A tongue-in-cheek “letter,” purportedly sent by the Paleoanthropology Division of the Smithsonian Institute in response to the submission of a prehistoric hominid skull, has been entertaining netizens since 1994:
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078
Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute, labeled “211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post. Hominid skull.” We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents “conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago.” Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be the “Malibu Barbie”. It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to it’s modern origin:
1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone. 2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-hominids. 3. The dentition pattern evident on the “skull” is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the “ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams” you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that:
- A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on.
- B. Clams don’t have teeth.
It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in it’s normal operation, and partly due to carbon dating’s notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results. Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation’s Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name “Australopithecus spiff-arino.” Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn’t really sound like it might be Latin.
However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation’s capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it. We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the “trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix” that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.
Yours in Science,
A story this good should be true. But it’s not.
This piece is naught but a charming bit of humorous fiction, as none of the details checks out.
Harvey Rowe of the Smithsonian doesn’t exist. (Which is indeed our loss. What a talent for gentle sarcasm!) Moreover, the Smithsonian doesn’t have an antiquities department. If you call up and ask to speak to the mythical Harvey Rowe, the operator will put you through either to Anthropology or the Smithsonian’s public affairs officer. Either way, you’ll be greeted with “There’s nobody here by that name.” You won’t be the first such caller, either. Far from it, the Smithsonian is heartily sick of being asked about Harvey Rowe.
There’s also no hopeful backyard paleontologist busily excavating the land around his clothesline and implacably sending specimen after bogus specimen off to the Smithsonian. That too is fabrication.
There is a Harvey Rowe, but not of the Smithsonian. In the spring of 1994, while a graduate student at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, Harvey Rowe wrote what has become known as the “Smithsonian Barbie” letter. In a fit of creativity, he tossed off this imagined response to a backyard digger, then shared his writing effort with a small circle of friends. One of those friends sent the piece to others, and thus Smithsonian Barbie entered into the world of e-lore.