published a brief description of an experiment recently conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the article said, had flown a kite in a thunderstorm, causing electricity to be conducted down the line of the kite and electrifying a key tied to it. This demonstrated that lightning, as many had speculated, was a form of electricity. Franklin's electric kite became the most famous experiment of the eighteenth century, helping to make Franklin famous throughout Europe and America. And yet, some historians argue that it probably never happened. They point to a curious lack of details about the... More…
The Charlton Brimstone Butterfly, 1702
Entomologists were fascinated when, shortly before his death, William Charlton presented them with a specimen of a rare, one-of-a-kind butterfly. Sixty years later, Linnaeus examined it and declared it to be a new species, although none other of its kind had ever been found. Thirty years after that, a Danish entomologist decided to examine it more closely, and it was only then discovered to be a common Brimstone butterfly with black spots painted on its wings. More…
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.