Grafton Elliot Smith and Piltdown

J. S. Weiner

Symposium Zoological Society London 1973

[23] MRC Environmental Physiology Unit, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,

University of London, London, England

Lord Zuckerman (1972) has firmly and clearly denounced the slur which has been cast on Sir

Grafton Elliot Smith in the book on the Piltdown forgery just published by Mr. Ronald Millar (1972). I entirely support Lord Zuckerman in dismissing Mr Millar's case against Elliot Smith and indeed it is a most weakly argued case. It rests more on an attempt to exonerate Charles Dawson than on any positive evidence incriminating Elliot Smith. As practically all the relevant evidence both on the technical and human aspects of the forgery as well as the arguments leading to Charles Dawson as the likely perpetrator are to be found in Weiner (1955) and as Mr Millar would like the reader to think that he has demolished my arguments, I feel obliged to draw attention to a number of fallacies and misunderstandings in his book. A full account of these would take a long time but I shall confine myself to a few major and, I think, sufficient points.

There are five issues which stand out. First there is the matter of the timing and sequence of the many different phases of the Piltdown discoveries which stretched from about 1898 to 1915. The second concerns the issue of the artificial staining of the fragments. The third concerns the question of the anatomical knowledge required for the forgery, and the fourth concerns what Mr Millar calls the "hindsight" allegations against Dawson by a number of my informants. The fifth concerns the motive of the forger.

Mr Millar is not prepared to look at all closely at the sequence of events for on this account alone, it is impossible, indeed ridiculous, to think of Elliot Smith as the perpetrator. I need only quote what Mr Millar himself says on page 234: "At the time of the 'planting' of the fossils, Smith was in what might be considered a backwater appointment in Cairo." Where are the proofs that Elliot Smith made the many repeated visits to the Barkham Manor site or the Sheffield Park site that would have been needed? How did he manage to arrange that Dawson followed him at the appropriate times to find the planted material and to make the announcements to the British Museum or the public? In fact, the events of the 1915 finds alone are so complicated that for Elliot Smith to have been tied up in these let alone with events [24] before he even got to England, I find completely incredible. Since Mr Millar has used so much of my material I feel he should have examined the sequence of events much more carefully. He does, I am glad to say, even on his cursory analysis, realize that the timing is a major reason for exonerating Teilhard de Chardin.

The question of the anatomical knowledge required by the perpetrator I have, of course, discussed in my book, but Millar thinks that only an anatomist of Elliot Smith's competence could have perpetrated the forgery. I must emphasize that someone like Dawson, with 15 or 20 years of interest in archaeology and evolution, a man of undoubtedly high intelligence, frequently in contact with palaeontologists, who knew the Hunterian collections at the Royal College of Surgeons well, and who had in his possession a cast of the Heidelberg jaw amongst other things, it would be by no means difficult to acquire the necessary knowledge. For years the Diploma in Oxford put non-biologists such as social anthropologists and archaeologists through a course of skull measurement and comparative palaeontology and primatology, and this is still done in several places. In Dawson's day the material was so sparse that an intelligent and dedicated person with Dawson's background would certainly have realized what to do when he came to articulate an ape jaw with a human cranium especially if he had by his side a human jaw with its flat molar wear and articular condyle obviously different from that of the ape mandible.

Just as with the timing of events and the anatomical aspects, Mr. Millar has not grasped the full significance of the artificial staining. He thinks that Dawson's use of potassium bichromate (regretted by Smith Woodward) was quite innocent, ignoring the fact that the fossils did not need any hardening. But he should know that there were not one but three staining techniques employed. About the staining bichromate he makes a glaring error by saying on page 229: "Potassium bichromate is not detectable at all". He seems to have overlooked the many tests in the scientific reports which show chromate in many of the fragments. There was also staining by iron ammonium sulphate in some fragments in addition to the bichromate, and thirdly, there was the staining of the canine by Vandyke Brown. It really is no use saying that Dawson was using potassium bichromate in an innocent or conventional way. In fact the jaw was apparently already chromate stained when retrieved from the gravel in the presence of Dawson and Smith Woodward and taken by the latter to London.

Then Mr. Millar thinks he has demolished the veracity of those of my informants who told me they had strong suspicions of Dawson from the early days. Here Mr Millar may not have grasped a most important [25] point from his reading of my book. Let me therefore say quite unequivocally that before the public announcement of the hoax in November 1953 (and after the technical work had been finished‚ I had, during the preceeding weeks, carried out my main enquiries in Sussex and I did this, contrary to the unwarranted assertion by Mr Millar, without any prejudice whatever against Dawson. In fact until all the scientific work had been done I had not concerned myself with a possible perpetrator at all. Dawson, Smith Woodward, de Chardin, were merely names to me. When I first spoke to Mr Saltzman in Lewes, he had no inkling that the forgery had been unmasked. I asked him about Mr Dawson in the most general way and discovered the strong suspicions which he harboured of him. Nor did I reveal the unmasking of the hoax to Mr Pollard when he gave me the most astounding information regarding the accusation that his friend, Mr. Harry Morris, had levelled at Dawson before 1916. Morris, who had not only told Mr Pollard but others including Captain St. Barbe, had taken the trouble to write down that he regarded Dawson as a faker of the implements. Morris had been dead many years when I came to the scene and I am afraid was denied the benefit of the hindsight which Mr Millar would like to attribute to him.

Finally, as to motivation, it is ridiculous to insinuate that Elliot Smith needed advancement through malpractice. Elliot Smith was elected FRS in 1907 and appointed Professor of Anatomy in Manchester in 1909. The Piltdown discovery was announced in 1912. Charles Dawson's ambitions are documented in my book.

There are many other points which are incorrectly argued or simply misunderstood by Mr Millar in his book. He gives an inaccurate rendering of some of the results reported by Dr Oakley as Dr Oakley has pointed out to me.

In conclusion I think it is worth asking whether there is any point to Mr Millar's book apart from the totally unconvincing attempt to incriminate Grafton Elliot Smith. His book purports to be a history of anthropological discovery giving the background that made the Piltdown affair possible and, in his estimation, the opportunities and motivation for Elliot Smith rather than Dawson, but the real significance of the history of palaeontological controversy eludes Mr Millar. Briefly it is that this branch of science has remained extremely refractory to exact methods of analysis and interpretation and this has allowed a good deal of emotionalism, crankiness and ill-formed journalism to flourish in a field which commands great public interest. The Piltdown episode highlighted the need for a rigorous basis for this discipline. Like Lord Zuckerman and his colleagues in Birmingham as well as other professional anthropologists, I have strongly urged (as in my study of [26] Swancombe Man) that it is feasible and indeed essential that objective, statistical techniques be applied in the comparison of fossils and particularly fossil fragments, before any far reaching claims are made as regrettably continue to be the case. Piltdown has demonstrated that dating by both direct and indirect methods can be put on an objective basis. Thirdly, the Piltdown investigation indicated that it is quite possible to put forward in human palaeontology, testable hypotheses so that new fossil finds are assessed for their affinities, not to arbitrarily chosen comparative material but to the whole corpus of well attested and quantified remains.

Unless these things are done human palaeontology will remain a low-level science which may often be fun to pursue in an easy-going way but, as you may have gathered, will involve a great waste of time in order to clear up ill-considered and sensational claims.



Millar, Ronad (1972). The Piltdown men. London: Gollancz.

Weiner, J. S. (1955). The Piltdown forgery. Oxford: Univ. Press.

Zuckerman, Lord. (1972). The Piltdown men. Letter in the Times Literary Supplement 27

October 1972: 1287.

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