Teilhard and the Piltdown hoax

Peter Costello

Antiquity May 1981


[58] The recent article by Professor S. J. Gould, Harvard University, has raised the question of Teilhard's involvement in the Piltdown Hoax in such a manner that a final refutation of this long rumoured scandal is needed..

Professor Gould claims, on the basis of his own interpretation of a series of letters sent by Teilhard to Dr K. P. Oakley in 1953 and 1954, that there existed a conspiracy between Charles Dawson and Teilhard to deceive Dr A. S. Woodward, and later, Teilhard's respected teacher Marcelin Boule; and by extension, the general scientific community.

This large, and on the face of it astonishing claim, is based entirely on letters written some 40 years after the events being recalled, by a man already old and sick. Professor Gould adduces no contemporary evidence of this conspiracy, or indeed, any overt evidence of its actual existence.

Contemporary evidence of the nature of the relationship between Teilhard and Charles Dawson has recently come into my hands. For some time I have been collecting material for a complete account of the Piltdown Affair. (This book is already in preparation, but will not appear until 1982.) I have discovered, in the archives of the Geological Department of the British Museum (Natural History), a series of letters between Teilhard and Charles Dawson, previously unknown and unpublished. As no letters between Teilhard and Dawson were thought to exist, this find is of special significance.

I had intended to use these letters in my book. However, it has recently been suggested to me that Professor Gould's article, which received wide and uncritical coverage in the American press, might have persuaded some members of the scientific community that Teilhard de Chardin was indeed guilty of fraud. It seems best to publish this new evidence as soon as possible in the interests not only of historical accuracy, but of natural justice.

Some background information will make the significance of this new evidence clearer. Between 1908 and 1912 Teilhard was studying Theology at the Jesuit College at Ore Place, Hastings, Sussex. He was becoming interested in fossils and encountered Dawson in a quarry where the latter was attempting to recover the remains of an iguanodon.

Dawson encouraged Teilhard's researches in the Wealden formation, and these led to various discoveries of new animals and plants, which were later described by Dr A. S. Woodward and Professor Seward of Cambridge. Teilhard was one of the first to be informed of the discovery of

Piltdown and took part in at least three digs at the site, during which he made some critical discoveries.

When the hoax was exposed in 1953 suspicion about Teilhard's role arose. Professor Gould in his article has chosen to put into print the generalized suspicions of some scientists, making (as he admits) no attempt to investigate the historical circumstances.

The following letter, part of a longer series, will, 1 believe, show the real nature of the relationship between Dawson and Teilhard. On 21 June 1912, after returning from taking part in the dig at Piltdown, Teilhard wrote to Dawson suggesting that he and Dr Woodward might come down to Hastings to select what they wanted from his collection of Wealden fossils. This they did. Some weeks later, on 10 July 1912, Teilhard wrote again:


Dear Mr Dawson,


I am sorry to tell you that it is impossible for me to go to Lewes, next week, because I have to start from Hastings on Tuesday! 1 hope, nevertheless, that we will again dig together the Uckfield's gravel: next year, I am likely to study Natural History in France, and to spend my holidays in England. If so, I will surely do my best to see you. Until I give you my definitive address, you can write to me at: 'Chateau de Sarcenat, par Oreines, Puy-de-Dôme'.

I am very thankful to you for your kindness towards me during this last four years. Lewes will certainly be one of my best remembrances of England, and you may be sure that I shall often pray God to bless the Castle Lodge.

Yours sincerely,

P. Teilhard

PS. 1 sent yesterday the fossils to Dr Woodward.


Teilhard remained in touch with Dawson visiting England again in 1913 and 1914, and writing to him from France after his induction into the French Army after the outbreak of the Great War. Through Teilhard Dawson was put in touch with Marcelin Boule.

I suggest that this farewell letter, so touching its expression of thanks, demonstrates (as do the

others in the series), that the relationship between Dawson and Teilhard was one of mentor and pupil and that no conspiracy existed between them. [59] Teilhard, like Woodward, was duped by the hoaxer. The identity of that hoaxer is another matter, but I would suggest that Dawson's guilt should not be too easily assumed.

The centenary of Teilhard's birth falls in 1981. Those who are concerned with his scientific and philosophical achievements may now, I suggest, view these with a critical detachment unsullied by unfounded allegations of conspiracy and fraud.


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