torsdag den 29. august 2013

The not so mysterious Gardar skull

In the summer of 1926 a sensation was dragged from the ground at Gardar in southwestern Greenland. An excavation of an old norse/Viking settlement found among other things a piece of skull and half a lower jaw looking so extraordinary it made international frontpage news, was discussed in the scientific journal Nature, and made the leader of the Danish excavation team F. C. C. Hansen describe it as a new species of human that he suggested should be called Homo gardarensis. And one has to admit, that especially the lower jaw looks rather strange. The skull is quite thick and solid, and the jawbone is at least twice the depth of a normal one.

Various international experts, though interested in the finds, adviced caution. Anthropologist Arthur Keith suggested the bones were from an individual suffering from acromegaly, a glandular disorder resulting in excessive growth of the bones of especially the hands and face. Hansen though was undeterred, and suggested among other things, that if primitive men like this had lived side by side with modern man, they could amongst other things have been the inspiration for the stories about Viking berserker warriors, or perhaps even for the many Scandinavian stories about trolls.

Nevertheless, interest in Homo gardarensis started to wane rather quickly, and the specimens eventually ended up in the collections of the Panum Institute in Copenhagen, the University of Copenhagen’s department of medicine and anthropology, where they have lain almost forgotten ever since.
ALMOST forgotten that is, because if you take to the internet and start searching for information about the Gardar skull, you will find that a healthy little conspiracy theory seems to have grown up around it. Various writers insists that the skull can’t possibly be human, among other reasons because it is HUGE – this idea is to some extent based on Hansen’s original attempt to reconstruct the complete skull, as very few of these writers have seen the actual specimens, let alone handled them. And they also insists that the Panum Institute are keeping the skull hidden or simply refuses other scientists and researchers access to them, because if they truth of the skull were revealed, all of anthropology would be turned upside down, and all the scientists would sit back with egg on their face, and of course they want to avoid this at all costs. The Gardar skull might even be a specimen of a Bigfoot, alma, almasty – you name it.

Well, as so often before, there is quite a gap between the real world and what has been written about a controversial specimen. When I were to take part in the 2013 Weird Weekend in Devon, to talk about The Natural History of Trolls and The Cryptozoology of Greenland, I thought it would be nice to bring along some pictures of the Gardar skull – if at all possible.

It turned out to be so easy, it was almost laughable. Professor Niels Lynnerup, who is the curator of the Panum Institute collection of anthropological specimens, was more than forthcoming. Of course I could see the specimens and photograph them to my heart’s content. I just had to wear gloves, as sooner or later, as part of the institute’s ongoing research in the old Norsemen, the skull will be DNA-tested. So much for the myth of the Gardar skull being hidden and kept out of the reach of researchers.

When professor Lynnerup then took out a key and opened the glass-fronted cupboard where the skull parts were placed with a copy of the original Danish newspaper describing them, my first feeling was a slight disappointment. What that all? Where was the HUGE skull I had been reading about?
Anyway – professor Lynnerup showed me into an empty lab, took out a big sheet of paper, placed the skull and the jaw on it, gave me some gloves, and left me to it.

So much for the myth of secrecy.

First of all, the skull is not HUGE, it is well within the size limits of modern man, as the photograph shows, it actually looks somewhat small. The lens cap in the middle of the photographs has a diameter of 65 millimeters, so absolutely no giant here. This misunderstanding probably arose from the original attempt to reconstruct the whole skull. At the time archeologists had only rudimentary knowledge of how much bones could be warped, bent, twisted or compressed in the ground, so what is in fact an almost complete top part of the skull – it ends just above the eyebrows at front, and just above where the junction with the spine at the back – was seen as a only a partial top part, which gave a skull far to big in the final reconstruction.
The lower jaw does look strange, but it has been flattened in the ground as well, making it easy to reconstruct it as bigger than it actually was. And the large depth of the jawbone is, despite what some writers claims, easily explainable as the result of acromegaly, or even some sort of injury – a severely broken of crushed jaw - and there a some indications of that – which could also have been the cause of the excessive bone growth.

So much for the myth of the giant skull.

All in all, there is nothing mysterious or gigantic about the Gardar skull. It is not being kept locked away, out of the reach of researchers, and it is absolutely not evidence for the existence of Bigfoots, yetis or anything of the sort. So please stop writing about it.