Aaron Elkins: Uneasy Relations

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Aaron Elkins Uneasy Relations
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Uneasy Relations

Aaron Elkins



By Mike Fender

Affiliated Press

The annual conference of the International Paleoanthropological Society isn’t usually associated with pulse-pounding levels of excitement, other than in some of the more remote halls of academe, but next month’s meeting in Gibraltar promises something different.

Gideon Oliver, a well-regarded professor of physical anthropology at the University of Washington’s Port Angeles campus, and the author of Bones to Pick, an examination of hoaxes, dead ends, and frauds in archaeology and anthropology, is set to reveal his most stunning expose yet. The occasion will be a public lecture during the twenty-third annual conference of the august group, which is meeting in Gibraltar this year to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the discovery there of the celebrated prehistoric double burial known as the First Family, consisting of a mother and young son (Gibraltar Woman and Gibraltar Boy) in a close embrace.

Oliver’s publisher, Lester Rizzo (Javelin Press), describes Oliver’s bombshell as “the most sensational expose of a scientific scam in history. ” Oliver himself, known in forensic circles as the Skeleton Detective, is slightly more circumspect. “Oh, I wouldn’t say it’s the most sensational one in history,” he said during a recent telephone interview, “but it’s right up there.”

“More sensational than Piltdown Man?” he was asked by this reporter.

“Oh, no comparison. It’ll leave Piltdown in the dust,” he promptly replied. “Piltdown was nothing compared to this.”

When asked for a hint, the scientist declined. “Nosirreebob, I’m not letting the cat out of the bag ahead of time on this one. It’s too big. There’s too much at stake. My publisher doesn’t know what it is, my colleagues don’t know what it is, even my wife doesn’t know what it is.”

Rizzo admits that, indeed, he hasn’t been let in on the details. “But I know Dr. Oliver and I can promise you this,” he says with relish. “It’s going to stand the scientific world on its ear.”

“Oh, jeez,” Gideon said, slapping his copy of the Peninsula Daily News down suddenly enough to make a fellow diner, dozing over his English muffin and coffee two tables away, sit up with a jerk. “Look at this, will you, Julie?” He tapped the headline with his finger. “Sheesh.”

His wife, dressed in the trim, tan park ranger uniform in which she would be reporting to work in twenty minutes, paused in buttering a cinnamon-raisin bagel to read the article. Then she read it again.

“Nice going, prof,” she said, only barely managing to keep a straight face. “Did you really say that? ‘It’ll leave Piltdown in the dust’? Talk about over the top.”

The Piltdown hoax was the most celebrated deception in the history of anthropology, the sham discovery of the “missing link,” decisively proven only after forty years of widespread acceptance to be a combination of fossil human skull bones and the jaw of an orangutan. Even now, anthropologists found it painful to joke about, Gideon among them.

“No, of course I didn’t say that,” he said petulantly, “and this isn’t funny. Well, okay, maybe I did say it, but I was kidding. I mean, this reporter calls – Lester told me to expect it; he set it up – and the first thing out of his mouth, the reporter’s mouth, is: “Dr. Oliver, would you agree that this is really going to be the most sensational scientific expose in history?” I thought he was kidding. So I said… whatever the heck it says I said. It was a joke. Am I the kind of person who would go around saying things like ‘nosirreebob’ under conditions of anything but extreme stress or ill-considered jocularity?”

“Uh-huh,” Julie said. “And how was he supposed to know it was a joke? From the twinkle in your eye? It was a phone conversation.”

“From my tone. From my manner. It should have been obvious. It was obvious. Besides, that was just the start. We talked for another ten minutes. I told him in all seriousness that Lester had a tendency to exaggerate, and that it was true that while I was down there at the conference I might or might not do a little research on the Atlantis myth for the next edition of Bones to Pick, but that I had no earth-shattering expose in mind, and the lecture I’d be giving was actually about something else altogether.”

Julie scanned the article again. “He seems to have left that part out.”

“He left it out, all right. I was sandbagged. This is Lester’s doing, Julie. As far as he’s concerned, any publicity is good publicity. He thinks it’ll sell a few more copies of the new edition, even though it won’t be out for eight months. I haven’t even finished the damn thing.”

Julie put down her muffin and the knife. “Gideon, sweetheart, don’t take this as a criticism, but maybe you ought to think twice about joking with reporters? Remember that story that showed up everywhere that had you predicting that in ten thousand years human beings would be four feet tall? Or was it three feet?”

“It was four feet,” he grumbled, “and ten million years, but you know that wasn’t what I really said. I said we could be four feet tall – or seven feet tall, or extinct, for that matter. I was just making the point that you can’t take a teleological approach to evolution, that just because we’ve been getting taller, that doesn’t mean we’re going to continue to get taller. Selective forces in the environment change, and we, or any other organisms, respond to those forces, not to some long-range design or some supposed future condition. If we – oh, heck, you know all that. Anyway, the woman I talked to had no sense of humor at all.” He shook his head in frustration. “Everything I say, these people take literally.”

“Which is my point.”

Gideon shrugged and nodded. “You’re right,” he said, returning with only slightly diminished appetite to his cream cheese-chives-and-egg bagel, a specialty of the Port Angeles Olympic Bagel Company, where they breakfasted once or twice a week. “But this guy was an Associated Press reporter!” he suddenly blurted. “You’d think I could trust him!”

“Look again,” Julie said, turning the paper around so he could read the byline.

“ ‘Mike Fender,’ ” Gideon read aloud. “ ‘Affiliated Press.’ ” He looked up. “What the heck is Affiliated Press?”

“I’m not sure,” Julie said, “but on a guess, I’d say it’s the agency that supplies the checkout magazines with all those snazzy news items: ‘Monkey Woman Gives Birth to Twin Lobsters’, ‘Talking Gorilla With I.Q. of 250 Seeks “Significant Relationship” with “Large” Woman’. …”

“ ‘Noted Anthropologist Stands Scientific World on Its Head,’ ” Gideon said, smiling at last. “Oh, boy, I’m going to take a lot of flak about this. I guess I’d just better resign myself.”

“I’m afraid so. So this talk you’ll be giving in Gibraltar – it’s open to the public? Not part of the society meetings?”

“Right. I’m not giving a paper at the meetings. But apparently there’s a very active cultural association down there, and they hold these monthly noontime Heritage Lectures on everything under the sun. So they’ve asked me if I’d be willing to do the June one; something that would be interesting to the general public.”

“Why you, do you think?”

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