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Fossil Friday: The Supposed Oldest Cheetah Was Yet Another Fraud

Photo: Forged fossil cheetah skull, Wang 2013, fair use.

In 2008 two scientists from the Shanghai Science Museum and the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen described a new mammalian species, Acinonyx kurteni, from a supposedly 2.2-2.5 million year old skull, as the oldest known fossil cheetah (Christiansen & Mazák 2009). This discovery allegedly also proved an Old World origin for these feline carnivores (Carroll 2008), contrary to earlier beliefs that placed the origin in the New World together with the American cougar.

Even before the publication, the Chinese scientists Deng Tao and Qiu Zhanxiang had revealed the skull to be a crude forgery (Stone 2010, Wang 2013) and said that just from photos of the specimen one could easily recognize that parts of the skull had been concocted from plaster. The journal PNAS, which happens to be one of the top ten high-impact journals in science, was informed in advance but dismissed the protest and published the paper anyway. The responsible editor was nobody less than famous Darwinist Francisco Ayala (who died this year). Only one year after the original describers had still defended their work in the prestigious journal Science (Mazák & Christiansen 2011), the lead author finally retracted the paper in 2012 with the lukewarm explanation that it was based on “a composite specimen from the late Miocene laterite and not from the early Pleistocene loess” (Mazák 2012, Anonymous 2012).

Among the Worst

This example certainly ranks among the worst kinds of fraudulent fossils, as it received widespread global media attention just like the “Piltdown bird,” Archaeoraptor. Contrary to the claims of some science popularizers and the Darwinist thought police, forged fossils from countries like China and Russia do indeed represent a significant problem (Stone 2010, Wang 2013) and have repeatedly led to junk science published in peer-reviewed journals. This case also demonstrates that such frauds can be driven by the desire to present and support evolutionary scenarios, which may also suppress any doubts among reviewers and editors as the shocking example of Ayala shows.