Dickeson and the Natchez Pelvis

A considerable sensation was recently caused in the public mind, both in America and Europe, by the announcement of the discovery of a fossil human bone, so associated with the remains of extinct quadrupeds, in “the Mammoth ravine,” as to prove that man must have co-existed with the megalonyx and its contemporaries.

- Sir Charles Lyell, 1849

While Dickeson was in Natchez, Mississippi, he took a break from excavating Native American mounds to try his hand at paleontology. He was digging in Mammoth Ravine, a site rich with fossils, when he discovered a fossilized human pelvis. What made this find distinctive was that the pelvis (which came to be known as the Natchez Pelvis) was located in a layer of clay below the fossilized remains of several extinct megafauna. Dickeson argued that this order of stratigraphy meant that humans had lived before or at the same time as these extinct animals.

At the time, this was a very controversial conclusion – scientists were hotly debating the age of the earth, and the antiquity of humanity was just coming under investigation (Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, over a decade after Dickeson excavated the Natchez Pelvis). The find was so important to this rising scientific debate that Sir Charles Lyell, arguably the most famous geologist of his day, visited the site of Dickeson’s discovery and examined the pelvis himself, though he was not convinced that the pelvis was as old as Dickeson believed.

While Dickeson was correct in believing that humans and extinct megafauna coexisted, he was unfortunately incorrect about the specifics of the Natchez Pelvis. In 1990, carbon dating proved that the pelvis is around 5,600 years old, while the megafauna discovered above the pelvis are nearly 18,000 years old. Nevertheless, the discovery contributed to the growing interest in humanity’s long history, giving Dickeson a valuable role in one of the most important scientific discussions of his time.

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