Piltdown Revisited

Stephen Jay Gould

Natural History March 1979


[86] Nothing is quite so fascinating as a well-aged mystery. Many connois-seurs regard Josephine

Tey's The Daughter of Time as the greatest detec-tive story ever written because its pro-tagonist is Richard III, not the modern and insignificant murderer of Roger Ackroyd. The old chestnuts are peren-nial sources for impassioned and fruit-less debate. Who was Jack the Ripper? Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?

My profession of paleontology of-fered its entry to the first rank of histori-cal conundrums a quarter-century ago. In 1953, Piltdown man was exposed as a certain fraud perpetrated by a very uncertain hoaxer. Since then, interest has never flagged. People who cannot tell Tyrannosaurus from Allosaurus have firm opinions about the identity of Piltdown's forger. Rather than simply ask "whodunnit?" this column treats what I regard as an intellectually more interesting issue: why did anyone ever accept Piltdown man in the first place? I was led to address the subject by re-cent and prominent news reports add-ing-with abysmally poor evidence, in my opinion-yet another prominent suspect to the list. Also, as an old mys-tery reader, I cannot refrain from ex-pressing my own prejudice, all in due time.

In 1912, Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur archeologist from Sussex, brought several cranial fragments to Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natu-ral History). The first, he said, had been unearthed by workmen from a gravel pit in 1908. Since then, he had searched the spoil heaps and found a few more fragments. The bones, worn and deeply stained, seemed indigenous to the ancient gravel; they were not the remains of a more recent interment. Yet the skull appeared remarkably modern in form, although the bones were unusually thick.

Smith Woodward, excited as such a measured man could be, accompanied Dawson to Piltdown and there, with Father Teilhard de Chardin, looked for further evidence in the spoil heaps. (Yes, believe it or not, the same Teil-hard who, as a mature scientist and theologian, became such a cult figure some fifteen years ago with his attempt to reconcile evolution, nature, and God in The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard had come to England in 1908 to study at the Jesuit College in Hastings, near Piltdown. He met Dawson in a quarry on May 31, 1909; the mature solicitor and the young French Jesuit became warm friends, colleagues, and coex-plorers )


Lower molars of the Piltdown jaw AMNH

On one of their joint expeditions, Dawson found the famous mandible, or lower jaw. Like the skull fragments, the jaw was deeply stained, but it seemed to be as apish in form as the [88] cranium was human. Nonetheless, it contained two molar teeth, worn flat in a manner not rare in humans but never encountered in apes. Unfortunately, the jaw was broken in just the two places that might have settled its relationship to the skull: the chin region, with all its marks of distinction between ape and human, was gone, and so was the area of articulation with the cranium.

Armed with skull fragments, the lower jaw, and an associated collection of worked flints and bone, plus a number of mammalian fossils to fix the age as ancient, Smith Woodward and Dawson made their splash before the Geological Society of London on December 18, 1912. Their reception was mixed, although on the whole favorable. Although no one smelled fraud, the association of such a human cranium with such an apish jaw indicated to some critics that remains of two separate animals might have been mixed together in the quarry.

Over the next three years, Dawson and Smith Woodward countered with a series of further discoveries that, in retrospect, could not have been better programmed to dispel doubt. In 1913, Father Teilhard found the all-important lower canine tooth. It, too, was apish in form but strongly worn in a human manner. Then, in 1915, Dawson convinced most of his detractors by finding the same association of two thick-skulled human cranial fragments with an apish tooth worn in a human manner at a second site two miles from the original finds.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, leading American paleontologist and converted critic, wrote:

"If there is a Providence hanging over the affairs of prehistoric men, it certainly manifested itself in this case, because the three fragments of the second Piltdown man found by Dawson are exactly those which we would have selected to confirm the comparison with the original type.... Placed side by side with the corresponding fossils of the first Piltdown man they agree precisely; there is not a shadow of a difference."

Providence, unbeknownst to Osborn, walked in human form at Piltdown.

For the next thirty years, Piltdown occupied an uncomfortable but acknowledged place in human prehistory. Then, in 1949, Kenneth P. Oakley applied his fluorine test to the Piltdown remains. Bones pick up fluorine in proportion to their time of residence in a deposit and the fluorine content of [89] the deposit. Both the skull and jaw of Piltdown contained barely detectable amounts of fluorine, they could not have lain long in the gravels. Oakley still did not suspect fakery. He proposed that Piltdown, after all, had been a relatively recent interment into ancient gravels.

But a few years later, in collaboration with J.S. Weiner and W.E. Ie Gros Clark, Oakley finally considered the obvious alternative-that the "interment" had been made in this century with intent to defraud. He found that the skull and jaw had been artificially stained, the flints and bone worked with modern blades, and the associated mammals, although genuine fossils, imported from elsewhere. Moreover, the teeth had been filed down to simulate human wear. The old anomaly-an apish jaw with a human cranium-was resolved in the most parsimonious way of all. The skull did belong to a modern human; the jaw was an orangutan's.

But who had foisted such a monstrous hoax upon scientists so anxious for such a find that they remained blind to an obvious resolution of its anomalies? Of the original trio, Teilhard was dismissed as a young and unwitting dupe. No one has ever (and rightly, in my opinion) suspected Smith Woodward, the superstraight arrow who devoted his life to the reality of Piltdown and who, past eighty and blind, dictated in retirement his last book with its chauvinistic title, The Earliest Englishman (1948).

Suspicion instead has focused on Dawson. Opportunity he certainly had, although no one has ever established a satisfactory motive. Dawson was a highly respected amateur with several important finds to his credit. He was overenthusiastic and uncritical, perhaps even a bit unscrupulous in his dealings with other amateurs, but no direct evidence of his complicity has ever come to light. Nevertheless, the circumstantial case is strong and well summarized by J. S. Weiner in The Piltdown Forgery (Oxford University Press, 1955).

Supporters of Dawson have maintained that a more professional scientist must have been involved, at least as a coconspirator, because the finds were so cleverly faked. I have always regarded this as a poor argument, advanced by scientists largely to assuage their embarrassment that such an indifferently designed hoax was not detected sooner. The staining, to be sure, had been done consummately. But the "tools" had been poorly carved and the teeth rather crudely filed-scratch marks were noted as soon as scientists looked with the right hypothesis in mind. Le Gros Clark wrote: '"The evidences of artificial abrasion immediately sprang to the eye. Indeed so obvious did they seem it may well be asked-how was it that they had escaped notice before." The forger's main skill consisted in knowing what to leave out-discarding the chin and articulation.

Piltdown reappeared prominently in the news last November because yet another scientist has been implicated as a possible coconspirator. Shortly before he died last year at age ninety-three, J.A. Douglas, emeritus professor of geology at Oxford, made a tape recording suggesting that his predecessor in the chair, W.J. Sollas, was the culprit. In support of this assertion, Douglas offered only three items scarcely ranking as evidence in my book: (1) Sollas and Smith Woodward were bitter enemies. (So what. Academia is a den of vipers, but verbal sparring and elaborate hoaxing are responses of differing magnitude.) (2) In [90] 1910, Douglas gave Sollas some mastodon bones that could have been used as part of the imported fauna. (But such bones and teeth are not rare.) (3) Sollas once received a package of potassium bichromate and neither Douglas nor Sollas's photographer could figure out why he had wanted it. Potassium bichromate was used in staining the Piltdown bones. (It was also an important chemical in photography, and I do not regard the supposed confusion of Sollas's photographer as a strong sign that the professor had some nefarious usages in mind.) In short, I find the evidence against Sollas so weak that I wonder why the leading scientific journals of England and the United States gave it so much space. I would exclude Sollas completely, were it not for the paradox that his famous work on Ancient Hunters supports Smith Woodward's views about Piltdown in terms so obsequiously glowing that it could be read as subtle sarcasm.

Only three hypotheses make much sense to me. First, Dawson was widely suspected and disliked by some amateur archeologists (and equally acclaimed by others). Some compatriots regarded him as a fraud. Others were bitterly jealous of his standing among professionals. Perhaps one of his colleagues devised this complex and peculiar form of revenge. The second hypothesis, and the most probable in my view, holds that Dawson acted alone, whether for fame or to show up the world of professionals we do not know.

The third hypothesis is much more interesting. It would render Piltdown as a joke that went too far, rather than a malicious forgery. It represents the "pet theory" of many prominent vertebrate paleontologists who knew the man well. I have sifted all the evidence, trying hard to knock it down. Instead, I find it consistent and plausible, although not the leading contender. A.S. Romer, late head of the museum I inhabit at Harvard and America's finest vertebrate paleontologist, often stated his suspicions to me. Louis Leakey also believed it. His autobiography refers anonymously to a "second man," but internal evidence clearly implicates a certain individual to anyone in the know.

It is often hard to remember a man in his youth after old age imposes a different persona. Teilhard de Chardin became an austere and almost Godlike figure to many in his later years; he was

widely hailed as a leading prophet of our age. But he was once a fun-loving young student. He knew Dawson for three years before Smith Wcodward entered the story. He may have had access, from a previous assignment in Egypt, to mammalian bones (probably from Tunisia and Malta) that formed part of the "imported" fauna at Piltdown. I can easily imagine Dawson and Teilhard, over long hours in field and pub, hatching a plot for different reasons: Dawson to expose the gullibility of pompous professionals; Teilhard to rub English noses once again with the taunt that their nation had no legitimate human fossils, while France reveled in a superabundance that made her the queen of anthropology. Perhaps they worked together, never expecting that the leading lights of English science would fasten to Piltdown with such gusto. Perhaps they expected to come clean but could not.

Teilhard left England to become a stretcher bearer during World War 1. Dawson, on this view, persevered and completed the plot with a second Piltdown find in 1915. But then the joke ran away and became a nightmare. Dawson sickened unexpectedly and died in 1916. Teilhard could not return [91] before the war's end. By that time, the three leading lights of British anthropology and paleontology-Arthur Srnith Woodward, Grafton Elliot Smith, and Arthur Keith-had staked their careers on the reality of Piltdown. (Indeed they ended up as two Sir Arthurs and one Sir Grafton, largely for their part in putting England on the anthropological map.) Had Teilhard confessed in 1918, his promising career (which later included a major role in describing the legitimate Peking man) would have ended abruptly. So he followed the Psalmist and the motto of Sussex University, later established just a few miles from Piltdown-''Be still, and know...."-to his dying day. Possible. Just possible.

All this speculation provides endless fun and controversy, but what about the prior and more interesting question: why had anyone believed Piltdown in the first place? It was an improbable creature from the start. Why had anyone admitted to our lineage an ancestor with a fully modern cranium and the unmodified jaw of an ape?

Indeed, Piltdown never lacked detractors. Its temporary victory was born in conflict and nurtured throughout by controversy. Many scientists continued to believe that Piltdown was an artifact composed of two animals accidentally commingled in the same deposit. In the early 1940s, for example, Franz Weidenreich, perhaps the world's greatest human anatomist, wrote (with devastating accuracy in hindsight): ''Eoanthropus ['dawn man,' the official designation of Piltdown] should be erased from the list of human fossils. It is the artificial combination of fragments of a modern human braincase with orang-utanglike mandible and teeth." To this apostasy, Sir Arthur Keith responded with bitter irony: "This is one way of getting rid of facts which do not fit into a preconceived theory; the usual way pursued by men of science is, not to get rid of facts, but frame theory to fit them."

Moreover, had anyone been inclined to pursue the matter, there were published grounds for suspecting fraud from the start. A dental anatomist, C.W. Lyne, stated that the canine found by Teilhard was a juvenile tooth, just erupted before Piltdown's death, and that its intensity of wear could not be reconciled with its age. Others voiced strong doubts about the ancient manufacture of Piltdown's tools. In amateur circles of Sussex, some of Dawson's colleagues concluded that Piltdown must be a fake, but they did not publish their beliefs.

If we are to learn anything about the nature of scientific inquiry from Piltdown-rather than just reveling in the joys of gossip-we will have to resolve the paradox of its easy acceptance. I think that I can identify at least four categories of reasons for the ready welcome accorded to such a misfit by all the greatest English paleontologists. All four contravene the usual mythology about scientific practice-that facts are "hard" and primary and that scientific understanding increases by patient collection and fitting together of these objective bits of pure information. Instead, they display science as a human activity, motivated by hope, cultural prejudice, and the pursuit of glory yet stumbling in its erratic path toward a better understanding of nature.

The imposition of strong hope upon dubious evidence. Before Piltdown English paleoanthropology was mired in a limbo now occupied by students of extraterrestrial life: endless fields for speculation and no direct evidence. Beyond some flint "cultures" of [95] doubtful human workmanship and some bones strongly suspected as products of recent interments into ancient gravels, England knew nothing of its most ancient ancestors. France, on the other hand, had been blessed with a superabundance of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons and their associated art and tools. And French anthropologists delighted in rubbing English noses with this marked disparity of evidence. Piltdown could not have been better designed to turn the tables. It seemed to predate Neanderthal by a considerable stretch of time. If human fossils had a fully modern cranium hundreds of thousands of years before beetle-browed Neanderthal appeared, then Piltdown must be our ancestor and the French Neanderthals a side branch. Smith Woodward proclaimed: "The Neanderthal race was a degenerate offshoot of early man while surviving modern man may have arisen directly from the primitive source of which the Piltdown skull provides the first discovered evidence." This international rivalry has often been mentioned by Piltdown's commentators, but a variety of equally important factors have usually escaped notice.


Reduction of anomaly by fit with cultural biases. A human cranium with an ape's jaw strikes us today as sufficiently incongruous to merit strong suspicion. Not so in 1913. In a previous column (November 1975) 1 wrote about the strong influences exerted by biases, largely cultural in origin, for "brain primacy" in human evolution. The argument rested on a false inference from contemporary importance to historical priority: We rule today by virtue of our intelligence. Therefore, in our evolution, an enlarged brain must have preceded and inspired all other alterations of our body. We should expect to find human ancestors with enlarged, perhaps nearly modern, brains and a distinctly simian body. (Ironically, nature followed an opposite path. Our earliest ancestors, the australopithecines, were fully erect but still small brained.) Thus, Piltdown neatly matched a widely anticipated result. Grafton Elliot Smith wrote in 1924:

"The outstanding interest of the Piltdown skull is in the confirmation it affords of the view that in the evolution of Man the brain led the way. It is the veriest truism that Man has emerged from the simian state in virtue of the enrichment of the structure of his mind.... The brain attained what may be termed the human rank at a time when the jaws and face, and no doubt the body also, still retained much of the uncouthness of Man's simian ancestors. In other words, Man at first . . . was merely an Ape with an overgrown brain. The importance of the Piltdown skull lies in the fact that it affords tangible confirmation of these inferences."

Piltdown also buttressed some all too familiar racial views among white Europeans. In the 1930s and 1940s, following the discovery of Peking man in strata approximately equal in age with the Piltdown gravels, phyletic trees based on Piltdown and affirming the antiquity of white supremacy began to appear in the literature (although they were never adopted by Piltdown's chief champions, Smith Woodward, Smith, and Keith). Peking man (originally called Sinanthropus, but now placed in Homo erectus ) lived in China with a brain two-thirds modern size, while Piltdown man, with its fully developed brain, inhabited England. If Piltdown, as the earliest Englishman, was the progenitor of white races, while other hues must trace their ancestry to Homo erectus, then whites crossed the threshold to full humanity long before other people. As longer residents in this exalted state, whites [96] must excel in the arts of civilization.

Reduction of anomaly by matching fact to expectation. We know, in retrospect, that Piltdown had a human cranium and an ape's jaw. As such, it provides an ideal opportunity for testing what scientists do when faced with uncomfortable anomaly. G.E. Smith and others may have advocated an evolutionary head start for the brain, but no one dreamed of an independence so complete that brains might become fully human before jaws changed at all! Piltdown was distressingly too good to be true.

If Keith was right in his taunt to Weidenreich, then Piltdown's champions should have modeled their theories to the uncomfortable fact of a human cranium and an ape's jaw. Instead, they modeled the "facts"-another illustration that information always reaches us through the strong filters of culture, hope, and expectation. As a persistent theme in "pure" description of the Piltdown remains, we learn from all its major supporters that the skull, although remarkably modern, contains a suite of definitely simian characters! Smith Woodward, in fact, originally estimated the cranial capacity at a mere 1,070 cc (compared with a modern average of 1,400 to 1,500), although Keith later convinced him to raise the figure nearer to the low end of our modern spectrum. Grafton Elliot Smith, describing the brain cast in the original paper of 1913, found unmistakable signs of incipient expansion in areas that mark the higher mental faculties in modern brains. He concluded: "We must regard this as being the most primitive and most simian human brain so far recorded; one, moreover, such as might reasonably have been expected to be associated in one and the same individual with the mandible which so definitely indicates the zoological rank of its original possessor." Just a year before Oakley's revelation, Sir Arthur Keith wrote in his last major work (1948): "His forehead was like that of the orang, devoid of a supraorbital torus; in its modeling his frontal bone presented many points of resemblance to that of the orang of Borneo and Sumatra." Modern Homo sapiens, I hasten to add, also lacks a supraorbital torus, or brow ridge.

Careful examination of the jaw also revealed a set of remarkably human features for such an apish jaw (beyond the forged wear of the teeth). Sir Arthur Keith repeatedly emphasized, for example, that the teeth were inserted [97] into the jaw in a human, rather than a simian, fashion.

Prevention of discovery by practice. In former years, the British Museum did not occupy the vanguard in maintaining open and accessible collections-a happy trend of recent years, and one that has helped to lift the odor of mustiness (literally and figuratively) from major research museums. Like the stereotype of a librarian who protects books by guarding them from use, Piltdown's keepers severely restricted access to the original bones. Researchers were often permitted to look but not touch; only the set of plaster casts could be handled. Everyone praised the casts for their accuracy of proportion and detail, but the detection of fraud required access to the originals-artificial staining and wear of teeth cannot be discovered in plaster. Louis Leakey writes in his autobiography:

"As I write this book in 1972 and ask myself how it was that the forgery remained unmasked for so many years, I have turned my mind back to 1933, when I first went to see Dr. Bather, Smith Woodward's successor.... I told him that I wished to make a careful examination of the Piltdown fossils, since I was preparing a textbook on early man. I was taken into the basement to be shown the specimens, which were lifted out of a safe and laid on a table. Next to each fossil was an excellent cast. I was not allowed to handle the originals in any way, but merely to look at them and satisfy myself that the casts were really good replicas. Then, abruptly, the originals were removed and locked up again, and I was left for the rest of the morning with only the casts to study.

It is my belief how that it was under these conditions that all visiting scientists were permitted to examine the Piltdown specimens, and that the situation changed only when they came under the care of my friend and contemporary Kenneth Oakley. He did not see the necessity of treating the fragments as if they were the crown jewels but, rather, considered them simply as important fossils-to be looked after carefully, but from which the maximum scientific evidence should be obtained."

Henry Fairfield Osborn, although not known as a generous man, paid almost obsequious homage to Smith Woodward in his treatise on the historical path of human progress, Man Rises to Parnassus (1927). He had been a skeptic before his visit to the British Museum in 1921. Then, on Sunday morning, July 24, "after attending a [98] most memorable service in Westminster Abbey," Osborn "repaired to the British Museum to see the fossil remains of the now thoroughly vindicated Dawn Man of Great Britain." (He, at least, as head of the American Museum of Natural History, got to see the originals. ) Osborn swiftly converted and proclaimed Piltdown "a discovery of transcendent importance to the prehistory of man.'" He then added: "We have to be reminded over and over again that Nature is full of paradoxes and that the order of the universe is not the human order." Yet Osborn had seen little but the human order on two levels-the comedy of fraud and the subtler, yet ineluctable, imposition of theory upon nature. Somehow, I am not distressed that the human order must veil all our interactions with the universe, for the veil is translucent, however strong its texture.


Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University.

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