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Big Buried Secrets: Giant Skeletons and the Smithsonian

Big Buried Secrets: Giant Skeletons and the Smithsonian 1

The debate over whether The Smithsonian has hidden evidence of “giants” in American prehistory continues to be torn apart by proponents from both “believer” and “skeptic” camps. Yet sadly, there is a question underlying the debate that is far bigger than even the largest giant skeleton. 

The question has long been asked: have giant skeletons been discovered throughout the Americas, and if so, is the Smithsonian Institute in Washington actively seeking to cover up those discoveries?

Admittedly, while there is actually some legitimate historical information that may have to do with discoveries of this kind (which we will examine shortly), in modern times we would be hard pressed to explain why there are so few–if any–credible specimens that appear to depict humanoids of large enough proportions to qualify for being actual giants, let alone those which are kept from public view for clandestine reasons. The obvious skeptical assumption would be that this is simply because no such specimens exist. However, this lack of evidence, in the mind of the more conspiracy-minded among us, has more to do with a vast coverup than the actual non-existence of giants in ancient times.

A number of researchers have argued that evidence for this can be found within a minority of “credible” cases that exist mostly in nineteenth century newspaper articles. Herein, of course, lies a big part of the problem: obviously, while we cannot rule out as hoaxes every instance where a newspaper reported the discovery of large, seemingly human remains prior to the 1930s, we must acknowledge nonetheless that journalists took much greater liberties with the facts in those days. Newspaper hoaxes were actually very common in the nineteenth century, with renowned writers the likes of Mark Twain even admitting to the use of journalism hoaxes for politically-driven satire. If anything, even the “good” reports of anomalous remains that turn up in old newspaper accounts should be taken with more than just a grain of salt.

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This point was brought up in a recent blog by skeptical researcher Jason Colavito, who took a shot at tackling the mystery of giant skeleton conspiracies and the Smithsonian Institute by exposing what he sees as the faulty logic of the conspiracy argument:

The “reports”—from old newspapers—are assumed true [by conspiracy theorists], so the fact that no such remains exist (or ever existed) at the Smithsonian is now proof of a cover-up. The claim that the Smithsonian had the skeletons of giants, incidentally, does not appear in the literature of the nineteenth century, when these giant bones were allegedly consigned to the museum; presumably, the Biblical literalists of the day would have made as much of them as they did of the Cardiff Giant, and yet it was not so. In fact, as early as 1865 the Smithsonian published a document by Ducrotay de Blainville, following Cuvier, attributing “giant” humanoid bones to mastodons.

Colavito goes on to note that there “should be some record in the Smithsonian materials of these alleged bones,” particularly during a period in history like the mid-to-late nineteenth century, when belief in the existence of giants might have been taken for granted. “I find it interesting that I can track down no claim of missing giant bones from the Smithsonian,” Covalito concludes, “until the rise of the modern creationist and alternative history movements in the middle twentieth century, when suddenly Victorian yellow journalism became proof of biblical truths.”

Colavito is correct in asserting that there are no indications in the historic record where large “anomalous skeletons” have gone missing from the Smithsonian. However, as we shall soon see, this does not mean that such gigantic remains were never found at all.

In contrast, one commenter on Covalito’s post, Eric Johns, offered an example from 1911, where researchers named Pugh and Hart had found the remains of large, red haired humans at Sunset Cave close to Lovelock, Nevada. The remains found there were said to be between 6.5 and just over seven feet tall, and some of the remains were shipped to the Smithsonian Institute by L.L. Loud, an archaeologist with the University of California, one year later.”These notes are still on digital file at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology,” Johns shared, “listed under reference number 544, An Anthropological Expedition of 1913.”  But interestingly, Pugh and Hart, while releasing the majority of the remains to the Smithsonian, also managed to keep a number of the strange artifacts and bones they found, including several skulls, which Johns says remain today at the Humboldt Museum in Winnemucca, Nevada. The boxes obtained by the Smithsonian, however, cannot be accounted for so easily:

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[The University of California] seems to have misplaced the skeletons, yet the other material is still there and on display in their exhibits. The same can be said of the Smithsonian, who still use some of Loud’s artifacts for their Southwest exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. Again, no giant skeletons to be found in their exhibits or catalog. 

Responding to John’s comment, Colavito wrote:

If 6.5 feet is a “giant,” that makes my grandfather, at 6’6″, Goliath. While unusual for their era, these sizes are not unheard of for human beings and are therefore neither shocking nor supernatural.

The skeptic in me would agree with Covalito that, indeed, it is not impossible (or even all that unordinary) in modern times to find a person of similar stature to the “giants” discussed by Johns in his commentary. Maybe this wouldn’t necessarily constitute an “anomaly” to assume such persons existed in America several hundreds of years or more ago.

However, debating whether the size of these specimens fits the criteria for being “giants” or not is an exercise that misses the greater point entirely: that an independent museum managed to maintain record of the remains discovered at Sunset Cave, while the Smithsonian and University of California apparently did not. Had the folks on the receiving end of this odd shipment to the Smithsonian simply been exercising extreme incompetence, or was there some other reason for the “loss” of certain parts of the shipment? This case wouldn’t have to involve human remains of large stature in order call into question why the Smithsonian would misplace portions of the batch shipment, while maintaining others for display. In other words, the mystery has as much to do with the misplacement of a discovery as it does the claims of “giant” bodies being what were actually uncovered.

Also, most modern skeptics would likely look at the rather unimpressive estimated height of 6’6″ skeletons in the Pugh and Hart case, and use this as an argument against the existence of giants in American prehistory altogether. At very least, they might use it to bolster the assertion that conspiracy theorists, creationists, and the downright gullible simply exaggerate the details of “giant” discoveries, so as to cater better to the fantastic stories that such “researchers” would seek to promote.

Colavito is right to assert that a 6’6″ individual is “neither shocking nor supernatural.”  He is probably right again when he states that he could find no mention of missing giant bones in the nineteenth century, thus suggesting that the conspiracy assertions are a more recent phenomenon.

What cannot be denied, however, are the historical discoveries of giant skeletons much larger than those discovered at Sunset Cave in 1911. Records for these discoveries still exist today, and are available in the public record, along with detailed descriptions. But these accounts won’t be found in any questionable newspaper accounts from more than a century ago, or even in the hearsay and speculation of the finest alternative history buffs. Instead, what may be the very best evidence of curiously large skeletons from America’s past were published more than a century ago by the very target of the so-called conspiracies: The Smithsonian Institute.

In the Twelfth Annual Report from the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, published in 1894, Cyrus Thomas and Thomas Powell of the Bureau of Ethnology wrote of several discoveries where large, seemingly human skeletal remains were found. The first we’ll examine here was discovered in Roane County, Tennessee:

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“Underneath [a] layer of shells the earth was very dark and appeared to be mixed with vegetable mold to the depth of 1 foot. At the bottom of this, resting on the original surface of the ground, was a very large skeleton lying horizontally at full length. Although very soft, the bones were sufficiently distinct to allow of careful measurement before attempting to remove them. The length from the base of the skull to the bones of the toes was found to be 7 feet 3 inches. It is probable, therefore, that this individual when living was fully 7½ feet high.”

Often, such accounts end up being fabrications or portions of text that are taken grossly out of context. Hence, I decided to see if any scans of the original published report could be found online for download. Indeed, the entire Twelfth Annual Report from the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology can be found online at, with a PDF version here that can be viewed freely in its entirety. The relevant portion from the excerpt above can be found on page 362, and is pictured below:


Another instance occurs in the same report, this time at presumed Indian burial mounds at Dunlieth, Illinois:

“Near the original surface, 10 or 12 feet from the center, on the lower side, lying at full length on its back, was one of the largest skeletons discovered by the Bureau agents, the length as proved by actual measurement being between 7 and 8 feet. It was clearly traceable, but crumbled to pieces immediately after removal from the hard earth in which it was encased….”

Page 115 of the printed report features the relevant text:

skeleton II

Indeed, it seems that the Smithsonian at one time did discover and document what could only be called “giants,” during the same period that many of the American newspapers were reporting similar stories. Whether this bolsters the legitimacy of those reports may still be questionable; however, few would argue that trained scientists the likes of Powell and Thomas–despite the allegations of coverups and conspiracies–likely knew what they were talking about when they took these measurements, and reported on the existence of humans that, when alive, would easily have stood taller than seven feet.

Also, it should be noted that in the latter of the two cases, it states that the skeleton “crumbled to pieces” when attempts were made to remove portions of the body. Hence, the reason in this instance for why the Smithsonian would possess no remains in their record seems clear: they weren’t able to retrieve a skeleton at all, since the discovery was too fragile to remove from the site. In other words, while the Smithsonian has actually acknowledged finding such large skeletons, there may be legitimate reasons as to why no bones were ever recovered in some instances.

That isn’t to say that this scenario is always the case, however. Further complicating the mystery of missing giant bones is the following excerpt from an article I wrote several years ago, which included the inquiries of the late zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson, along with his frustrations with what appeared to include more allegations of evasive attitudes by the Smithsonian:

Sometime in the 1960s, Sanderson wrote about an odd letter he received regarding an engineer who, during World War II, had been stationed on the Aleutian island of Shemya. While building an airstrip, the bulldozing of a group of hills in the area led the engineer and his crew to unearth several sedimentary layers of human remains. They noted the extraordinary length of the crania and leg bones at the site, having apparently belonged to people of gigantic proportions. The skulls were said to have measured up to 24 inches from base to crown, far greater than the length of an average human skull. Also of interest was that each was said to have been trepanned, the strange process of drilling or cutting a hole and removing a top center portion of the skull, thought by some ancient cultures to enable a variety of alleged “benefits”, including psychicabilities, etc. Sanderson actively began to search for more proof of this incident, and later was able to contact another member of the unit who he said confirmed the bizarre story. By all accounts, the remains were said to have been gathered by the Smithsonian Institution, but no record of where they were taken was ever issued. Sanderson seemed convinced that the institute did indeed retrieve them however, going so far as to ask ‘is it that these people cannot face rewriting all the textbooks?’ “

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Of course, when it comes to good science, few would argue the difference between hard evidence, and a really good story. The 1894 Bureau of Ethnology report provides us with historical documentation by agents with the Smithsonian for the discovery of large, anomalous bones that appeared to be human, and on at least two instances. Stories like that of Sanderson and the Sunset Cave discovery of 1911 suggest the discovery, as well as the potential mishandling, of otherwise precious bits of information about ancient America. And yet, none of these “stories,” whether told by independent researchers, or agents like Dr. Cyrus Thomas, really provide us with a complete specimen: if one good, complete giant skeleton were known to exist in its entirety, which scientists today could openly study and discuss with the public, there would be little need for discussion of a conspiracy.

Of course, the knowledge that such skeletons may indeed have been found at times, paired with the Smithsonian’s apparent inability to keep very good records about their discovery, no doubt helps to fuel the conspiratorial speculation. With all the unknown quantities present here (and whether they are largely fact, or merely fiction), at times it does become difficult to know whether the entire truth is really being told.

Regardless, do such discoveries of giant bones that are known to have existed, as the 1894 report seems to indicate, further lend to the claims of the conspiracy theorists? Or do they merely point to a deeper level of the mystery that has yet to be explored… and something which may contain new keys to life in ancient America?



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