Faking it in Frankfurt

When Frankfurt University said last month that anthropologist Reiner Protsch von Zieten had engaged in repeated scientific fraud for much of the past 30 years, the question naturally arose of how on earth he'd gotten away with it for so long.

Mar 14, 2005
Stephen Pincock
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When Frankfurt University said last month that anthropologist Reiner Protsch von Zieten had engaged in repeated scientific fraud for much of the past 30 years, the question naturally arose of how on earth he'd gotten away with it for so long. Protsch had deliberately misdated human fossil remains, plagiarized the work of others, and perpetrated various other falsehoods, a university commission found. He lacked the skills necessary to accurately carbon date fossil remains, but that didn't stop him from making such datings on numerous occasions and passing them off as genuine to other scientists.

His bogus data had not-insignificant repercussions in the field. "Anthropology is going to have to completely revise its picture of modern man between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago," Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist who helped expose the fraud, told reporters last month. "Professor Protsch's work appeared to prove that anatomically modern humans and Nean-derthals had co-existed, and perhaps even had children together. This now appears to be rubbish."

The dating fraud came to light when Terberger and his colleague Martin Street tried to correlate Protsch's dating of some remains with their own archeological findings. The data didn't make sense, so they sent samples to a laboratory in Oxford, England for confirmation – only datings were tens of thousands of years wrong. Suddenly, "People started coming out of the woodwork, saying we always knew there was something wrong there," Street says.

So why hadn't someone put a stop to it earlier? The commission tried to address this question and mostly blamed the university for lacking the appropriate means of investigating and dealing with scientific misconduct. On the other hand, they added, Protsch's colleagues and the university management probably underestimated the extent and consequences of his actions. The university's president, Rudolf Steinberg, put it well: "A lot of people looked the other way," he told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Going beyond the university's laxness, there are perhaps things about fossil-based science that makes it harder to spot frauds. "You're dealing with little fragments that potentially have great significance," says Julian Thomas, an archaeologist from the University of Manchester and vice president of the UK's Royal Anthropological Institute. "Which makes it very difficult to duplicate results, or to prove them false."

"Historical science will always have a one-off element to it," says Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge University. "That uniqueness will always be a problem."

Certainly Terberger and Street initially found it hard to get their hands on the bone fragments that would allow them to replicate Protsch's dating. Universities and museums where the bones were stored were loath to have chunks of their precious fragments removed for testing – until the investigators explained that with modern methods, they'd need less than a gram to do the dating.

Still, Terberger and Street were surprised that no one had already done that confirmatory testing. "It is really difficult to understand how it took so long to come out," Terberger says. "We expected that the few fossils available would have been well studied and reliable. We were surprised that there was nothing done in this case. "

Perhaps the field missed warning signals because Protsch's findings matched well with existing theories about human history. "It may be the case that the community believed in these results readily because they fitted into an expected picture," Terberger suggests.

It wouldn't be the first time such a thing has happened. The infamous Piltdown Man, "unearthed" in 1912 and heralded for 40 years as the missing link was only revealed as a fake in 1953. "One of the reasons that Piltdown man was so successful was that it fitted people's expectations of what they thought early humans would look like," says Foley.