The Piltdown 'forgery'

A. P. Chamberlain

New Scientist 28 November 1968


[16] Sir,-I have just come across Dr Dennis Rosen's article on scientific skulduggery ("The jilting of Athene", 5 September, p.497) which picks on Charles Dawson as the author of the Piltdown "forgery". My father never believed his cousin Charles had sufficient time free from his legal practice, or the training, to be a really expert archaeologist (let alone an expert anthropologist too!); but that "finds" had been planted ready for him. It was, after all, the age of first-class practical jokes. Who better than a respected and possibly slightly pompous country solicitor to present such finds to the world whether fraud, or more probably hoax? And where would a solicitor acquire a fossil cranium and the jaw bone of an ape without somebody in the subsequent worldwide publicity remembering such odd purchases?

I have not yet read Professor J. Weiner's book-though I hope shortly to do so-which may offer a different explanation to Francis Vere's of the experts to whom Dawson initially showed his finds. Presumably personally known to him, could they also have been the authors of the hoax, now placed in a delightful dilemma? Would any competent coroner really need any test more highly sensitive than a scratch with a pen knife to distinguish bone perhaps 50 years old from 500 000-year-old fossil? It is perhaps fair to remind Dr Rosen of recent press articles on suspected ornithological frauds on the Sussex coast about the same period.

During a recent course at Oxford one lecturer produced the answer to a problem of atomic packing in a few lines of fifth form mathematics, and remarked that a paper he and a colleague had submitted for publication on their subject had been rejected as of insufficient interest. They then inserted enough abstruse central European calculus nearly to double the paper's length, but retaining the same answer, re-submitted and had it accepted. Fraud? Misdirection of students?

Perhaps Athene should jilt a few of her referees.

A. P. Chamberlain

Pipits Hill

Upper Clatford

nr Andover


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