In July 1944, the German merchant Waldemar Julsrud was walking his horse through Acámbaro, in Guanajuato, when he came across a half-buried piece of pottery. At the foot of Cerro del Toro, to the east of the town, the find was not strange. Explorers and collectors have long found ceramic remains in the area, vestiges of the Purépecha people. But the object Julsrud found was different from the others. The figure looked like a prehistoric reptile with a human riding on its back. Fascinated by the find, Julsrud proposed to one of his local assistants, Odilón Trujillo, a deal to search for more remains: one peso for each clay figure that he and his people managed to unearth.
Julsrud had arrived in Guanajuato in the 1910s, one of many merchants driven by the railroad network with which the Porfiriato united Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century. Originally from Bremen, north of a German Empire that was one step away from extinction, he traveled to revolutionary Mexico and arrived in Guanajuato. There he founded a smithy. In the photos that remain of him, Julsrud looks like a tall, dashing man, a Prussian officer who devotedly cared for his mustache until it was shaved off to face the Mexican desert. When he found his precious mud reptile, Julsrud was about to turn 70. He thought that his life and the world had changed forever.
In silence, the merchant amassed a collection of more than 30,000 pieces of pottery. From his small smithy in the north of Acámbaro, Julsrud received the figures that Trujillo and his assistants unearthed without stopping. Dinosaurs, dragons, bipedal monsters, and the humans that accompanied them appeared in large groups, barely two or three meters underground. At least that’s what they told him … Trujillo brought him hundreds every week.
It took three years from that first dinosaur until the collection no longer fit on the furniture in his house. In 1947, Julsrud finally decided to make his findings known. In a brochure he titled Riddles of the past, the merchant turned archaeologist boasted of his fondness for the footprints of the Purépecha, who populated Guanajuato until 300 AD. “But it is not about those old pantheons that I want to talk about”, he wrote in the prologue, “but about another discovery of an infinitely greater importance and antiquity, whose remains date almost from the cradle of humanity, whose details I trust will give new light to the history”.
The improbability of the findings fascinated the local chronicle, but only raised suspicions in the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico. Had an amateur archaeologist come up with the evidence to knock down centuries of knowledge about evolution? If dinosaurs became extinct more than 65 million years and the knowledge about their passage through the earth is limited to the last three centuries, how was it possible that a pre-Hispanic culture had them molded just 1,700 years ago?
Halfway between their own theories about the dinosaurs that climbed onto Noah’s ark to survive the great flood and the technical explanations of the authenticity of their ceramics, Riddles of the past, Julsrud’s pamphlet, crossed borders. In the United States it reached the hands of creationist readers, ecstatic by the idea of proving that humans walked alongside prehistoric reptiles, and to newspaper offices in search of the curiosity of the day. On March 25, 1951 – a Sunday – the local front page of Los Angeles Times it opened with three photos of Julsrud’s dinosaur collection around a headline to a column: “Finds from Mexico give hints of a lost world.”
It is likely that the American archaeologist Charles C. Di Peso read the article and decided to take action on the matter. Director of the Amerid Foundation of Arizona, a study center dedicated to Native American cultures, Di Peso had just become the first student at the University of Arizona to earn a Ph.D. in Anthropology, and was recognized as a pioneer in ceramics research. ancient sites of Paquimé, an archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Attracted by the history of the German who harvested dinosaurs in the Bajío, Di Peso traveled to Acámbaro in 1953.
In the village, the renowned archaeologist studied the ceramics. He immersed himself in the collection that Julsrud kept, overflowing his house. Say Weight He was lapidary in his reports. To begin with, the figures did not match the colors of the Chupícuaro pottery, the Purépecha settlement that had populated that area of Guanajuato. They also showed no patina, damage, or the logical erosion of centuries underground, and the figures were found in small groups a couple of meters underground. Di Peso’s final argument is especially brutal: in his second report he claims that a local family admitted to having participated in the production of the pieces.
With science against him, Julsrud found other allies. Inventor and philanthropist Arthur M. Young, responsible for the propeller stabilizer that enabled the helicopter to be born, funded a visit to Acámbaro by Harvard-graduated historian and pseudoscientific theories of geological catastrophism, Charles Hapgood, and forensic attorney and crime novel writer Erle Stanley Gardner. Both traveled to Acámbaro to turn over Di Peso’s studies. Hapgood did not hesitate to sign a document defending the authenticity of the collection, and his enthusiasm led Young to facilitate an exhibition of the pieces at the Museum of Anthropology and Archeology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1955.
Mexican artist Pablo Helguera unearthed that story in a 2010 project on critical museology at that university. On a video about the collection, Helguera demonstrates the doubts of the institution, which presented the ceramics of Acámbaro along with reproductions of science fiction comic strips to suggest that the figures could coincide with the rise of the North American cultural industry in the first half of the last century. It also reviews the history of the pieces once they landed in the United States.
In 1969, five years after Julsrud’s death, a thermoluminescence test animated the theories of Hapgood and Gardner: the origin of the pieces could be traced back to 2,500 BC. That same year, Gardner, the novelist, published a book about his time in Acámbaro, The host of the big hat, in which he writes that “it is impossible” to think that any group of people could knead and bake 30,000 figures in a couple of years, bury them and unearth them for the “rude” price of 12 cents each. The lapidary logic of a detective novel writer. In 1978, however, the same University of Pennsylvania carried out the final study and settled the controversy: the figures, at the time of their discovery, could not be older than 1930.
The pieces returned from the United States at the beginning in 1998, and a patronage of neighbors united by the mystery created a museum in the center of Acámbaro, in the old Julstrud house, open since 2000. The site, which maintains an exhibition of 1,400 pieces and another 20,000 under protection, it does not have archaeological recognition from the INAH. The current director of the board of trustees, Juana Ruiz Ramírez, maintains that “it is a space that aims to foster the investigative and critical spirit of visitors.” “Our purpose is not to investigate or support theories,” says Ruiz Ramírez, “it is a museum that invites the curious to seek an origin of humanity other than the officially established one.”
If the settlers agreed or not to deceive the German merchant by creating mythological figures in exchange for a few pesos, in a script that I would have obsessed Luis Buñuel, remains a mystery. The Waldemar Julsrud museum does not enter the controversy and, as a small enclave of the supernatural in the town of Acámbaro, invites its visitors while it survives the pandemic. After touring its rooms, the visitor will be able to walk at the foot of Cerro del Toro, practically in the center of the city, which today is a protected nature reserve.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.