1. Archaeopteryx means “early wing” and is the paleontologist’s Rosetta stone seemingly providing the perfect evidence for the otherwise elusive transition creatures which should fill the rocks with their fossil remains. First discovered in 1861, it is the purported transition between the dinosaur and the bird; seven specimens are claimed to exist. As we shall see, only the first, second and third specimens are objects of suspicion, the remaining specimens consist merely of reclassified reptiles. In 1985 charges were made that the second, 1861 specimen held at the British Museum of Natural History, was a fake. We will examine the history of the discovery of all these specimens, the charges against the British Museum specimen and take a careful look at the published data concerning the third specimen. Most of the evidences point to the first three specimens being fraudulent and the remaining four being reptiles as they were formerly classified. The importance of the Archaeopteryx is that since its discovery in the last century it has become the textbook example of a transition and thus proof of evolution.
2. The word “Dinosaur” was coined in 1840 by Richard Owen; the remains of these creatures are found on every continent and they are said to have lived in the Cretaceous Age, that is, 140 to 65 million years ago. There are two broad classes of dinosaur: the ornithischian or “bird-hipped” type most of whom walked on two legs e.g. T. rex and the saurischian or lizard-hipped type that walked on four legs. Not all dinosaurs grew to be the very large creatures; many remained quite small even chicken-sized. In 1833 French paleontologist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire first proposed that the birds had evolved from the ornithischian dinosaurs. Writing in his `Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin said that the fossil record should be full of intermediate varieties of creature (transitional types) but lamented that geology had not yet provided any. He confessed that, “this is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.” He then suggested the explanation was due to, “the extreme imperfection of the geological record.”
3. This statement seems to have provided a charter for fossil forgers because within months of the publication of the German edition of Darwin’s `Origin (in 1861) an impression of a single, modern-looking feather was discovered in the Jurassic limestone of Solnhofen quarry, southern Germany. Details of its discovery never were given adequately but because of the associated fossils found in the same strata, it was dated at 150 million years and called Archaeopteryx lithographica; the limestone from this quarry was used to make lithographic plates for the printing industry. More commonly, the specimen is referred to as, “von Meyer’s feather.” The sale of this fossil to the Berlin and the Munich museums was negotiated by Dr. Karl Haberlein, medical officer for the district of Pappenheim near Solnhofen. Less than two months later, in 1861, another Archaeopteryx appeared from the same quarry. This was about as big as a pigeon, had remarkably clear feather impressions in the wing and tail areas and was headless. Moreover, it contained a very large furcula or wishbone but England’s T. H. Huxley was most suspicious of it and neither he nor Charles Darwin would accept this specimen as a transition. Again, Dr. Haberlein negotiated the sale to the highest bidder; this time it was the British Natural History Museum and is known as the “London specimen.” There had been complaints concerning this fossil from German professor Andreas Wagner who claimed it was nothing more than a Compsognathus with feathers. He had studied this chicken-sized dinosaur and had been responsible for naming it.
4. The third Archaeopteryx appeared from the same quarry in 1877 and this time it was complete with the head and it had teeth which placed it nicely between the reptile and the bird. Its sale was negotiated by Dr. Karl Haberlein’s son, Ernst Haberlein, who demanded a stupendous price. The specimen finished in the Berlin Museum, is usually referred to as the “Berlin specimen” and is the textbook example.
5. Textbooks often speak about “many other examples” and by this they mean the remaining four specimens. The following is their description: A poorly preserved specimen discovered in 1956 and classified as an Archaeopteryx; it is known as the Maxberg specimen, was in the hands of a private collector but has disappeared in recent years. A specimen discovered in 1855, displayed in the Teyer Museum and known as a pterosaur until 1970 when it was reclassified as an Archaeopteryx; it is known as the Haarlem specimen. A specimen discovered in 1951, classified as a Compsognathus longipes and reclassified as an Archaeopteryx in 1973; it is known as the Eichstatt specimen. A specimen in another private collection classified as an Archaeopteryx in 1988 and referred to as the Solnhofen specimen. It should be emphasized that none of these four specimens show feather impressions, so-called fused clavicles (furcula or wish-bone) or any other avian characteristics.
6. Charges of Hoax. Dr. Lee Spetner of the Weizman Institute, Israel, working in cooperation with British astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle, long suspected that the London specimen was a fake and finally got a chance to examine the actual specimen at the British Museum. They were not allowed to touch the specimen, merely photograph it. No main-line science journal would publish their findings and they had to publish them in The British Journal of Photography. Briefly, Hoyle and Spetner charged that the London specimen was actually that of a Compsognathus to which impressions of modern feathers had been added. Only the London and Berlin specimens consist of bone and feather impressions. Hoyle and Spetner suggested that the forgers, possibly Dr. Karl Haberlein, had carved a shallow depression about the “wing” and “tail” areas, back-filled with a mixture of finely ground limestone and gum arabic then modern feathers pressed into this mixture. After setting, the feathers were stripped out leaving the two halves of the slab much as we find them today. As a refinement to this theory, rather than carving out a shallow depression with a chisel, this could have been done more effectively by masking off the areas with wax and using hydrochloric acid to etch down perhaps 2 mm. Tests carried out by Dr. Spetner at the Museum almost showed that their theory had been correct but having come this close, the Museum then refused any confirmatory tests.
7. Examination of the London Specimen. Hoyle and Spetner’s principal findings were as follows: The tail feathers lie in a depression in the slab; there is no corresponding raised area in the counter-slab. The museum maintained that their staff had excavated this area to reveal the feathers but Richard Owen’s illustration published in 1864 showed these feathers and he said nothing about any excavation work. The feather impressions appear mostly on the slab and none on the counter-slab except for one isolated “gum-like” piece. Hoyle claimed that the thin layer of cement spread on the counter-slab by the forger did not “take” and all except this one small piece fell off; that piece has feather impressions. Scanning electron microscope analysis of two very small samples were permitted, one taken in the wing area and a control sample taken beyond the fossil area. The control showed a clean crystalline structure as would be expected. The wing sample was amorphous suggesting that it was a mixture of fine particles and an organic i.e. gum arabic? Both analyses were confirmed by X-ray luminescence analysis. The Museum refused further tests. There are hairline cracks in the feathered areas that exactly match on both the slab and counter-slab. This looks like good supporting evidence for the Museum but as Spetner has pointed out, when cracks in a wall are plastered over, those same cracks later show up again in exactly the same places. There are some dendritic areas which overlie the wing area and it is known that these take thousands of years to form thus the wing areas could not be “fresh cement.” In rebuttal Dr. Spetner pointed out that in fact the dendrites are on the matrix outside the wing area and do not extend onto the wing itself.
8. Examination of the Berlin Specimen. None but the certified believer can expect to have the opportunity to examine the actual specimen, however, the published photographs taken over the years are almost as revealing. Carl Vogt photographed this specimen shortly after its discovery in 1877 and Professor C. H. Hurst photographed this same specimen in 1893. Both photographs are identical. Hurst pointed out that the popular 1887 textbook illustration had bent primary quill feathers (some bent by 40 degrees!) and that these originate in the ulna or fore-arm whereas on the fossil those same quill feathers were straight and originate in the manus or “hand.” Controversy arose in which Hurst further pointed out that not only did Professor Dames 1884 description of the fossil state that the primary quills were attached to the longest finger but that bent feathers would in any case be useless for flight. W. D. Pyecraft of the British Museum also defended the straight feathers saying that most modern birds have straight feathers and they do originate in the hand. Incredibly, every modern photograph of the Berlin specimen now show these quill feathers as bent and originating in the fore-arm. According to the published photographs the change from straight to bent feathers took place between 1893 and 1923. If indeed this was a forgery then the forger had no choice but to use straight quill feathers and correctly placed them originating from the manus. It seems that later, someone at the Berlin Museum mistakenly thought that quill feathers originated in the ulna and illustrated them that way. Since that time the fossil itself has somehow been modified so that the incorrect illustrated version persists even in modern photographic reproductions.
9. Feathers are the true distinguishing feature of birds. Feather impressions are only found on the first three specimens i.e. von Meyer’s, the London and the Berlin specimens; all three were discovered in the same area within a period of 17 years and passed through the hands of one man, Dr. Karl Haberlein; Haberlein made a vast sum of money by their sale to national museums. The remaining four specimens are the result of fossils being re-classified in this century and contain no signs of feather impressions or a furcula. Popular accounts have mislead readers by saying, “feather impressions are distinct” whereas the original report in this case had said, “These features are interpreted as imprints of feather shafts.” Not the same thing at all since “feather shafts” could be, say, spines like a porcupine. Feathers are extremely delicate structures and, until very recently, had never been found in the fossil record. In 1988 one small feather impression was discovered in Spain but it had been carbonized; clearly, this is a very rare case and is poorly preserved. In contrast, the three Archaeopteryx specimens have well preserved feathers with even the barbs and barbules clearly recognizable.
10. The furcula or wishbone is only present in the London specimen. To this day no one is quite sure of the function of the furcula while it is thought to have evolved by the fusion of the clavicles or collar bones of the ancestor of the bird. The furcula in the London specimen actually looks nothing like a wishbone but more like a bent sausage while Huxley seemed to have taken delight in pointing out that it was “upside-down.” The great bird expert, professor John Ostrom maintains that a furcula can be seen in the Maxberg specimen but admits that others who have examined this specimen did not see it; the specimen has since disappeared. Ostrom has also noted that the presence of a furcula seems paradoxical together with the apparent absence of a sternum in every one of the Archaeopteryx specimens.
11. Finally, Gerhard Heilman writing in 1926 produced an impressive list of the similarities between the Archaeopteryx and the Compsognathus; for example, there were nine major points of similarity between the head of the Archaeopteryx and that of the Compsognathus alone. Nevertheless, he dismissed the connection by his belief that the Compsognathus did not possess a furcula. However, this negative evidence has since been removed by the more recent work of John Ostrom who has demonstrated that the Compsognathus did indeed have a furcula. Birds have a back-ward facing pubis bone but all the dinosaurians have a forward-facing pubis bone. This is a major point of difference between birds and dinosaurs but it turns out that the Compsognathus is probably unique among the dinosaurians since its pubis bone does face backwards like the birds. Thus, now with every detail between the Archaeopteryx and the Compsognathus corresponding exactly, one may wonder how much longer this obvious hoax can be maintained?
12. In the past decade or so the belief that the dinosaur is the bird’s ancestor has indeed been maintained by the fossil search in China. Every so often a new discovery is given publicity by the media and especially by National Geographic magazine. These fossil trophies fetch large sums of money from Western museums. So far, at least one of these purported intermediate fossils from China has proven to be a fraud; there may well be others waiting for exposure.
Photo: The Berlin archaeopteryx specimen. Courtesy of H. Raab. (CC A-SA 3.0 Unported)