Aug 31, 2019 I Micah Hanks

Oregon’s Stone Ape Heads: An Archaeological Mystery, Part One

Anthropological research in the nineteenth century was rife with controversies. In those early days of scientific inquiry, the subfield of archaeology was still a flower that had yet to fully bloom, and conjectures were constantly being raised about the settlement of the New World, and more broadly, the origins of humankind in ancient times.

There were famous hoaxes during this period too, with such notable affairs as the Cardiff “giant,” an alleged 10-foot-tall petrified man unearthed during a well-digging operation in Cardiff, New York, in 1869. The discovery turned out to be the work of an atheist practical joker named George Hull, inspired by a recent debate over Biblical passages that referred to giants.

Amidst such sensations of the antiquarian age, there were more subtle discoveries made too, and by those with a far less sensational mindset. In particular, one innocuous set of artifacts found along the John Day River in Oregon would end up raising questions not only about who could have made them, but more importantly, why they appeared to resemble non-native creatures that would have been unknown to the indigenous peoples of North America in ancient times.

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The John Day River, at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Public Domain).

To begin the story closer to its end, it was 1894, and James Terry had just decided to leave his position as curator of the Anthropological Department of the American Museum of Natural History. He had served the position for just three years, beginning in 1891, but felt it was time to depart after a dispute that arose between him and then director of the Museum, Morris K. Jesup (not to be confused with a later Morris K. Jessup who had also been involved with archaeological research, but was famous for writing about UFOs and the alleged Philadelphia Experiment).

Apart from his brief stint as a curator at one of America’s most prestigious museums, James Terry had led an interesting life. Born in Terryville, Connecticut, James was the great-grandson of the renowned clockmaker Eli Terry, after whom the town is named. He worked for a time with the family business, becoming an executive at the Eagle Lock Company, an offshoot from the clockmaking business that his father had formed, and eventually became secretary and treasurer for the company after his father’s resignation.

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James Terry

Despite having a successful career with the company, James had developed a passion for archaeology, and eventually made the bold decision to strike out on his own to pursue his scientific interests. Over the course of the next 25 years, Terry would travel the country in search of answers about its prehistoric past. In his Men of Mark in Connecticut: Ideals of American Life Told in Biographies and Autobiographies of Eminent Living Americans, Colonel N.G. Osborn, editor in chief of the New Haven Journal-Courier, penned a short biography for Terry, writing that “In his indefatigable researches for prehistoric man, Mr. Terry has visited every one of the forty-five states and territories twice, and most of them many times, and has coursed down all the rivers of note within the boundaries of the states.”

Terry was often accompanied by his wife and traveling companion, Elmira, who became notable for being the first female tourist to visit the state of Alaska in 1882. It was also during this time that James began working with the American Museum of Natural History. Colonel Osborn gives us the following account of Terry’s earliest dealings with the museum: “In 1879 he took his entire collection and library to [the American Museum of Natural History] and entered upon archaeologic and ethnologic research with a zeal second to none.”

Terry’s arrival marked an important time in the history of the American Museum, for it was during this period that its new President, Morris Jesup, was proactively arranging scientific expeditions to all parts of the globe. These resulted in several notable achievements, which included the exploration of unmapped parts of Eurasia and Africa, and even the discovery of the North Pole.

In the midst of this “Golden Age” of discovery under Jesup, Terry began to make several trips to the Pacific Coast, and as Osborn notes, “into the mountains and plains of that section; [Terry] was paddled dawn the Columbia River twice by the Indians for upwards of six hundred miles each time; [he] delved into those mysterious remains contained in the rubble rock of the Lewis fork of the Columbia River which baffle unraveling.”

Of these discoveries which Terry made during his time in the Northwest, much could be said. This, however, brings us to the curious matter at hand, which involves a short publication Terry authored in 1891, titled Sculptured anthropoid ape heads found in or near the valley of the John Day river, a tributary of the Columbia river, Oregon. As the name suggests, Terry’s monograph presents a brief examination of three artifacts recovered along a tributary of the Columbia River, which bore a curious likeness to the known gorilla species of that time (the mountain gorilla, for instance, would not be discovered until October 1902. Other varieties had been known of since 1847, however, following a description provided by Thomas Savage based on remains of a specimen now kept at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology).

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One of the sculptured pieces featured in Terry's 1891 monograph (public domain).

Below, a general description of the artifacts in question is given in Terry’s own words:

“These three specimens were found in or near the valley of the John Day River, a tributary of the Columbia. They would be classed by archaeologists as "surface finds," a classification that would cover a large proportion of the archaic remains of the valley, from the fact that the shifting sand dunes, which were largely utilized for burial purposes, are continually bringing them to the surface and exposing them. Each specimen is clearly a complete object in itself, never having formed a part of any larger sculpture from which it might have been detached or broken. They were carved from a dark, pumiceous, basaltic rock, abundance of which is found in the valley.”

As Terry notes of one of the specimens, “The broad, flat nose, with supporting cheeks, and the contractions or corrugations of the forehead, are characteristics of the ape family which will attract the attention of specialists in this branch of zoology, a branch with which the writer lays no claim to familiarity.”

The notion that these curious stone faces might resemble apes or gorillas is problematic, and for rather obvious reasons. Science does not recognize any species of apes indigenous to Northwestern America, ad as Terry himself admitted, his area of expertise had not been in the field of zoology. While the possibility that the carvings may depict some other kind of animal (such as a bear) remains on the table, a number of academics since Terry’s time have asked whether the carvings might not represent some kind of animal unrecognized by science, whether of the extinct variety, or perhaps one that was extant until more recent times. This possibility would seem remote indeed, if not for the fact that the area where the sculptures were located already hosts an existing mythology of large creatures, which are often described as apelike in appearance according to various traditional legends of the Pacific Northwest. 

In the second part of this post, we will look at the opinions of other scientists who weighed in on the similarity these stone carvings share with gorillas and other primates, as well as what Terry’s final determination about them had been; could the "apelike" appearance of these archaeological specimens be the result simple misinterpretation, or could they point to a deeper archaeological mystery? 

Image (top) Credit: Finetooth/Wikimedia Commons.

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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