Piltdown: How Fake Was Found

By a Staff Reporter

The Observer November 1953

The announcement that the Piltdown skull is, essentially, a deliberate fake was made in the ordinary bulletin of the Geology Department of the British Museum (Natural History) issued yesterday.

It is stated that the full evidence on which the findings of three investigating scientists were based will be discussed in a later number.

The three investigators are Professor W. E. Le Gros Clark and Dr. J. S. Weiner, of the Department of Anatomy, Oxford University, and Dr. K. P. Oakley, of the Museum's Geology Department.

A note by Mr. W. N. Edwards, Keeper of Geology at the Museum, makes it clear that there can be no reflection on the integrity of the late Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, of the British Museum, who in 1912 was taken to the site where the relics were found by the late Mr. Charles Dawson, a Sussex antiquarian.

Doubts about the Piltdown skull have been known for years. The report says that most anthropologists have remained sceptical or puzzled. The combination of a cranium closely similar to that of homo sapiens with a mandible and canine tooth of simian form, seemed too incongruous.

Laboratory Analysis

But it was not until Dr. Weiner put forward "fairly and squarely" the possibility of a fake that a restudy of all the Piltdown material was decided upon, "with this specific possibility directly in view."

The investigation was made possible by recently devised chemical methods, whereas in the past these unique objects (as they were then supposed to be) might have been damaged by "mechanical treatment."

That the Piltdown teeth had been abraded by artificial means and not by natural wear was established by close inspection. The investigators also studied the fluorine content of the Piltdown relics by methods of much greater accuracy than was possible even a few years ago. Samples of the Piltdown specimen were analysed in a Government laboratory, and the results showed that, while the cranium might well be ancient, the mandible, canine tooth and isolated molar were quite modern.

Dealing with the evidence of the organic content of the relics, the report agrees that to regard the organic content of bones and teeth as a measure of their antiquity has long been regarded as fallacious. However (the report adds) extensive chemical studies of bones from early occupation sites in North America by Cook and Heizer (1947) have shown that in bones preserved under broadly the same conditions the nitrogen of their protein (ossein) is lost at a relatively slow, and on an average almost uniformly declining, rate.

'Paint-like Substance'

Thus, the report claims, nitrogen analysis, used with discretion, can be an important supplement to fluorine analysis, and also for the relative dating of specimens too recent to be within the range of the fluorine method. Using a new method devised in the Department of Minerals of the British Museum, for estimating very small quantities of nitrogen, the department produced results which agreed with all the other evidence indicating that the mandible and teeth were modern.

Finally, the report deals with the evidence of the colouring of the Piltdown specimens. Examination has shown that the coating on the canine tooth was "a paint-like substance." It has also been found that the iron staining of the cranium goes right through its thickness, whereas the staining of the mandible is "quite superficial." By direct chemical analysis and by use of the X-ray spectrographic method, the report says, it was indicated that the chromate staining of the Piltdown jaw was "explicable only as a necessary part of the deliberate matching of the jaw of a modern ape with the mineralised cranial fragments."

"It is now clear," the investigators conclude, "that the distinguished palaeontologists and archaeologists who took part in the excavations at Piltdown were the victims of a most elaborate and carefully prepared hoax."