People have been collecting fossils since prehistoric times, but for most of history, they didn't know what they were. In the Middle Ages, the idea arose that they were the remains of once-living creatures. In the 17th century, fossils found high on mountains were assumed to be left there by the Biblical flood of Genesis. Swiss physician and naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer was convinced of this theory, and set out to find evidence of Noah's flood in the fossil record.
In his quest, Scheuchzer would get quite ahead of himself when he came across a fossil that, in his eyes, offered incontrovertible evidence that humans had perished in the biblical flood.
The fossil in question is an incompletely preserved strange skeleton that had been discovered in a limestone quarry near the small town of Öhningen in southern Germany. Scheuchzer identified his prize fossil as Homo diluvii testis, meaning “man, witness of the Flood.” In 1726 he published a broadside to announce his discovery. In his great work on the natural history of the Bible, Physica sacra of 1731, Scheuchzer cited the Reverend Johann Martin Miller as expressing the hope that the “sad bony frame of an old sinner” would soften the “heart of new children of evil!”
Scheuchzer went to his grave believing that the fossil he found was human, but other scientists were skeptical. Only in 1811 was the fossil properly identified. Read that story at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: Ghedoghedo)