The haunting

Mary Lukas & Ellen Lukas

Antiquity 1983


[7] Mary Lukas, who lives in New York, is a journalist and critic Her sister, Ellen, is Press Analyst to the Secretary-General of the UN. Together they wrote an extensive biography of the French mystic-scientist, Teilhard de Chardin (1977). They believe that Teilhard was haunted by the fear that his friend, Charles Dawson, had deceived him and the world by the Piltdown forgery. When Stephen Jay Gould declared recently that Teilhard himself was the Piltdown forger, Mary Lukas corresponded with the Editor and the late Kenneth Oakley and we urged her to set down, as she, with the aid of her sister, has done in this article, her views of Teilhard's part in the Piltdown affair.


In the early winter of 1953, just after the de-bunking of the Piltdown fossil forgery perpetrated in the early part of this century near Uckfield, Sussex, a blizzard of correspondence descended on the British Museum (Natural History). Among the letters was a fairly ominous one addressed to Kenneth Oakley. Purporting to be a message from one 'Elihu Progwhistle', a professional medium whose seances were being monopolized by a spirit 'identifying itself as the solicitor Charles Dawson' the note angrily denounced the whole investigation. It relayed the ghost's warning that it would take violent extra-legal action against the Piltdown detectives unless they gave up the search.

Neither Oakley to whom the letter was addressed, nor his colleagues J. S. Weiner and W. E. Le Gros Clark, paid much attention. But the message was in its way prophetic. If mischief begets mischief, then Piltdown has spawned more than its share. Though in his book, The Piltdown forgery (1955), Professor Weiner attempted to close the case by opting for Dawson's place as sole culprit in the crime, neither he nor anyone else could prove that Dawson acted unaided. In the 25 years that fol-lowed the publication of his book, every spear-carrier at Piltdown was publicly accused of complicity. The list was extensive: Lewis Abbott, Harry Morris, George ('Flint Jack') Glover, W. P. Pycraft, M. A. C. Hinton, W. J. Sollas, Grafton Elliot Smith, even Conan Doyle- everyone almost, with the curious exception of Teilhard de Chardin.

Behind the scenes, of course, as all Piltdown--watchers knew, Teilhard had been secretly indicted. He was even referred to (without naming a name) in Francis Vere's Piltdown fantasy (1955) and the great Louis S. B. Leakey's By the evidence (1972). A Frenchman, a cleric, a Jesuit (with the historical baggage of suspected duplicity the name evokes), he was as alien-seeming a figure in Anglo--Saxon scientific circles as could be imagined. But just because he was what he was, good manners prevented his accusation until there was concrete reason to suspect him.

Then in August 1980, in an 11-page article called 'The Piltdown conspiracy' printed in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould announced he had found proof. He rehearsed the old arguments that Teilhard was in England at the time of the hoax, a theology student at Hastings; that he knew Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward; that he himself had found the famous Piltdown canine.

But Gould said something more. In letters to Kenneth Oakley, written 40 years after the event, Gould maintained Teilhard had claimed that as early as 1913 he had visited the second Piltdown find, a discovery that was not even supposed to have been made until after Teilhard had left for France. Thus, Teilhard, having prior knowledge of Dawson's plans, must have been guilty at Piltdown. The charge was released to the London Times, then zealously repeated in innumerable American newspapers and magazines from coast to coast. In spring 1981, F. Harrison Matthews pub-lished in Britain's The New Scientist a 10-instal-ment 'imaginary reconstruction of Piltdown' with Teilhard cast as Dawson's accessory. And about the same time, in the June 1981 Natural History , Gould devoted 11 more pages to a rebuttal of the [8] complaints of such eminent partisans of Teilhard as G. H. R. von Koenigswald, Edward O. Dodson and S. L. Washburn, and to the reaffirmation of his faith in his charge of the summer before. At last the whispers were audible and Teilhard took his place among the suspects.

For anyone familiar with Teilhard's life and work, however, the problems raised by Gould's charge were enormous. One was asked to believe that Teilhard spent his life from the age of 12 constructing a reverse mirror image of himself in the vast store of confessional material which he has left behind (some 9,000 letters, 200 self-analysing essays, eight notebooks, two books of personal philosophy). And even if Teilhard were not really the man who spoke out of these writings, it was difficult to imagine how he could have outwitted the rigid rules which governed daily life in a Jesuit seminary at the time the Piltdown forgery was planted. The daily schedule of the Jesuit Theologate at Hastings 1 now sounds almost medieval. There were daily examinations of conscience, weekly private confession, regular 'manifestations of conscience to superiors', nightly 'grand silences', public worship and private devotion. Class-loads were heavy and movements restricted. Twice a week only could a theology student take a walk in the neighbourhood (always accompanied) and then 'for the health of the body'.

Then there was the problem of lack of contemporary evidence for Teilhard's involvement. Neither in Teilhard's letters of the time to family and friends, nor in the references to Teilhard in Charles Dawson's letters to Smith Woodward, conserved at the British Museum (Natural History), was there evidence of much of an exchange between Dawson and Teilhard. A comparison of their letters of the time to various correspondents shows that before Teilhard was drawn into the Piltdown adventure, he and Dawson met only four times-twice in the seminary parlour. If Teilhard, in a shy boast to his parents, once referred to Dawson as 'my correspondent in geology', he meant precisely that: they had written each other letters-especially letters dealing with the prehistoric fish teeth Teilhard and his friend Father Felix Pelletier found in their walks around Hastings. It was also in a letter that Dawson first told Teilhard that in the Ouse gravels he had made an important discovery, and thus began Teilhard's involvement in the Piltdown mystery.

In order to understand Teilhard's place in the Piltdown sequence, it is perhaps useful to examine his letters of the time in chronological order.

A few months before Teilhard was to leave England for France to begin his professional studies, Dawson appeared at the seminary bearing some samples. In a letter to his family; Teilhard recorded the event:


Last Saturday 2 I had a visit from my friend Mr Dawson. He brought along some prehistoric remains (silex, elephant teeth and hippopotamus, and above all, a very thick, well-fossilized piece of human cranial bone, which he found in the river gravels not far from here) in an attempt to urge me to similar research. I only wish I had time to do it!

Letter of 26 April 1913.


A subsequent letter from Teilhard announcing a visit to Bramber, where he was to exercise a two-week chaplaincy, evoked from Dawson (who first cleared the project with Woodward) an invitation to stop off at Lewes and Uckfield and visit the Piltdown dig. On 31 May 1912, Teilhard visited Piltdown. As he wrote to his parents:


We set out from Lewes to the famous alluvium where the prehistoric remains I told you about in my last letter came from. Around 10 o'clock, we were at Uckfield where Prof. Woodward, director of the paleontological section of the British Museum, joined us. We set out equipped for a picnic in an auto which, after driving three miles through the park at Uckfield castle 3, set us down at a shooting range (a grassy turf) leading to a farm. 4 On the turf is a gravel pit which is being emptied of stones to build a road . . . Armed with pick-axes, sieves, etc., we worked for several hours and finally with success. Dawson uncovered a smaller piece of the famous skull of which he has already picked up three pieces and I myself laid my hand on an elephant molar.

Letter of 3 June 1912.


Though awed and fascinated by the work in progress, Teilhard had commitments at Hastings and went back at once. On 10 July, he wrote Dawson a farewell, and by the month's end he was in Paris preparing to take up his professional studies under Marcellin Boule at the Musée de Paléontologie.

[9] Not until the following year (summer of I913) did Teilhard return to England. And when he returned, it was to visit Hastings again for his annual retreat. This time, with the full permission of his superiors, he also spent an entire weekend prospecting with Dawson and Woodward in the 'Uckfield alluvium', as he customarily called it. To his parents he wrote:


For three days [8-10 August], I lived in the most comfortable of homes with the warmest reception imaginable . . . Our principal occupation was digging at Uckfield in the Piltdown gravels. We were there Friday evening, all day Saturday, and Sunday afternoon. The research was exciting. Unfortunately, we didn't find anything except a fragment of nose . . . The area is a very pretty corner of Sussex, heavily wooded, near a golf course and a beautiful park 5 which one must cross to go to Uckfield.

Letter of 15 August 1912.


But before he reached Hastings, he had stopped off a few hours in London to attend a scientific convention where Arthur Keith was challenging Woodward's reconstruction of the Piltdown skull. Keith's question was valid. In the absence of a condyle, or even a properly shaped and angled eye-tooth, it was impossible to show how the modern-looking, high-domed cranium of the Piltdown creature could fit with its primitive jaw. 'All the reconstructions', Teilhard wrote his parents, 'seem pointless to me. What we need are more fossils.'

And the fossils appeared. When Teilhard's retreat was finished at the end of August, he halted at Piltdown. This time his luck changed. Directed by Dawson and Woodward to a pile of spread stones in one corner of the pit, he 'discovered' the canine.


His reaction was jubilant:


On Saturday the 30th, the day (I think) after my last letter to you I went back to Lewes . . . From there Dawson and I went to Uckfield along with Woodward . . . This time we were lucky. In the spread stones washed by the rain of last week I found the canine from the jaw of the famous Piltdown Man-an important find which seems to vindicate Woodward's reconstruction. It was a most exciting moment. And just think it was the last dig of the season!

Letter of 10 September 1913 to his parents.


Then Teilhard took up again his studies in Paris. The war came: he was mobilized and sent to the front. The next time he saw Piltdown was in the summer of 1920. Dawson had died in 1916 and Woodward was living in Hayward's Heath, not far from the digs. From Hastings, where he had been ordered once more to make a retreat, Teilhard wrote to Woodward, and asked him to join him on a visit to the gravels of Uckfield.

There was then more to see. Besides the piece of jaw and canine from the gravel pit at Barkham Manor, there was a new yield comprising skull pieces and a tooth which Dawson (according to Smith Woodward) had found in 1915. When Woodward announced that find in 1917, he produced letters from Dawson proving where and when Dawson had 'discovered' them. In other words, by the time Teilhard returned in 1920, there were two Piltdown sites.

On this troublesome point turns the case that Gould, in his Natural History article, made against Teilhard-a charge which has, since 1980, gone into Piltdown lore.

In 1953, just after the debunking of the Piltdown forgery, Kenneth Oakley wrote to Teilhard, as a witness of the event, to see if he could add any details.

Teilhard began by saying how difficult it was for him to believe that either Dawson or Woodward had hoaxed anyone, and made a half-hearted attempt to explain how the bones from the pit in Piltdown Locality 1 might have been naturally stained. Then he went on:


As far as the fragments of Piltdown Locality 2 are concerned, it must be observed that Dawson never tried to emphasize them particularly although (if I am correct) these specimens were announced after the finds at Locality I were complete. He just brought me to the site of Locality 2 and told me that he had found the isolated molar and small pieces of skull in the heaps of rubbish and pebbles raked at the surface of the field. [Emphasis is Teilhard's.]

Letter of 28 November 1953.


'But this cannot be', Gould said in both his articles. 'Dawson "discovered" the [skull bones at Piltdown 2] in January 1915 and the tooth not until July 1915. And now the key point: Teilhard was mustered into the French Army in December 1914 and shipped immediately to the front, where he remained until the war ended. He could not have seen the remains of Piltdown 2 with Dawson unless they had manufactured them together before he left'.

As the reader will note, Gould's key paragraph is highly eccentric. It betrays not only a slip of [10] Gould's eye as he read Teilhard's letter, but some sharp shifts of logic. Nowhere in this or in any of his 1953-4 letters did Teilhard say he had actually seen the fossils of site 2. He says Dawson took him to the spot and 'explained' him (Teilhard's fractured English) the find.

Why then in his letter to Oakley did Teilhard enumerate these finds? For purposes of identifying the locality? Because Oakley in his notes had done the same thing? Because Teilhard habitually described sites in terms of their yield? Because in this instance he was making an extra effort to be clear? The possibilities are endless. But one thing is certain. Teilhard simply said that in 1913 the Sheffield Park site had been singled out for him from the surrounding land by Dawson and also that 'Dawson did not particularly emphasize' the find.

Why would Dawson have drawn the Sheffield Park field to Teilhard's attention at that time? The answer is oddly enough not in Teilhard's letters, but in a letter of Dawson's dated 3 July 1913, written to Woodward. It is a most curious letter, and one that undermines many of the previously held theories about the Piltdown sequence.

In The earliest Englishman Woodward (1948) gives the impression that little prospecting was done except at the Barkham Manor pit until 1914. Yet in a letter conserved in the British Museum (Natural History), as early as 1913 Dawson had written to Woodward that he had discovered more bone in a new place some distance away. The letter reads:


I have picked up the frontal part of a human skull this evening, in a ploughed field, covered with flint gravel. It is a new place, a long way from Piltdown . . . It is not a thick skull, but it may have been a descendant of Eoanthropus.


With a novelist's touch he concludes:


It was coming on dark and raining when I left the place, but I marked the spot.


3 July, 1913; just a month before Teilhard came to England to make his retreat, just a month before the long, leisurely visit to England which is barely sketched in Teilhard's letter to his parents on 15 August. During that visit, given its length and the freedom of movement afforded to Dawson and his guests by the newly-invented automobile, and his excitement about the new discovery of the plough field a long way from Piltdown, would it not be contrary to Dawson's garrulous nature if, as they drove past the Sheffield Park plough field he did not point it out as a spot where he had 'found' something?

Now to return to 1953. Teilhard's letter to Oakley also remarks that Dawson did not 'particularly emphasize' what he had found. Why not? And why had Teilhard not been sufficiently impressed by what Dawson said to write about it to family or friends? Piltdown 2 was the final proof that convinced many sceptics of the genuineness of Piltdown 1.

To find the answer, one must remember sequence. During the weekend of 8-10 August 1913, when Teilhard saw the plough field, the finds at Site 1 were still suspect. No canine or condyle had been found to establish the link between the cranial parts and the jaw. On 8-10 August 1913, there was, in effect, no Site 1, as distinct from Site 2. If, at that time, Dawson 'did not particularly emphasize' whet he had so recently 'found' in the Sheffield Park site, it is because it had little importance in authenticating Piltdown. (The bone Dawson said he found before 3 July, incidentally, was not one of the much thicker frontal bones which Woodward claimed Dawson found in 1915.) And if Teilhard had listened with but half an ear to what Dawson said when he singled out the Sheffield Park plough field, it was because the focus of his interest (like everyone else's) was the Barkham Manor gravel pit. Not until 30 August, two weeks later, when Dawson directed Teilhard to the pile of stones in the pit which contained the canine, was a convincing link established between the skull-piece and the piece of jaw.

In the letters Teilhard wrote to Oakley on the subject of Site 2 some 40 years later he seemed increasingly confused as to what he remembered Dawson told him when he saw Sheffield Park in 1913. Where Gould sees in these letters 'a pattern of deliberate evasion' it is more logical to see a valiant attempt on Teilhard's part to remember just what he had heard so far in the past and then to try to fit the event into the then recorded Piltdown sequence.

On 26 January 1954, in reply to Oakley's request for more information about the Sheffield Park date, Teilhard's confusion was evident:


Concerning the point of 'history' you ask me, my 'souvenirs' are a little vague. Yet, by elimination (and since Dawson died during the first war, if I am correct) my visit with Dawson to the second site (where the two small fragments of skull and the [11]isolated molar were found) must have been in late July 1913. Certainly not in 1914. 6


He added a handwritten postscript:


When I visited the site No. 2 (in 1913?) the two small fragments of skull and the tooth had already been found, I believe. But your very question makes me doubtful! . . . Yes, I think definitely they had been already found, and that is the reason why Dawson pointed to me the little heap of raked pebbles as the place of the 'discovery'.


Finally, in reply to a letter from Mabel Kenward daughter of the tenant of Barkham Manor (site of the first Piltdown find) Teilhard wrote on 2 March 1954:


Dawson showed me the field where the second skull (fragments) were found. But, as I wrote to Oakley, I cannot remember whether it was after or before the find.


The letter to Mabel Kenward was Teilhard's final recorded word on the subject of Piltdown. He clung to the memory of having seen the site. But he grew more and more confused about the time frame in which he saw it. After all, in 1917, he must have heard about Woodward's announcement of Dawson's 'discovery' of 1915. Later, in 1920, when he revisited Piltdown with Woodward, Woodward of course had taken him both to the Piltdown gravel pit and to the Sheffield Park plough field and discussed both yields with him. When that summer of 1920 he stood again with Woodward in Sheffield Park, Teilhard would have recognized it and remembered Dawson's remarking on it.

Back in Louvain a week later, Teilhard put on paper once and for all his reaction to the Piltdown affair (1920). He was no longer the simple admiring student he had been on his last visit to Piltdown. He'd been trained in university courses and blooded in war. He had published an important paper on the Quercy fossils, and was waiting for the printer to finish with his thesis on the Sparnacian and Thanetian beds of the Paris basin. He had developed his critical faculty and honed his professional skills. But he was and he always would be a truly good man who trusted his friends and those he believed had been kind to him.

'Le case de l'Homme de Piltdown', the paper he wrote for the Revue des Questions Scientifiques, of 1920, was Teilhard's final comment on Piltdown. Eoanthropus dawsoni, he said, with its apelike jaw and modern cranium, did not make anatomical sense. And this was the problem. Dawson and Woodward, his friends, said they had seen the hones lying together. He himself, at their direction, had gone to the spot in the corner of the pit where the famous canine lay. How could one solve such a riddle? From his subsequent behaviour, it appears Teilhard decided it was not his place to try. Either the laws of anatomy were more mysterious than anyone yet imagined, or the human heart was darker than he wished to believe. In any case, he left the problem for others to unravel. As he wrote in his paper, unless further evidence could be gathered, which did not seem likely, 'Le cas est epuisé'.




DAWSON, C. 1911-15. Unpublished letters to A. S. Woodward. Archives of Geological Section, British Museum (Natural History).

DAWSON, C. & A. S. WOODWARD. 1913. On the discovery of a paleolithic skull and mandible in the flint-bearing gravels overlying the Wealden (Hastings Beds) at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex), Q. 9l. Geol. Soc. Lond., LXIX, 117-51.

GOULD, S. J. 1980. The Piltdown conspiracy, Natural History, 89, No. 8 (August), 8-28.

1981. Piltdown in letters, Natural History, 90, No. 6 (June).

LEAKEY, L. S. B. 1974. By the evidence (London & New York).

LUKAS, M. & E. LUKAS. 1977. Teilhard, a biography (New York & London).

MATTHEWS, L. H. 1981. Piltdown Man: the missing links, New Scientist, April-June.

'PROGWHISTLE, ELIHU'. 1953. Unpublished letters, Archives British Museum (Natural History).

TElLHARD DE CHARDIN, P. 1965. 1908-1913. Letters to his parents published in Lettres d'Hastings et de Paris.

1912-1915. Unpublished letters to Charles Dawson, Archives of BM (NH).

1912-1920. Unpublished letters to A. Woodward, Archives of BM (NH).

1912-1913. Unpublished letters to Felix Pelletier, Archives of the Society of Jesus, Chantilly, France.

1953-1954. Letters to Kenneth Oakley.

1920. Le cas de l'Homme de Piltdown, Revue des Questions Scientifiques, LXXH, 149-55.

VERE, F. 1955. The Piltdown fantasy (London).

WEINER, J. S. 1955. The Piltdown forgery (Oxford).

WOODWARD, A. S. 1948. The earliest Englishman (London).