Hominidwhodunnit

Nature 22 November 1990

G. Ainsworth Harrison

Piltdown. A Scientific Forgery. By Frank Spencer. Oxford University Press: 1990. Pp. 272. 17.95, $24.95.

The Piltdown Papers. By Frank Spencer. Oxford University Press: 1990. Pp. 282.30, $65.

[369] The fascination of the Piltdown forgery is apparently endless. It was indeed one of the most gigantic frauds in scientific history: it bedevilled understanding of the fossil record of human evolution and went unexposed for more than forty years. Perhaps the continuing fascination comes from the fact that the circumstances of the perpetration of the fraud remain obscure, and the guilty party or parties not unequivocally identified. Whether one can get nearer to the truth eighty years on than J. S. Weiner's exposure of the fraud in 1953 is rather doubtful, but nonetheless Spencer's book is a scholarly and important contribution to the now enormous literature dealing with the Piltdown forgery.

The nature of the original finds, which were apparently extracted from the lower Pleistocene gravels near Uckfield in Sussex, in the United Kingdom, between 1912 and 1915, are well known: the finds consisted of substantial parts of a human cranium which was essentially modern, much of a mandibular horizontal ramus which was very ape-like; a canine-tooth which fitted perfectly the prediction of Sir Arthur Smith Woodward; sufficient of a second individual to show that one was not dealing with a fortuitous association: and some artefacts and fossil mammals. All turned out to have been 'salted', and the jaw and teeth 'doctored' to show some human characters.

Subsequent fossil discoveries. particularly in Africa, made Piltdown ever more anomalous. Human evolution proceeded by modification of the jaws before substantial change in the size of the brain, rather than the other way round. Nonetheless, authors of books on palaeoanthropology in the 1940s still gave a central place to Piltdown, often identifying it with the ancestry of modern man. In such schemes, other fossils were all side branches. That such a position could be sustained for so long is remarkable – at least with hindsight! It was not helped by the fact that almost everyone working on Piltdown had to work with cast material. But eventually Weiner recognized what a nonsense it was, proposed the forgery explanation, demonstrated in collaboration with K.P. Oakley and Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark the scientific basis to the fraud and undertook his own investigation into the perpetrators. He concluded in his book The Piltdown Forgery (1955) that Charles Dawson, a local solicitor, amateur naturalist and the 'discoverer' of the first finds, almost certainly had to be heavily involved: but whether he was alone or had accomplices was not completely clear. On balance, Weiner favoured Dawson's sole involvement.

Since then many others have tried their detective skills, and fingers have been pointed at almost every possible figure associated with the finds or with Dawson. It seems that one only needed to have purchased potassium dichromate (which was used to 'fossilize' the bones) around 1912 to have come under suspicion. Strangely, perhaps, one of the few people to escape accusation has been Sir Arthur Keith. then conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. who devoted much of his life to researching Piltdown, particularly the reconstruction of the cranium from the fragments recovered. That omission is corrected in Spencer's book, in which the proposition is developed that Keith was Dawson's scientific accomplice and perhaps instigator of the whole affair.

Keith's involvement was first seriously suggested by Ian Langham, a young Australian historian and anthropologist who died tragically in 1984. Langham's work [370] was passed by his family to Spencer to develop and publish. Spencer has not only done this but also set it within the whole Piltdown saga. He clearly shares the same verdict of guilt as Langham. But their case is not only circumstantial, as it is almost bound to be, but also, in my opinion, very thin. It largely rests on Keith apparently knowing a little more about the circumstances of the find than might initially have been expected – and some of this assertion depends on a judgement of what might have been conveyed in an hour's conversation between Smith-Woodward and Keith. There is also a suggestion that Dawson and Keith may have known each other rather better around the time of the discoveries than they publicly acknowledged.

I have to say I am quite unconvinced by this evidence. I am, however, privileged to know J. S. Weiner's views on Keith's reaction to the fraud's exposure. I was in effect acting as a research assistant to Weiner at this time, and accompanied him on many occasions during his investigation. Unfortunately, I was not present when he interviewed Keith, but I remember his account the following day. He said that Keith appeared utterly taken aback and dismayed by the idea that Piltdown was fraudulent. He had no doubt at all that Keith was not involved.

In the second edition of The Antiquity of Man published in 1925, Keith devotes 248 out of 734 pages to Piltdown. By this time he had received a knighthood and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Would he by then have spent so much time and effort and identified himself so closely with something that he knew was fake? Why did he have so much difficulty reconstructing the cranium if he had been party to the construction of the fake? For me the accusation just does not ring true. I do, however, applaud Spencer’s book as a whole, which is well researched and attractively written. With the accompanying volume of collected papers and letters it provides the definitive history of Piltdown: the ‘discovery’, the exposure and the long search for the culprit. Spencer also documents not only how damaging this fraud was to science, but also to the reputations of those who were unfortunate enough to be in any way associated with it.

G. Ainsworth Harrison is in the Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Oxforfd,

58 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6QS. UK.


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