One question I get asked a lot when I show fossils to people is “Is it real or fake?” It is a question that always irks me because it seems very few people understand that this is an entirely wrong question.
People like to categorize things into binary bins. Is it black or white? Republican or Democrat? Is it raining or not? Do you accept science or religion? Of course, none of these questions make any sense as an either/or question. Just like real or fake, all of these questions miss the fact that there is more to it than one or the other. All of them can only be correctly answered if one is cognizant of the other variations. So today, I am going to introduce to you a more nuanced view of whether or not the fossils you see in museums are real or not.
Real fossils need little explanation. They are the actual fossil material. Whether or not it is actual bone or shell being preserved, a bone that has been replaced with minerals, a natural mold, or other some such style of preservation, they are real.
Real in this case does not mean it is remains of the actual organism, although it can be. Bone, shell, leaves, and other tissues can be preserved indefinitely under the right conditions. Usually however, they are replaced with minerals or remain only as impressions in the sediment. In any case, these are all real fossils. They are the original fossil found, dug up, and brought back to the institution or person to whom it belongs.
Replicas are casts or molds made from the actual fossil. They are made to look as close as possible to the original fossil. These are made so that the original can be protected while the copy is shown to many more people than could see the original. Use of replicas allows copies to be put in the hands of many people all over the world. In many instances, the original is too fragile or heavy to safely transport.
The important point about replicas is that they are not fakes. They are duplicates of a real fossil. In some cases, they can be even better than the real thing. After decades of handling, the original fossils can get worn or broken, with details once present no longer visible.
Fakes, on the other hand, represent something that is not only not real, but never existed. Many fakes are designed to deceive and so are often called forgeries. The difference between what many people think of as forgeries and what we are talking about here is that forgeries are usually designed to trick people into thinking they are the real thing. A replica, if presented as the real thing, would be considered a forgery. However, in paleontology, most things described as forgeries are in reality fakes designed to deceive people into thinking a fiction is real. Fakes are never acceptable in museums unless explicitly labeled to indicate that they are fantasies. The Piltdown Man is an example of a fake. It was made with the express purpose of making people think it was real, when in fact it was created from bits of human and animal bones that were altered to make them look like they belonged to the same primitive human.
Archaeoraptor was another fake. This one adds a wrinkle in the topic though. Archaeoraptor was made by gluing pieces of different fossils together. The individual pieces were real, but the resulting chimera was a fake.
As Archaeoraptor shows, fakes don’t have to be unreal to be fictional. There are lots of fakes that are real fossils put together in intentionally misleading ways. In the case of Archaeoraptor, they were simply trying to make the fossils more spectacular so they could sell them for a higher price. Others are done to discredit scientists or simply as pranks for fun.
Of course, there are plenty of fakes that are made up out of whole cloth. Numerous “human” footprints found with dinosaur tracks are nothing more than carvings designed to trick gullible people. I have personally seen several in which the tool markings were clearly visible. The most famous picture of the Loch Ness Monster, known as the surgeon’s photo, was a fake.
So remember, when you are going to a museum or looking at fossils from a paleontologist, you may be looking at real fossils or replicas. But you will never be looking at fakes. They may not be the original fossils, but they are not trying to mislead you or lie to you, which is what fakes are trying to do. If you really want to see fakes, try here or here. And please, don’t insult your local paleontologist by saying they are showing you fakes when all they are doing is showing you replicas of real fossils that you might otherwise never be able to see.