Yesterday: Was Garden of Eden Located in Nevada?
In 1924, a group of scientists and reporters announced that Yerington was the cradle of civilization!
This story first appeared in our August 1993 issue.
BY HARRY A. CHALEKIAN
On August 17,1924, readers of the “San Francisco Examiner” received the shocking news with their Sunday morning coffee: The cradle of civilization had been discovered on a rocky hilltop near Yerington, Nevada.
WAS THE GARDEN OF EDEN LOCATED IN NEVADA?” blared a front-page headline. An editor’s note declared:
“We have found what appears to be the evidence of the oldest civilization in the world-the oldest writing, the oldest art, the oldest sacrifice, the oldest worship, and the oldest burial.”
For the next week the “Examiner”, flagship of the Hearst newspaper empire, presented a spectacular series of articles and photos to support the theory that the Nevada site was “the actual scene of the creation of mankind.” The reports were the result of an expedition to the Yerington area led by Alan Le Baron, a self-proclaimed archaeologist. The key discovery, according to the paper’s breathless reports, was that the area’s petroglyphs appeared to be related to—and even predate—the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Thus, the Nevada site could be the cradle of mankind, the true Garden of Eden.
Stories called the hill near Yerington the “Site of a Thousand Tombs.” Photos showed petroglyphs of birds, snakes, and bighorn sheep. Scientists from around the world offered authoritative comments. The headlines focused often on the petroglyphs:
NEVADA CARVINGS ARE LIKE EGYPTIAN HIEROGLYPHS.
INSCRIPTIONS GIVE CLEW TO ANCIENT MAN.
Other so-called discoveries were announced in the series of archaeological exposes:
TREMENDOUS ROCKS COVER ANCIENT DEAD.
CHEMIST SAYS DUST IN TOMBS IS MADE OF BONE.
While California readers were being bombarded with this startling news, the Reno and Carson City newspapers did not mention the series. The “Yerington Times” made a rare reference to the investigation when it noted that “it seems that Lyon County is about to become the Mecca of numerous expeditions.”
Around Yerington, residents had always believed the ancient petroglyphs were created by the forebears of the Paiute people. The late Sherman Lewis, a former ranch foreman, once recalled, “The local ranchers were too busy with their own lives and activities to pay much attention to the people from San Francisco. We thought Le Baron and his theories were cuckoo.”
The locals’ skepticism was well founded. For all its high-minded scientific pontifications, the Garden of Eden series turned out simply to be an entertaining hoax.
The tale began in the fall of 1923, when, the “Examiner” said, a rancher and mining man named Frank Bovard found a group of petroglyphs near the East Walker River. He described his discovery to Le Baron, a mining engineer and geologist who was working in the area. Le Baron took photographs of the petroglyphs and sent them to “Arabian scholars in Egypt,” according to the paper. The “scholars” then confirmed his theory that the inscriptions were Egyptian and Babylonian characters.
On May 8, 1924, Le Baron led an “Examiner” team to investigate the site. On June 10, Edward Clarke, the paper’s Sunday editor, joined them. Two months later the news exploded on the “Examiner’s” front page.
Alan Le Baron’s credentials were impeccable, said the “Examiner.” Le Baron had spent much of his youth in Egypt and had studied the records of ancient Arabian tribes. As a result, the paper said, “hieroglyphics to Le Baron are like the English alphabet to our readers.”
Editor Clarke admitted in print that the work “was rapid—possibly superficial from the viewpoint of cold, careful positive Science.” At the same time, he clearly was not about to let Science stand in the way of a good story.
Today a number of Lyon County residents, now in their 80s, remember the so-called Garden of Eden and its promoter, Alan Le Baron. Eileen Vedder, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Yerington, recalls the Garden of Eden site well—her grandparents owned it. She says her parents, Charles and Violet McCloud, would take the family to the area for picnics in 1916, seven years before Le Baron’s “discovery.” The children would amuse themselves by playing among the rocks.
“There were two particular rock formations that towered above the other rocks on the hill. They were called ‘Adam and Eve,'”Vedder recalls. “Some time after the exploration team left, the two formations were pushed over by mischievous children—not me.” Could the Adam and Eve rock formations have inspired the notion of a “Garden of Eden?”
Vedder’s cousins, George and Leland Churchyard of Yerington, also remember the picnics and the hill. The two brothers say their aunt and mother named the two highest formations “Adam and Eve.” Leland recalls a local woman’s claim to have found some ossified plant bulbs in the area, and Egypt was said to be the only other place in the world where such bulbs were known to exist. Perhaps the plant-bulb fossils led to the Egyptian connection.
Howard Rogers clearly remembers the Garden of Eden area. A Paiute who lives near Yerington, Rogers was born at Desert Creek in Smith Valley 90 years ago. Sitting on his front porch and looking at the hills, Rogers recalls, “As a young man, I worked as a cowboy at all the ranches along the East Walker River. The ranchers would ask for me because I was a good man on a horse.”
Rogers says, “I remember often riding my horse to the hill of carved rocks. I know the carvings were done by earlier Paiute tribes living and hunting in the area.”
A few locals also remember Alan Le Baron. Walter Cox, retired publisher of the “Mason Valley News,” says Le Baron was a chivalrous man “who always made sure the ladies he escorted were seated first, always near the fire, and well attended to.” These social graces, combined with his credentials as a mining engineer, made Le Baron attractive to the wealthy families of the area.
Another man who knew Le Baron was the late Sherman Lewis, a former cowboy and ranch foreman. Le Baron would occasionally dine with the Lewis family at their ranch, which was located near the petroglyph site. Between Lewis’ mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, a mineralogist, Le Baron learned a lot about the area and its history at those dinners. Lewis said he believed it was his father, Harry Lewis, who first showed the inscribed rocks to Le Baron.
Lewis remembered the Paiutes spending winters near the rock hill. The hill was used as a lookout for hunting antelope, bighorn sheep, and deer that would come to the river for water. As a young boy, Lewis explored the hill and its inscriptions. With a glint in his eye, he also admitted that as a young man he took girlfriends to the hilltop for picnics and “scientific research.”
Donald Tuohy, curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, first learned of Le Baron while working in eastern Nevada 25 years ago. Tuohy never met the Garden of Eden promoter, but he recalls hearing about Le Baron during his professional travels. Tuohy says Le Baron was likely “a charlatan who used any pretext to draw attention, and funding, to his exploits as a self-proclaimed archaeologist.”
Another Eden skeptic is Doris Folsum, a retired teacher and amateur archaeologist who now lives in Reno. Folsum was in fifth grade at Yerington Elementary School at the time of the “Examiner” series.
“I remember when the story hit Yerington, but I don’t remember anyone being duly impressed. The only thing that impressed me was that my teacher, the former Georganne Kaufman, married Alan Le Baron.” Folsum, an active woman who has traveled the world, recalls that her teacher’s marriage to Le Baron created more excitement in Yerington than the “Eden” discovery.
Over the years, other archaeologists have made authentic efforts to document the “Garden of Eden” site. An early description was provided by Garrick Mallery in his 1889 work, “Picture Writing of the American Indian.” Julian Steward described the site in his 1929 monograph, “Petroglyphs of California and Adjoining States.” In 1962, Robert Heiser and Martin Baumhoff used the data they recorded at the site to provide support for their idea that the petroglyphs were created at spots where game could be ambushed.
A more recent study of the area was performed in 1973 and 1974 by Karen Nissen of the University of California at Berkele. Her team catalogued and documented the rock inscriptions to test the hypothesis that the carvings were correlated with the hunting habits of local Indians. Additionally, the stone cairns or “soldiers” erected on a hill to the east of the site reflected John Muir’s 1890 description of a mountain sheep hunt conducted nearby. Nissen’s study barely mentioned the “Examiner” team’s exploration, stating that it was never scientifically reported.
Now an archaeologist with the California Department of Transportation, Nissen says, “I have heard of the Examiner articles, but I’ve never seen them. We studied the site quite thoroughly and classified 783 boulders with more than 3,800 art forms.”
She adds, “I’ve also made recent visits to the site escorting world-renowned archaeologists. From my extensive re- search at the site, I can only scoff at or heavily discount Alan Le Baron’s claims.”
The Garden of Eden is a 30-mile drive south of Yerington. On a recent visit, the quiet and beautiful landscape described in the newspaper articles was marred by a rough road that had been cleared around the base of the hill near the East Walker River.
The hilltop revealed a series of rock-walled enclosures that provided a protected and commanding view of the river valley. Inside the enclosures and on the top of the hill were the many petroglyphs that, combined with the scenic river and valley below, created the “Eden” excitement. The carvings portrayed bighorn sheep, deer, skeletons, snakes, birds, and round and star-like forms.
Below were more rock protected enclosures. Some of the rocks were inscribed with animal forms and other symbols. One could imagine sighting the herds from the hilltop and signaling the hunters waiting below.
A BEAUTIFUL VALLEY
After the visitors spent almost five hours climbing among the rocks, watching for rattlesnakes, admiring the carvings, and enjoying the view, the “Examiner’s” ‘Thousand Tombs’ and ‘Ancient Dead’ were nowhere to be found. Except for a hole blasted in the rock, there were no signs of major excavations.
The hill and its carvings did not point to Egypt or the origins of civilization. Obviously, the Examiner stories were simply a wonderful combination of scientific exaggeration and sensationalism designed to sell newspapers.
One Nevada authority who agrees with that assessment is archaeologist David Johnson of Carson City. Johnson has been interested in the East Walker River site for a number of years. He calls the “Examiner” articles” outrageously funny” and typical of the “Hearstian” journalism and attitudes of the era. Johnson adds, “There is no question in my mind that the East Walker River petroglyphs are of Native American origin.”
The man who promoted the Garden of Eden site so skillfully, Alan Le Baron, in time faded from the scene. Yerington folks remember that within a few years he and Georganne Kaufman, the local schoolteacher, were divorced. He was last seen working with a road crew on a highway project between Fernley and Yerington.
While Le Baron’s reputation and the “Examiner’s” sensational reports proved to be wildly exaggerated, the Garden of Eden site remains pristine and beautiful. Taking in the view of the river and valley below, one can understand the feelings inspired by the petroglyphs. The ancient symbols remind us that a rocky Nevada hilltop, in its own way, is a perfect place to find paradise.