O.C. Marsh and the Nevada Giant

The probable role of fossils in giving rise to myths and legends has been recognized since the 19th century, but it has only been recently that the connection between giant bones & footprints and mythology has been appreciated as a subject worthy of detailed study (see The First Fossil Hunters, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, and American Monster). It should be kept in mind, however, that there are modern legends just as there are ancient ones, and even during the age of major discoveries some fossils still seemed to throw support that the ancient world was inhabited by giants and monsters.

In the summer of 1882 news coming out of Carson City, Nevada proclaimed that the footprints of a giant human had been discovered in the quarry of a prison in that area. Many tracks of various animals had been discovered and subsequently studied by H. W. Harkness of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, but a few tracks didn't quite fit with the rest of the ancient assemblage. Somewhat half-moon shaped impressions about 18-inches long by 8-inches wide, the tracks were interpreted by Harkness as being those of giant humans, the lack of detail in the prints meaning that they were possibly wearing sandals (!).


The foot of a giant sloth and a diagram of a Carson City "giant" print compared. From Marsh 1883.

Harkness' claims soon reached the attention of Joseph LeConte and O.C. Marsh, and both published alternate explanations of the tracks in 1882. (It should be noted that other researchers wrote about these tracks, as well, although getting a hold of their papers has been something of a challenge.) Both felt that the tracks were most likely those of a giant sloth. According to Marsh, the tracks were more consistent with those that would be made by a giant sloth (i.e. Mylodon), some of the hindfoot tracks containing impressions made by the front feet.

Interestingly enough, E.D. Cope (Marsh's rival) included a note on the tracks in an editorial column of the American Naturalist in January of 1883. Like some of the other paleontologists interested in the tracks (including Marsh when he first proposed the giant sloth hypothesis) Cope had not seen the tracks in person, but he was clearly impressed enough by what he had seen to propose that they represented the creature from which "existing man" sprung;

The discovery that the tracks of several species of Pliocene Mammalia in the argillaceous sandstones of the quarry of the Nevada State Prison at Carson, are accompanied by those of a biped resembling man, is a further confirmation of [the contemporaneous existence of humans with ancient mammals in North America.]. The tracks are clearly those of a biped, and are not those of a member of the Simiidae, but must be referred to the Hominidae. Whether they belong to a species of the genus Homo or not, cannot be ascertained from the tracks alone, but can be determined on the discvoery of the bones and teeth. In any case the animal was probably the ancestor of existing man, and was a contemporary of the Elephas primigenius and a species of Equus.


A section of a quarry map showing the "human" footprints. From Cope 1883.

Cope's enthusiasm aside, it seems that many (if not most) paleontologists accepted the giant sloth explanation for the tracks, although the "giant" interpretation did not seem to finally disappear until Chester Stock did further analysis of the tracks and giant sloth foot structure in 1912 and 1920. By this time whatever doubts were held in the scientific community about the origins of the track could effectively be laid to rest, the event falling into obscurity as scientific reality overtook the new mythology.

(Marsh's pronouncement on the Nevada tracks was not the first time he had tried his hand at myth-busting. Earlier in his career he correctly showed the "Cardiff Giant" to be a fraud, the gypsum sculpture being a creation of George Hull to both make fun of and make money off of fundamentalist Christians. According to paleontological lore, Marsh also hit it big in the late 1860's when he got word of "human" remains being discovered in a well in Antelope Junction, Nebraska. The bones turned out to be from Cenozoic mammals, including a number of small horses that only marked the beginning of the vast collection of fossil equids Marsh would soon accumulate.)

The case of the Carson City tracks is interesting because the origin of the giant interpretation differs from similar claims made today. I don't know very much about Harkness (I will update things should I find anything pertinent) but he was called in as an expert and his interpretation carried some scientific weight. The tracks were not sculpted by creationists or determined to be those of a giant by easily-impressed townspeople, and a quick review of the prints by other scientists threw out the possibility they were made by a giant.

If the few popular accounts of these events are true, however, some people still believed that the tracks were made by a giant and refused to accept the findings of the scientists. This would be indicative of one of the persistent problems of communicating science to the public, namely that wild claims stick in the mind of the public but the refutation of such claims is often ignored or unheard (see The Demon-Haunted World for how this applies to crop circles and UFOs). Ultimately the events might be forgotten (as in this case), but the long life of dispelled myths is a continuing problem when extraordinary claims are given full attention and conflicting evidence is not.


Cope, E.D. (1883) "The Nevada Biped Tracks." American Naturalist, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp.69-71

LeConte, J. (1883) "Carson Footprints." Nature, Vol. 28, pp. 101-101

Marsh, O.C. (1883) "On the supposed human foot-prints recently found in Nevada." American Journal of Science, Series 3, Vol. 26, pp. 139-140.


More like this

Excellent account of the real identity of the supposedly human tracks in Nevada!

This and many other fossil animal track sites associated with legends, from ancient Greece and Rome to today, were discussed in an illustrated article in Ichnos co-authored in 2001 by the late fossil footprint expert William Sarjeant and Adrienne Mayor. "The Folklore of Footprints in Stone: From Classical Antiquity to the Present."

A pdf of their article can be downloaded here:


By Adrienne Mayor (not verified) on 30 May 2008 #permalink

Very interesting article...
I just wonder with this info....
I want to read more about this topic...
The images are simply super..
Keep it up...


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