Piltdown Puzzle

Peter Costello

New Scientist 14 September 1981


The figure in the Piltdown photograph whose identity you sought to establish (New Scientist, vol. 90, p 578) is not as you suppose Teilhard de Chardin. The young man is Robert Kenward, the son of the tenant farmer at Barkham Manor, on whose land the gravel pit was found. He was killed in France in 1916.

A greater uncertainty surrounds the whole series "Piltdown man: the missing links", by Dr L. Harrison Matthews. He has put together in a most plausible way a great mass of odd and nagging points about the Piltdown affair, making use of most of the gossip which has been current in scientific circles since 1953. Even so he misses some items; he makes no mention of the stained bones found in Martin Hinton's office at South Kensington after his retirement, along with all those old tobacco tins. As nothing is thrown away at the museum, they are still preserved by Theya Molleson.

Harrison Matthews makes it all so entertaining and full of colourfull detail that we have to beware of being beguiled into thinking that this is indeed how it happened. There are a great many points of fact and interpretation which might be questioned. But I will not take up space detailing these, as the information will eventually be available in the book I am preparing about the Piltdown affair. One point may suffice to show how wrong Harrison Matthews is.

Harrison Matthews wisely does not often commit himself to a fact which can be checked. But when he does, the result is disastrous for his case. Central to his whole reconstruction is the claim that Hinton visited Piltdown with Teilhard de Chardin early in 1913, and that they met often between then and August 1913. In point of fact, Teilhard left England on 23 August, 1912, and spent the period from September 1912 to June 1913 in Paris studying with Marcellin Boule. He then visited Spain, returning to England only on 1 August, 1913. These facts make nonsense of

the elaborate scenario sketched out by Harrison Matthews.

These dates and movements are easily found in Teilhard's French and English biographies, where the contemporary sources are quoted. Harrison Matthews, though making serious charges about the scientific and moral integrity of Teilhard, seems not to have consulted these sources. If he can be shown to be so wrong about Teilhard, where the facts are well known, can we accept what he suggests about the shadowy Hinton and the shady Lewis Abbott? About Charles Dawson, too, he is often mistaken.

Much else of what is said about Teilhard is also wrong. Teilhard was in England, and visited Eckfield, in 1914. He dug with Arthur Smith Woodward at the site in September, 1920, the year in which he wrote a paper about the Piltdown case. Thus he did not give up his interest in the case in 1913 as Harrison Matthews suggests. Indeed he remained in contact with Dawson until his death, and brought Dawson into contact with Marcellin Boule. After the exposure of the hoax, he did not refuse to make a statement; he gave a statement to the press on 26 November, 1953, which was published in New York and London the next day.

If questions needed to be asked about Teilhard's role in the Piltdown affair, they could have been asked when he was in London during the summer of 1953. They were not asked. But enough is now known to prove Teilhard innocent of all involvement in the hoax.


Peter Costello Dublin


In his first article on the Piltdown forgery (New Scientist, vol 90, p 280), L. Harrison Matthews writes that radio-carbon dating has shown that the cranium of Piltdown man is "not older than medieval at most." However J. S. Weiner, in his book The Piltdown Forgery (1955), stated that collogen was found be be "entirely absent" in the skull pieces, so where was the carbon that the test dated?

Moreover there is much evidence to suggest that the original skull pieces were genuine fossils found embedded in undisturbed gravel which required a workman's pick to extract them (see Ape-Men-Fact or Fallacy? by M. Bowden, 1977).

It is also of interest that in her biography of Louis Leakey, Leakey's Luck (1975), S. Cole says that Teilhard de Chardin told Leakey that Charles Dawson was not the hoaxer. So who dunnit?


G. L. Townsend Leeds

Back to the

Back to the

Back to
Defending Teilhard de Chardin