The Witness of the Deluge


At last long there was solid proof that humans had died in a real Noachian Deluge. That such an event had occurred was widely taken on faith by Christians, and the belief that world's geology had been formed by the Flood was assented to by many naturalists, but in 1725 the Swiss naturalist Jacob Johann Scheuchzer believed that he had discovered a symbol so instantly recognizable that no one could doubt that the biblical catastrophe was real. It was what appeared to be a human skeleton, cleaved nearly in half but nonetheless preserved by the very floodwaters that had killed the sinner.

The skeleton had come from a limestone quarry in Oeningen, Germany. To Scheuchzer it has a distinctively human appearance. The remains primarily consisted of a backbone and a semicircular skull with two eyes in it, and the fact that the remains of an antediluvian human had been discovered was so astounding that Scheuchzer described it the following year and again in his 1731 work Physica Sacra. He called it Homo diluvii testis, commonly translated as "Man, a witness of the Deluge", and he described it thus;

It is certain that this [rock] contains the half, or nearly so, of the skeleton of a man; that the substance even of the bones, and, what is more, of the flesh and of parts still softer than the flesh, are there incorporated in the stone ; in a word it is one of the rarest relics which we have of that accursed race which was buried under the waters. The figure shows us the contour of the frontal bone, the orbits with the openings which give passage to the great nerves of the fifth pair. We see there the remains of the brain, of the sphenoidal bone, of the roots of the nose, a notable fragment of the maxillary bone, and some vestiges of the liver.

Christians were enthralled by the discovery, but Scheuchzer would only enjoy their admiration for a short time. He died in 1733 at which time the skeleton was given over to his son who in turn sold it to the Teyler Museum in the Netherlands in 1802. As other naturalists studied the bones, though, they were not so sure it was as valuable as Scheuchzer had claimed. The details of the skull and vertebrae certainly did not look like those of any human they had ever seen. The bones looked more akin to those of some sort of reptile. Indeed, by 1787 it was practically certain that the bones did not belong to a human, but it would be left to Europe's most acclaimed anatomist to bring the debate over the skeleton to a close.

The conquest of central Europe by Napoleon would be decisive in resolving the issue. By 1810 the French Empire had annexed northern Germany and Holland, and in 1811 the celebrated French anatomist Georges Cuvier (Napoleon's Minister of Education at the time) was dispatched to Amsterdam to review the education system in the newly-acquired region. Cuvier already knew what was in the Teyler museum, his expertise with paleontology made the "witness to the Deluge" familiar to him, and he sent word ahead that he would be dropping by to have a look at the fossil himself.

More than that, Cuvier wanted to further prepare the fossil, a task that had not even been undertaken by Scheuchzer. The relic was practically holy and no one had the courage to pick away at it to see if there were more bones waiting to be discovered. Cuvier did not have the same reverence for the fossil, and when he began to pick away at the block of stone he found the short arms and hands of an amphibian! (See image)

This was just as Cuvier had expected. He had suspected that the fossil was an enormous salamander when he first saw the illustration, and now his little preparatory experiment had confirmed his hunch. (Cuvier also performed a similar trick with a fossil mammal to prove that it had been a marsupial, but that is another story.) The bones were not the Biblical proof that Scheuchzer had believed them to be. Even so, the fossil salamander was later renamed in Scheuchzer's honor, and it is known as Andrias scheuchzeri today.

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John; As far as I am aware it is still in the Teyler museum. From what I understand it has scarcely been touched since Cuvier excavated the limbs. (There's a photo of it on page 7 of this PDF produced by the museum.)

As soon as I saw the image I thought 'That reminds me of the Frogamander'.

Are there any older depictions that make the human appearance less risible, or did the skull really look like it does in the illustration above?

Fairly close to what I thought, BathTub: when I saw it, I immediately thought of the weird lepospondyl Diplocaulus.

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 19 Nov 2009 #permalink

You are ignoring the obvious - clearly pre-deluge humans were amphibious.

They also had tails.

Uhm...just one question, what parts weren't exposed prior to Cuvier? I mean, the vertebrae of amphibians vary significantly from those of humans... How could any naturalist mistake an amphibian vertebra for that of a human? Are the vertebrae that dissimilar to modern amphibians?

I've seen this story in several places, but this is the first time I've heard substantial chunks of the skeleton were not visible to Scheuchzer. Makes his misidentification seem not quite so absurd.

I'll echo Jared: which parts, more precisely, were revealed only by Cuvier's preparation?

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 19 Nov 2009 #permalink

Jared and Andreas; It was just the skull and vertebrae that were visible at first. No one did more formal preparation because it was such an important object. Cuvier's prep work revealed the arms and legs.

As I mentioned in the post, however, by this time most anatomist suspected that the fossil was not a human. Cuvier (as far as I know) was simply the first to really reexamine the original fossil and more certainly pin down what it was. Even so, it still is a bit baffling how Scheuchzer could have made such a mistake.

That's my point: many people that have gone through the same comparative anatomy class I have learn to identify vertebrae to at least class by feel. We had to identify what we later found out was an alligator vertebra and a rabbit vertebra down to their respective families.

That class was a bitch...

You know, I lived in the Netherlands for two years but never heard of Teyler's Museum! Now I'll have to get there on my next trip over.

the original fossil is on display in Teylers Museum in Haarlem. It's a beautiful museum, you can see all kind of fossils from the classic 19th century localities in Germany, France, UK etc., a.o. Archaeopteryx