Review of Piltdown Inquest

The Piltdown Inquest. 261 pp., illus., bibl., index. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986. $22.95.

By Peter J. Bowler

Isis 78:3 (1987)


[459] Charles Blinderman's book is a substantial addition to the already enormous literature on the Piltdown fraud. It provides a useful survey of the events surrounding the discovery and reception of the alleged fossils and a conducted tour through the maze of claims and counterclaims made by historians trying to identify the hoaxer. Just about everyone who was in any way associated with the discovery has been picked out as the culprit by at least one enthusiastic Piltdown detective or another. Sherlock Holmes himself needs all his skill to get his creator off the hook (Ch. 11). The experts cannot even agree on which of the finds was "planted," since a minority argue that the skull fragments were genuine. Blinderman's own candidate is Lewis Abbot, a local amateur archaeologist, against whom he builds up an interesting but still circumstantial case. As Blinderman admits, we may all learn something more positive from Frank Spencer's forthcoming edition of Ian Langham's work on the fraud. Elsewhere Blinderman has argued (with tongue very firmly in cheek) that all the suggested culprits were in it together under the control of British military intelligence.

The cover of this book is decorated with a device borrowed from the pub sign of "The Piltdown Man," which stands a few hundred yards from the site of the discoveries. When I visited the site (and the pub) a few days before writing this review, the landlord too was reading Blinderman's book. He was glad of the publicity, but the barmaid thought the whole thing was a waste of time. English barmaids have always been a fount of common sense and sound advice. Why have so many people wasted so much time on what seems a hopeless attempt to identify the originator of a fraud that was exposed over thirty years ago and that had been recognized as an anomaly long before that? True, cases of major fraud in science are rare, but no one (apart from the creationists) has anything to gain from continually raking the muck. I have spent the last several years of my life studying theories of human evolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it makes me angry to see the amount of effort that has been frittered away on this trivial whodunit. If historians had spent one tenth of the time on serious studies of ideas about human origins, there would be no need for a comparative outsider like myself to get involved out of sheer frustration at the lack of decent secondary literature. Let us hope that the Langham-Spencer initiative will produce something solid enough to dam the flood of ink that has been spilt on this sorry affair.



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