In the late 1960s American detective author Erle Stanley Gardner stood before a collection of over 30,000 figurines. He had heard about this collection many years ago and felt a deep sense of astonishment when seeing it in person at this modest house in the small rural town of Acámbaro in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. Gardner, the writer who came up with great titles like The Case of the Black Cat and Granny Get Your Gun, and who created such memorable characters as Perry Mason, Della Street and Lester Leith had a real life mystery in front of him. The figurines were fantastic and seemingly out of place. Many of them featured people of various races and some 10 per cent of them looked like our modern depictions of dinosaurs. These dinosaurs were sometimes accompanied by humans; some of the figures had dinosaurs wrestling with people or men even riding dinosaurs. Of course, dinosaur representations in ancient art were unheard of because humans did not coexist with these prehistoric creatures. The creator of Perry Mason, who was considered to be the best-selling American author at the time of his death, was asked to examine the collection by a friend, the Harvard-educated anthropologist Charles Hapgood, who was one of the many voices chiming in on this controversy at the time. Hapgood knew that Gardner’s love of sleuthing did not just apply to fiction writing and Gardner’s many years as a trial attorney would be helpful in solving the mystery of these anomalous figurines.
Over the years the massive collection has been proclaimed to be an elaborate hoax by people in the more traditional fields of science and has been shunned by most mainstream archaeologists. While many have thought that the whole discussion was put to rest years ago, the Acámbaro figures have begun to generate interest again among fringe scientists, Christian “young earth” proponents, believers in alternative universe theories and those who follow the “New Chronology” writings of Russian Anatoly Fomenko which claim that written history itself has been adjusted over time to fit the agendas of the elites. Some investigators in more traditional scientific fields have also been recently drawn to these figures once again, as the controversy has become debated online. The figures, which for many years have been literally and figuratively “crated up” and not been available for examination are now on display for all to see at the Waldemar Julsrud Museum in Acámbaro, Guanajuato.
The story of the Acámbaro figurines begins in 1945. A German merchant named Waldemar Julsrud was riding his horse along the edges of a mountain called El Toro just outside of town. In a dried out riverbed he noticed an unusual part of a clay figurine sticking out of the dirt. He began digging and found a number of curious figures near the riverbed. Julsrud was already familiar with pre-Columbian ceramics as he had one of the largest collections of artifacts from the pre-Classic Chupicuaro culture then amassed. While he wasn’t selling hardware, he was digging up or acquiring pieces for his collection and over the years Julsrud became quite the amateur archaeologist. He had never seen the types of figures that he had uncovered at the base of El Toro, so he asked one of his employees named Odilon Tinajero, if he could find more of these figurines for him. Julsrud would pay Tinajero one peso for each figurine brought to him intact or with pieces that were easily put together. Thus began his collection, and over a 5 to 6 year period, Julsrud gathered over 35,000 of these strange figures.
In 1947 when Julsrud published a booklet on his discoveries called Enigmas del pasado – Enigmas of the Past – the figurines began to receive international attention. In March of 1951, Lowell Harmer, a veteran writer for the Los Angeles Times published an article titled: “Mexico Finds Give Hint of Lost World: Dinosaur Statues Point to Men Who Lived in Age of Reptiles.” Harmer had visited Acámbaro earlier that year and described the sheer volume of the collection in Julsrud’s house wrote that the figurines “filled the floors, the tables and the wall cabinets to overflowing.” The Times writer also wondered in his article, “How could it be a hoax? Not even in Mexico, where money is so scarce, could anyone afford the labor of these thousands of statues at the low prices Julsrud is paying.” While seemingly convinced of the collection’s authenticity, as an objective writer Harmer finished off his article by saying, “I am a writer, not an archaeologist. It will be up to the experts to decide.” In the next few years the story was picked up by the tabloid press and made it to the magazines specializing in stories of the fanciful and the bizarre. One article of note appeared in the February/March 1952 issue of Fate magazine titled “Did Man Tame the Dinosaur?” A clear reference to some of the figurines showing men roping and riding the creatures.
The following year, 1953, the Mexican government got involved in the Acámbaro mystery. It sent 4 archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia – also called INAH – in Mexico City to investigate. They set up a dig site about a mile from Julsrud’s original discovery location near the base of the mountain called El Toro. They dug a test put going about 2 meters down and discovered dozens of figurines similar to Julsrud’s, including dinosaurs. INAH then issued a statement that the figurines did correspond to the pre-Classic civilization of the Chupicuaro and could date to as early as 800 BC, but not the dinosaur ones. The scientists concluded that even though the dinosaurs were found among other similar figurines in the same archaeological strata, they couldn’t possibly be anything but modern productions as human interaction with dinosaurs was impossible. The Instituto did no further excavations and after the 1950s refused to issue permits for other archaeologists to make new excavations.
On the American side of the border an anthropological organization dedicated to preserving Native American culture, the Amerind Foundation, sent archaeologist Charles Di Peso down to examine the figurines. Di Peso published his findings in volume 18 of the scientific journal American Antiquity in the year 1953 and in the prestigious Archaeology magazine the same year. Those who do not believe the figurines to be part of a hoax have pointed out that Di Peso went down to Mexico with a clear bias to expose the figures as fakes and that he did not approach the problem of the figurines with an open mind. Although having the backing of the scientific establishment, Di Peso did make claims that should be scrutinized more closely. For example, in his American Antiquity article, Di Peso states:
“None of the specimens were marred by patination nor did they possess the surface coating of soluble salts… The figures were broken, in most cases, where the appendages attached themselves to the body of the figurines… No parts were missing. Furthermore, none of the broken surfaces were worn smooth. In the entire collection of 32,000 specimens no shovel, mattock, or pick marks were noted.”
He also stated, “Further investigation revealed that a family living in the vicinity of Acámbaro make these figurines during the winter months when their fields are idle.” In his writing Di Peso alleged that after the figures were made that they were “planted” in certain locations, and in his American Antiquity article he tells the tale of a botched excavation in which he witnessed figurines coming up out of a hole mixed with fresh backfill and even fresh manure. In the end of his article Di Peso states, “Thus the investigation ended: it seems almost superfluous to state that the Acámbaro figurines are not prehistoric nor were they made by a prehistoric race who lived in association with Mesozoic reptiles.”
It was not long before Di Peso’s articles and claims were shot full of holes. For one, Di Peso only spent 2 days in Acámbaro and only spent 4 hours examining Julsrud’s collection in his home. Di Peso did not set up and conduct an excavation on his own. He also did not take into consideration that Julsrud’s collection included near-perfect figurines purchased from villagers as per Julsrud’s own request. When he began his collection, Julsrud specified that he would pay one peso for each intact figure. There were plenty of pieces and broken figures that did not make it to the over 30,000 in Julsrud’s home.
The Di Peso articles caught the eye of Charles Hapgood, the Harvard-trained archaeologist and friend of Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner. Hapgood had years of experience and the academic credentials to analyze the Julsrud collection and in 1954 he spent a considerable amount of time in Acámbaro. Hapgood refuted most of Di Peso’s claims point by point. Di Peso claimed that there were no missing pieces. Hapgood found boxes and boxes of parts that could not be put together. Di Peso claimed that there was no discoloring or encrusted dirt on the figures. Hapgood observed that dirt and patination were evident on the figures in spite of Julsrud’s requirement for cleaned, intact figurines to earn the one peso reward. Di Peso alleged that there were no pick marks from shoveling on any of the figurines. Hapgood documented the opposite. One of the big elements of the hoax proposed by Di Peso was his observation that one of the excavations he witnessed was bringing up fresh dirt from a recent backfill. Hapgood had an answer for this, too. In documenting the excavation procedure, Hapgood wrote, “An important point that came out was that when the digger stopped work in the middle of excavating a cache, he filled in the hole, to protect it from the many small boys of the neighborhood. This may have a bearing on the accusations of fraud…” The final point dispelled by Hapgood was that the villagers were making the figurines during their “off time” in the winter. The sheer number of figures, both intact and partial, would take many families an incredible amount of time to produce. In the next decade, Erle Stanley Gardner would add to this sentiment in his 1969 book about Acámbaro called The Host with the Big Hat. He writes, “I don’t believe that it would have been at all possible for any group of people to have made these figures, to have paid for the burro-load of wood necessary to ‘fire’ them, take them out and bury them, wait for the ground to resume its natural hardness which would take from one to ten years, and then ‘discover’ these figures and dig them up—all for a gross price of twelve cents per figure.” Gardner also concluded “It is absolutely, positively out of the question to think that these artifacts which we saw could have been planted.”
As a scientist, Charles Hapgood knew of the need for concrete dating of the pieces using the most up-to-date methods. In 1968 he submitted three samples to Isotopes Incorporated of New Jersey for radiocarbon dating. The first sample came back as three thousand five hundred and ninety years old, plus or minus 100 years. The second sample came up as six thousand four hundred and eighty years old, plus or minus one hundred and seventy years. The third sample came up with a date of three thousand and sixty years old, plus or minus one hundred and twenty years.
To be thorough, Hapgood also submitted four samples to the University of Pennsylvania Museum for thermoluminescent dating, a more accurate way to date pottery. All four samples came up with a date of 2,500 BC, plus or minus one hundred and ninety years. Dr. Froelich Rainey, realizing the importance of accuracy in the dating of these pieces did 18 runs on each of the 4 samples and came up with the same results.
he last attempt to date the figures occurred in 1976. Gary Carriveau and Mark Han also used the thermoluminescent dating technique on 20 of the figures. All of the samples failed the “plateau test” which indicated that dates obtained from these figurines using high-temperature thermoluminescent dating were not reliable and lacked significance. Based on the signal regeneration found in some of the samples, the Carriveau-Han team estimated that the figurines were fired sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
So, are these dinosaur figurines authentic archaeological finds of great importance, or are they part of an elaborate hoax? One must ask if this were a hoax, who would benefit from it? Waldemar Julsrud made no money from the sales of the figurines or from tourism connected to his collection. No archaeologists have made names or reputations for themselves because of the dinosaurs of Acámbaro. The Mexican government wants to ignore these figures and prohibits any excavations in the area. Why do they not want more investigation into these figures? As with everything presented on Mexico Unexplained, I encourage you to do your own investigation. Maybe you can finally solve the enigma of the dinosaurs of Acámbaro.
REFERENCES (This is not a formal bibliography):
Mystery in Acambáro: Did Dinosaurs Survive Until Recently? by Charles Hapgood
The Host with the Big Hat by Erle Stanley Gardner
“The Clay Figurines of Acámbaro, Guanajuato, Mexico” in vol 18 American Antiquity by Charles C. Di Peso
“Thermoluminescent Dating and the Monsters of Acámbaro” in vol 41 American Antiquity by G. W. Carriveau and M. C. Han
“Mystery at Acámbaro, Mexico,” in vol 47 Expedition by Alex Pezzati