‘This is the story of one curious branch of our family tree, an early form of Homo sapiens who, it was thought, lived right here in the Garden State.”
Yet to be more accurate, former New Jersey Historical Commission director Marc Mappen just should have said Trenton to start his article “Trenton Man” — found in his 1992 book Jerseyana.
The following tells why.
The time is the mid-1800s, and the concept of prehistoric men and women was generating scientific interest in both Europe and the United States.
That includes Charles Conrad Abbot, a Trenton-born physician turned archaeologist then living on a farm on the edge of the marshlands between Trenton and Bordentown.
The site happened to be on what was later called one of the largest Native American settlements on the East Coast and has yielded numerous archaeologically significant artifacts — now in the collections of the New Jersey State Museum, Princeton University, and Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.
Some of Abbott’s deep soil finds included “stone implements much cruder and more weathered than the graceful Indian arrowheads, spear points, and the other tools he was accustomed finding closer to the surface.”
Abbott began to connect the older implements with the age of the soil and what he knew about glaciers, soil ages, and the latest European prehistoric studies.
In order to test some theories he was developing, Abbott sent stone tool examples to the Society of Anthropology in Paris, where they were compared to European Stone Age implements.
The result was a conclusion that there was formerly some type of bridge that allowed the same race of primitive humans to inhabit both the Old World and the New.
That was followed by the question, “Who were these primitive people who hadn’t progressed enough to develop a bow and arrow and became extinct in Europe?”
Abbott furthermore theorized that invading natives pushed the ancient people from New Jersey into colder regions, where they became Eskimos.
As Mappen notes, “Abbott published his findings and theories in several books, notably his 1881 ‘Primitive Industry’ and attracted some strong support. His Trenton farm was visited by the most eminent geologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists of Europe and America, and the discovery of glacial humans in the Delaware Valley was discussed at international symposiums.”
Abbott was offered positions at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, where he became its archaeology curator. Meanwhile his stone implements were exhibited at the Peabody Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Museum, and others.
At the same time, writes Mappen, “other investigators began to dig in the area, and some supporting evidence was found, such as the fossil of an extinct animal under the streets of Trenton.”
But there were also skeptics “mainly centered at the Smithsonian Institution, who thought that Abbott was completely wrong. These critics argued that humans had arrived in North America a mere two thousand years ago, long after the glaciers.” And Abbott was accused of sloppy archaeology.
Mappen continues as follows: “For years, this was one of the hottest debates in American archaeology and geology. By the time of Abbott’s death in 1919, however, the Smithsonian view had prevailed. In the mid-1930s excavations at (Abbott’s farm) by a young woman archaeologist form the New Jersey State Museum, Dr. Dorothy Cross, seemed to settle the issue once and for all.
“Dr. Cross confirmed that the earliest inhabitants of the farm site were Delaware Indians from the Middle Woodland period, which is now dated form 500 B.C. to A.D. 500. The Trenton gravel implements found by Abbott were, in fact, merely quarry blanks dating from that recent period.
“And so the matter rested. The story of Trenton Man was a faint embarrassment to the city of Trenton and to the supporters of Abbott. No doubt local wags made jokes to the effect that the only specimens of primitive human life to be found in the city were in state government.
“But wait — the story takes another turn. In 1926 archaeologists discovered a group of fossilized bison in New Mexico; spear points found together with these remains indicated that these bison had been killed by human hunters around 12,000 years ago. This date was subsequently confirmed by the discovery of similar spear points in other New World locations and pushed back still further by the carbon-14 dating of archaeological sites.
“Scientists now believe that Indians first arrived in North America over a land bridge from Siberia something like 15,000 to 25,000 thousand years ago while the glaciers were still there. These Indians spread over North and South America, and later separated into sub-groups such as the Delawares of New Jersey and the Eskimos of the Arctic.
“So there were humans in New Jersey just about when Abbott thought there were, even though they were not Eskimos and not a branch of European Paleolithic culture, and even though they had nothing to do with the tools he discovered.”
As the archaeology community eventually concluded, “Abbott was right, but for the wrong reasons.”