Gould and Teilhard's "Fatal Error"

Mary Lukas

Teilhard Newsletter July 1981


[4] Forty years after the announcement of the "discovery at Piltdown," Kenneth Oakley, J. S. Weiner, and W. L. Gros Clark, using modern dating methods, demonstrated that both the Piltdown fossils from Site 1 at Barkham Manor and Site 2 at the Sheffield Park plough field were forgeries.

Since Woodward had died in 1944, Oakley wrote Teilhard, as the last living witness of the event, to find out if he could shed any light on the situation with which he had been so loosely associated so many years before.

[5] In his answering letter (Nov. 28,1953), Teilhard replied that he could not bring himself to believe that either Woodward or Dawson could have participated in a crime, and made half-hearted suggestions for how the Barkham Manor fossils (the only ones that he had actually seen being "discovered") could have been stained naturally. Then, quite surprisingly, he went on to talk about Site 2, which Oakley had also mentioned in his query. As far as the fragments of Piltdown Locality 2 are concerned," he wrote, "it must be observed that Dawson never tried to emphasize them particularly. He just brought me to the site of Locality 2 and explained me (sic) t hat he had found the isolated molar and the skull piece in the heaps of rubble and pebbles raked at the surface of the field." (In spite of Gould's inference, it should be noted that in none of his letters did Teilhard ever say he had seen the fossils. He had only seen the site; he had heard from Dawson about the fossils.) But a month later, an intrigued Oakley wrote to question him further. When indeed had Teilhard visited Site 2? Dawson was notorious for manufacturing fossils long before he announced their "discovery," but Teilhard was in the French Army from December 1914, and the Piltdown Man of Site 2, the Sheffield Park plowfield, was supposed to have been found in 1915.

On January 29, 1954, Teilhard replied to Oakley in a letter that demonstrated his confusion. It must have been in 1913 when he saw the site "where the two small fragments of skull and the isolated molar were supposedly found in the rubble," he wrote to Oakley. It was "certainly not in 1914!" And then in a letter he wrote a month later, to Mabel Kenward, daughter of the tenant of Barkham Manor, Teilhard confessed that although he thought it had been 1913 when he had seen Site 2, he could not even remember whether he had visited it before or after the finds at Site 1 were complete.

The revelation that Teilhard had seen the Site of Piltdown 2 in 1913 (though not, as Gould insists, the fossils) was what Gould called "Teilhard's fatal error," and subsequent letters show Teilhard's increasing mistrust of his memory about what Dawson said at the time. This natural hesitation was interpreted by Gould as Teilhard's attempt to cover up a mistake.

But was Teilhard really in error about the date when he said he had seen Site 2 in the Sheffield Park plough field? Why should we think so? A re-reading of the letters Karl Schmitz-Moorman has quoted above clearly demonstrates that on at least two of the three occasions when Teilhard visited Piltdown, Dawson drove him from Lewes to Uckfield, to Sheffield Park, and then to the gravel pit at Barkham Manor where the first "Piltdown Man" had been "found." Certainly Teilhard had passed through the Sheffield Park plough field on May 31, 1912 (see Schmitz-Moorman above) and again-how many times one cannot guess- during the long, leisurely weekend of driving about, August 10, 1913 ( Idem, Schmitz-Moorman).

In his letters to Oakley in 1953-1954, Teilhard wrote that Dawson had pointed out part of the Second Site plough field, and told him he had found something there. But what did Dawson say he had found? In each of the three letters to Oakley in which Teilhard holds firm to his contention that he had seen the Piltdown 2 site (which he always identifies in terms of the 1915 fossils). Teilhard grows vaguer and vaguer, however, about what Dawson told him when he showed him Site 2.

How to explain this? In none of Teilhard's letters to other people in 1912 or 1913 does he add anything to the fact that he had been present in Sheffield Park at least on two of his three visits. Why would Dawson, however off-handedly (in his first letter to Oakley, Teilhard said that Dawson "did not particularly emphasize" the find) single out the site at all? And when would he have done so? I must confess to having tried out several theories before I found the answer. And I found that answer not in any of Teilhard's letters, but in one of Dawson's, which is kept in the British Museum in London. Luckily, under the aegis of J. S. Weiner, I was able to go there just before Christmas, 1980.

What I finally discovered in that surprisingly substantial correspondence of Dawson to Woodward at the time of the Piltdown discoveries, was a letter of July 3, 1913, in which Dawson made a strange announcement. That week he had been digging, not near Barkham Manor, he told Woodward, "but in a plough field covered with flint gravels in a new place a long way from Piltdown." And there for the first time anywhere outside the Piltdown 1 pit area, Dawson had "found" human frontal bone.

Was it really conceivable then, that when Teilhard, the eager, admiring student, arrived to spend a long weekend just one month later (August 8-10), the garrulous Dawson did not point out to him the Sheffield Park plough field through which they passed, as the site of some kind of new discovery? Highly unlikely. And if so, why did Dawson make so little fuss over the find while pointing it out to Teilhard? Why was Teilhard not very impressed by it at the time?

To return again to Teilhard's written description of the weekend of August 8-10, 1913-none of the diggers of that weekend was much interested in a fossil uncovered any distance from the Piltdown 1 gravel pit. In this early August period of 1913, what the three diggers were looking for was fossil material to make a connection (see letter of August 15, 1913, quoted by Schmitz-Moorman) between the Piltdown skull and jaw to prove or disprove Smith Woodward's reconstruction. Until Teilhard found the canine on August 30, 1913, there was no such thing as a believable Piltdown 1, and therefore little interest in new bones at new sites. August 30, 1913 was the real "birthday" of Piltdown Man, and the date Teilhard would long remember.

It is also helpful to consider what must have happened when Teilhard returned to Piltdown two years after World War I ended, in the summer of 1920. Dawson, the great conjurer, the Sussex Wizard, was dead, and Woodward was alone. When Woodward took Teilhard to Barkham [6] Manor and Sheffield Park that summer, how could Teilhard not remember that Dawson had taken him to the same Sheffield Park plough field before? When? In 1913? And then when he stood in the same field in 1920 Teilhard knew a molar had been found there, and a frontal cranial bone, too. Of course, the whole thing clicked in his mind, if indeed it had not already done so when he first heard of the announcement in France. Of course he still did not question the behavior of his elders and betters that summer of 1913 when the real interest of the diggers was not the Sheffield Park site but the pit at Barkham Manor. He remembered that Dawson had shown him the field and assumed that the fossils Dawson had talked about were the same ones which were publicly announced in 1915.

Back on the continent some weeks later, Teilhard put on paper once and for all his reaction to L'Affaire Piltdown. He was 39 years old now, not 33. He had already published an important paper on the Ouercy fossils, and was waiting for the printer to deliver his thesis on the Sparnacian and Thanetian beds of the Paris basin. He was no longer a wondering amateur, but a promising young scholar. But at the same time, he was a just man who trusted his friends and those whom he believed had been kind to him.

Le Cas de l'Homme de Piltdown, the paper that Teilhard wrote after his 1920 visit to Piltdown, was his last word on the subject. Anatomically, he stated, Piltdown, with its apelike jaw and modern cranium, did not make sense. But here the problem lay. Dawson and Woodward, his friends, these honorable men, these lights of British science, said they had seen the bones lying together and he himself had been directed by them to dig in the pile of stones where the canine was uncovered. How could one solve such a conundrum? Judging from his subsequent avoidance of the Piltdown issue, it seems that Teilhard decided it was not his place to try. Either the laws of anatomy were more complex than anyone imagined, or human motivations were more convoluted than he ever wished to think. Teilhard had nothing more to say. "Le cas," he wrote toward the conclusion of the essay, "ést épuis´."

In other words: "Case closed."

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