Science fraud at piltdown: the amateur and the priest

Harold R. Booher

The Antioch Review Fall 1986



[389] "Whoy, thar be a coo-coonut" are reported to be the first words describing the famous Piltdown Man of Sussex, England. According to Mabel Kenward, they were made by a laborer digging gravel for road repairs on her father's property, located in the countryside just outside the hamlet of Uckfield. When the workman first spotted what he thought was a coconut buried in the gravel, he proceeded to smash to bits the skull of England's first "Dawn Man." He had no way of knowing the attention the world of science was to give to his find, first heralded as one of the most important evolutionary links ever discovered and later denounced as the greatest science fraud of the twentieth century. This ordinary laborer has remained anonymous for more than seventy years, as the controversy over the Piltdown discovery has changed from who should receive fame to who should be blamed. Nevertheless. had his testimony been obtained for his part in the discovery, there is a better than even chance that Charles Dawson, Uckfield solicitor and amateur archaeologist/geologist. would never have been designated Piltdown's scapegoat.

[390] The Piltdown Man hoax has never been satisfactorily solved. Since the discovery of the fraud by a team of British scientists in 1953, Dawson, the principal discoverer, has generally been accused by the scientific community. Several years ago, while doing research on a book, I came across obscure information that led me to believe it was possible that Dawson was innocent and that the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had planned and executed the hoax. It seemed inconceivable that the amateur Dawson, with such limited skills in anatomy and chemistry, could successfully have altered the head bones in such a way as to fool all the most eminent anthropologists of the early 1900s. Recent scholarship has reasoned he must have had an assistant.

Stephen Jay Gould was thinking along these lines when he presented his findings on "The Piltdown Conspiracy" in Natural History (1980), concluding for the first time in the scientific literature that Teilhard was involved. Although he strengthened the case against Teilhard, he still left Dawson as the prime culprit. In conducting the investigation, Gould uncovered a little known article of Teilhard's written in 1920, which he was unable fully to interpret. It was then I decided to complete my analysis of this "stranger-than-fiction" conundrum in the history of science. I saw that Teilhard's article, combined with the information I already had, provided a sensible scenario for unraveling the hoax. A case could now be presented that not only strengthened the argument for Dawson's innocence but that solidly implicated Teilhard. Of all the suspects named to date (even such as unlikely character as Sir Conan Doyle has been accused), only Teilhard had the motive, ability, and opportunity successfully to carry out the fraud. The results of my analysis indicate Dawson was more victim than scoundrel, an honest man defrauded along with the rest of the world by a man whose main ambition in life, ironically, was to be a servant of God.

By 1908, when the first piece of the Piltdown skull was recovered, Dawson had to his credit a collection of Wealden reptile fossils in the British Museum, the Dawson Collection at South Kensington, three new species of Iguanodon, and the Wealdon mammal, Phagiaulax dawsoni. As an archaeologist he was recognized as an authority of old iron works with his writings on the Sussex iron industry. In 1909, he published a two-volume work on the History of Hastings Castle.

Before the Piltdown discovery, Dawson would, from time to time, go to Barkham Manor in his legal capacity as steward presiding over [391] the manorial court when it was held. On one of his trips he noticed workmen digging gravel from a trench along the road leading to the manor. Aware of the age of the Wealdon gravels in the area, Dawson asked the men to be on the lookout for any interesting relics. Later, as the men were extending the trench, the workman who mistook the skull for a coconut broke it with his pickax. Mabel Kenward, in the Daily Telegraph (23 February 1953), recalled: "One day when they were digging in unmoved gravel, one of the men saw what he called a coconut. He broke it with his pick, kept one piece and threw the rest away. The piece was handed to my father, who gave it back to the men, telling them to give it to Mr. Dawson."

Over the next four years, Dawson found several more pieces. On 14 February 1912 Dawson wrote Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geology department at the British Museum, to tell him of the Piltdown fossils. In May of that year Woodward examined the relics, and by June 2, systematic excavation of the site began. Besides a laborer, Venus Hargraves, only one other person was allowed to join them in the dig. That was the young priest, Father Teilhard de Chardin, who was attending the Jesuit College in nearby Hastings. Having known Teilhard and his interest in fossils for several years, Dawson wrote Woodward on 27 May, "Next Saturday, I am going to have a dig at the gravel bed and Fr. Teilhard will be with me. He is quite safe. Will you be able to join us?"

During that summer, more pieces of the cranium, half a jaw bone, and some other relics were uncovered. The following year, a critical canine tooth was discovered by Teilhard. Woodward, recalling the find in The Earliest Englishman, wrote: "We were then excavating a rather deep and hot trench in which Father Teilhard, in black clothing, was especially energetic-Very soon he exclaimed that he had picked up the missing canine tooth, but we were incredulous and told him we had already seen several bits of iron stone, which looked like teeth, on the spot where he stood. He insisted, however, that he was not deceived, so we both let's our digging to go and verify his discovery. There could be no doubt about it.... "

By 1913, half a jaw bone, three teeth, and enough pieces of the splintered cranium were found to allow Woodward to reconstruct the head of Eoanthropus dawsoni, an individual determined from the age of the Piltdown gravels to represent Darwin's missing link. Although named after Dawson, full credit for this critical human evolutionary discovery was shared by the members of the discovery trio. Dawson, [392] Woodward, and Teilhard. Commonly referred to as "Piltdown Man," he was described as having a human cranium very much like our own (although somewhat thicker), with an apelike jaw but with certain human characteristics, particularly in the teeth. In 1915, two new cranial bones and another molar jaw tooth were found by Dawson at a completely different site in a field about two miles from the first. This was taken as evidence that more than one such creature had once roamed the English countryside.

By 1916, the year of Dawson's death, Piltdown had become fully accepted as a single individual (during the intervening years, 1912-1916, some had held that Piltdown was two individuals-one humanoid, one ape-who had been washed into the same gravels) by the giants of early twentieth-century geological history. Besides Woodward, these included the Englishmen Sir Arthur Keith, G. Elliot Smith, and A.S. Underwood; an American anthropologist, H. Fairfield Osborn; and the French anthropologist Marcellin Boule. Of those among the original group at the British Geological Society meeting in 1912, only Dr. David Waterston, professor of anatomy at Kings College, remained unconvinced.

In the Outline of Science (1922), Piltdown Man is described as one of the foremost humanoid branches of the tree leading from man-ape to man. Although its importance to evolutionary theory diminished as new models emerged, it kept its position as an authentic fossil for another thirty years. But in 1953, through tests with x-rays, fluoride, and other relatively modern techniques, English scientists (Dr. Kenneth Oakley, Dr. J.S. Weiner, and Professor Wilfred Le Gros Clark) revealed that Piltdown Man was a complete fraud. The jaw bone and the canine tooth had definitely been tampered with. Also, the cranium was humanoid while the jaw bone was totally ape.

The assumption that Dawson conceived the entire plot himself, or at least was the principal in any conspiracy, is based almost entirely upon the case presented by Weiner in The Piltdown Forgery, published in 1955. The same year, a defense of Dawson was attempted by Francis Vere, English historian and friend of the Kenwards, in his book The Piltdown Fantasy, but neither the press nor the scientists involved in uncovering the fraud were swayed by the arguments at the time. Central to Weiner's case was the assumption that the skull was fake as well as the jaw bone, the canine tooth, and all the other relics from Piltdown. In his, Oakley's. and Le Gros Clark's opinions, all pieces were either doctored to look like fossils or were fossils brought in from elsewhere. [393] If this were true, then they were correct in accusing Dawson, since the early discoveries (1908-1911) were made before Woodward and Teilhard had come onto the scene. But the investigating team strained their objectivity by assuming that all the relics were fake and prejudiced nearly every investigation of the case since. Gould, for example, limited his thesis with the condition that Weiner's case "virtually precludes Dawson's innocence." In his conversation with Oakley, he discovered the British scientists also overlooked obvious clues to Teilhard's involvement. "Oakley read Teilhard's statement when he was simply trying to establish the basic fact of Dawson's guilt." Unfortunately, the scientists' bias toward convicting the amateur while absolving one of their own so clouded their judgment that they missed a key message told by the Piltdown bones.

My primary hypothesis in conducting this study was that the skull was a legitimate find. The skull, being a real discovery, is crucial not only to establishing Dawson's innocence but to explaining Teilhard's motive. To begin with, no one has been able satisfactorily to disprove the claim that the cranium pieces from Piltdown I came from a skull interred in gravel that had been undisturbed for many, many years until it was discovered by a workman digging for gravel. Mabel Kenward's firsthand account was that a worker mistook the skull for a coconut and broke it with a pick. One of the pieces recovered by the worker was handled by her father, returned to the workers, and eventually given to Dawson. In a 1913 Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, Dawson referred to it as a "small portion of unusually thick human parietal bone." There is no reason to doubt this story. Dawson and the Kenwards told it to many others afterward. The official report at the Geological Society meeting held on 18 December 1912 states that one of the skull fragments had been hit with a pick. The site and approximate date were verified at the time by Dawson's friend Mr. Sam Woodhead, an Uckfield schoolmaster who was taken to the site a few days after Dawson received the piece. In gathering material for his book, Weiner questioned a number of people still living at Uckfield. And, although he minimizes this in coming to his conclusions about Dawson. he states. "It is hard to believe that his story [about the workmen finding the skull] may have been a later invention, seeing that Dawson gave out first news to Woodhead very probably in 1908." This created difficulty for Weiner, so he suggested that possibly all the workmen found was an ordinary skull. "Granting then the probability that the workman did find a [394] portion of the skull, it is still conceivable that what they found was not the semi-fossil Eoanthropus [i.e., the cranium pieces held by the British Museum] but some very recent and quite ordinary burial." But this suggestion is not really plausible. That would mean Dawson had to switch pieces from the "recent" and "ordinary" skull with those of a more "interesting" skull as they were recovered over a four-year period. How would Dawson smash another skull (with a pick, no less) and get pieces to match that which had already been seen and handled by others? How would he get them past Woodhead, for example, who also conducted chemical tests on the skull pieces in 1912 in his capacity as public analyst?

Not only do the in situ claims for the skull hold up under cross-examination, but the chemical and physical characteristics of the fossils themselves support an honest discovery. Most importantly, the skull that was found in pieces was deeply stained with iron, whereas the jaw was only superficially stained. All the cranial bones were stained with iron for their full thickness, so these stains could not have been produced rapidly in the same manner as the jaw's surface stains. The full staining is most reasonably explained by the cranium having lain in the iron-rich Piltdown waters for a long time. The British investigators rejected a natural solution, however, because chromium was found on some of the pieces and gypsum in all skull pieces tested. The presence of chromium suggested fraud since a chromium compound appeared to be used as an oxidizer in staining some of the known fraudulent pieces. The presence of gypsum indicated forgery because tests of ground water in the immediate area showed insufficient gypsum-producing compounds for a natural deposit, whereas other tests showed gypsum could appear in sub-fossilized bones if soaked in iron-sulfate compounds. There are several flaws, however, in concluding from these tests that all the pieces were fraudulent. Vere discussed some of these in his book. Also, more recently, M. Bowden, an English civil engineer who is familiar with the Sussex area, reexamined the whole case in Ape-Men-Fact or Fallacy.

For example, the conclusion that chromium on some of the skull fragments spelled fraud is difficult to understand. The chromium came from Dawson's mistaken attempt to "harden" the first pieces he recovered with bichromate of potash. This was no secret, as he did the treatment in the presence of a friend and even told this to Woodward, most likely when he first announced his discovery. The openness of such activity is better interpreted as evidence of honesty than of [395] culpability. Moreover, four skull pieces, presumably those found after Woodward joined the search, had no chromium. Obviously, if someone were superficially staining bones before planting them, all pieces found should have had chromium stains. Besides, why would a forger superficially stain pieces to match gravel bed colors when they were deeply stained already?

Further, the cranium pieces were fully fossilized. Weiner refers to the skull as "semi-fossilized," but no laboratory tests support this conclusion. Unlike the jaw and canine tooth, the cranium pieces were certainly old enough since, according to Oakley, tests indicated the skull could be dated at 50,000 years. Francis Vere raised the point that when samples of the cranium were drilled and reduced to a fine powder that only a fossil would produce, the cranium should have been considered a fossil. This was particularly so in view of the fact that there was no organic matter detected from other tests conducted in 1912 by Woodhead or in 1953 by Weiner, Oakley, and Le Gros Clark, as would be expected if the cranium were "semi-fossilized."

The problem of gypsum in the skull cannot be explained at all by the forgery tests. Gypsum does not appear in fully fossilized bones when they are soaked in iron-sulfate compounds; therefore, the gypsum in the cranium must have come from another source. Bowden explains that gypsum most likely got into the skull pieces (even those not superficially stained with chromium) through sulfates soaking into the skull while in a sub-fossilized state. Since sulfates were found present in the Piltdown water only 400 meters away, the site water could easily have been rich in sulfates in the past.

Finally, the fact that the skull pieces, unlike the jaw, the canine tooth, and the elephant bat, were not physically altered supports the contention that the skull was found honestly. The investigators were well aware of the several differences between the skull and the jaw, but they considered this only as evidence to prove their suspicions that the two were not from the same individual. The fact that the skull was not altered is very strange however, because if the culprit had the skull in his possession he should have altered it rather than the jaw. According to Sherwood Washhurn of the University of California, Berkeley, "if the jaw were to he associated with the skull it was essential to remove the distinctive human temporo-mandibular joint from the skull not the condyle from the jaw." Washburn made this statement in a letter to Science (1979) to show that the hoaxer did not possess a great deal of anatomical experience. But surely it seems [396] very clear on other grounds that the forger was someone with quite accomplished skills. His skills were sufficient to deceive a group of scientists whose collective experience in anatomy must have been on the order of several decades. England could hardly have been expected to produce a class with greater anatomical experience than those gathered at the 1912, 1913, and 1914 Geological Society meetings.

There is only one satisfactory conclusion to be made from this dilemma. The forger did not remove the joint from the skull simply because it was not his to alter. Whatever may have happened later, Piltdown Man started honestly!

Once the skull is accepted as a real discovery, then the hoax begins with the subsequent finds. The most likely suspect for planting fake fossils after mid-1912 is Father Teilhard. Gould's case for Teilhard's involvement has stirred no little controversy. He and others had their suspicions for some time. One item that convinced Gould he was on the right track was his finding a lie in a letter Teilhard wrote to Kenneth Oakley on 28 November 1953. The letter was in response to Oakley's inquiries for help in determining the identity of the Piltdown forger. In the letter Teilhard denies that Smith Woodward and Dawson were the kind of men to do such a thing and attempts to exonerate Dawson. In doing so, he makes a slip. Teilhard writes: "He [Dawson] just brought me to the site of Locality 2 and explained to me [sic] that he had found the isolated skull and the small pieces of skull in the heaps of rubble and pebbles raked at the surface of the field."

Gould immediately saw an inconsistency. Supposedly, Teilhard visited the second site with Dawson in 1913, but they did not find anything. The findings of skull and tooth at Site 2 were in 1915 and Dawson died in 1916. From December 1914 until the end of the war, Teilhard was in the French Army. Consequently, Gould concludes, "He could not have seen the remains of Piltdown 2 with Dawson unless they had manufactured them together before he left." Several years earlier, before Gould's discovery, Bowden pointed out this same flaw. In subsequent letters to Oakley and Mabel Kenward, Teilhard tries to explain away the slip but only makes matters worse by the ridiculous suggestion (if innocent) that he was shown the field and place of discovery before the find.

Another strong suggestion of Teilhard's involvement raised by Gould was Teilhard's embarrassment with his Piltdown association. After one short French article in 1920, he displays near total silence on the subject. Gould says, "I can find fewer than half a dozen [397] references in the twenty-three volumes of his complete works. In each case, Piltdown appears either as an item listed without comment in a footnote or as a point (also without comment) on a drawing of the human evolutionary tree, or as a partial phrase within a sentence about Neanderthal man." He thought this particularly odd behavior since the Piltdown skull represented Teilhard's best argument for the theme that dominated his career. "Piltdown provided proof, the only available proof, of multiple, parallel lineages within human evolution itself- for its skull belonged to an advanced human older than primitive Neanderthal." Gould also describes Oakley's account of Teilhard's strange behavior on a visit to London after exposure of the fraud. When Oakley tried to discuss Piltdown, Teilhard always changed the subject. When he took Teilhard to a special exhibit at the British Museum on how the hoax had been uncovered, "Teilhard glumly walked through, as fast as he could, eyes averted, saying nothing." Apparently, the same thing happened to A.S. Romer when he tried to conduct Teilhard through the exhibit.

Teilhard was not only present when the fake jaw bone was discovered, but with remarkably "good luck" discovered many of the faked items himself: a flint tool, a stegodon tooth (Elephas planifrons), and the canine tooth for the fossilized jaw bone. Teilhard also had the opportunity to plant the forgeries of both Piltdown I and 2, and had the opportunity to acquire fossils. The elephant tooth found by Teilhard had unique radioactive characteristics known to appear only in this elephant species from a site at Ichkeul, Tunisia. Teilhard was a lecturer in physics and chemistry at Cairo University, 1906-1908. His interest in natural history and collection make it unlikely that he did not take the opportunity to visit the site. In the Piltdown Men, Millar reports that Teilhard is known to have stayed near the site on at least one occasion. Gould notes that Teilhard's letters from Cairo abound in tales of swapping and exchange with other historians of several North African nations. He could have acquired the tooth either directly or from the numerous sources at his disposal. Other small pieces of incriminating evidence also point to Teilhard. Hippo teeth found at Piltdown probably came from Malta, and the elephant-bone "bat" discovered at Piltdown I was shown to be like others from the Dordogne area in France, not more than one hundred miles from Teilhard's place of birth.

When all of this is considered, and we realize that Teilhard, unlike Dawson, possessed the anatomical and chemical skills to carry out [398] the fraud, it clearly indicates that the better suspect is Teilhard. Dawson's dentist told Francis Vere that Dawson knew so little about teeth that one day when he and Dawson were riding in the same compartment in the Uckfield-Lewes train, Dawson pulled out a jaw bone and a canine tooth from a bag and begged him to tell him which socket the teeth went into since he did not know.

Up to this point, the evidence against either Dawson or Teilhard is circumstantial. No witnesses have been called who saw anyone salting the digs. When Weiner traveled around Sussex, he collected a lot of gossip, but nothing really incriminating after discounting petty jealousies. But there was one eyewitness still alive in 1953 who had lived in Uckfield and had day-to-day contact with Charles Dawson during 1912-1915 whose statement to the English investigators was strangely ignored. R. Essex, M.Sc., science master of Uckfield Grammar School, passed daily by Dawson's office, and had some interesting experiences that should have been noted. His statement appears in the Kent and Sussex Journal, July-September 1955, but no mention of his testimony is made by Weiner. In it, Essex identifies a Mr. X who had retrieved a "fossil half-jaw more human than ape's" from Piltdown I. Both Essex and Dawson's clerk, H. H. Wakefield, saw the jaw (unbeknowst [sic] to Mr. X, who had set the bag down in Dawson's office and came back later to retrieve it) when they took a peek into the bag. Essex testifies that it was another jaw not mentioned by Dr. Weiner that came from Piltdown. It was "much more human than ape's jaw." He goes on to claim, "I saw and handled that jaw and know in whose bag it came into Dawson's office. The jaw was also seen by Mr. H. H. Wakefield, then an articled clerk of Dawson's, and he has given written evidence of seeing it. Dawson never saw it, and the owner probably never knew until 1953 that anyone but himself had seen it."

After the Piltdown jaw became famous, Essex and Wakefield assumed they had surreptitiously been the first to see it. Years later, however, upon seeing a picture of the Piltdown forgery, Essex realized the jaw he saw and Piltdown's were two different jaws. One very noticeable difference was that the jaw he saw had only two molars and an empty socket. It was his opinion that X found the real human jaw that went with the real skull. Removing it allowed Teilhard to plant the fake ape jaw without fear of discovery that it and the real skull did not go together. At the time, Essex revealed the identity of Mr. X to the investigating team and to Francis Vere, but to no one [399] else, since he did not wish to "pillory him publicly."

From implications that X was from France, and the omission of Teilhard's name from the discovery trio, Essex's article makes it fairly easy to substitute the name Teilhard for X. But there is no need to wonder who X was or why at the time the investigating team ignored his comments. J. Head, of London, reported in New Scientist a conversation he had with Essex in the early sixties, when Essex told him he believed the hoaxer to be Teilhard. The reason the investigators discounted Essex was, of course, the same reason Oakley did not catch the cover-up in Teilhard's letter. They simply assumed Dawson was the forger and could not entertain thoughts that a man of Teilhard's stature was involved.

Besides Essex, there is an even better witness-one who knew positively the extent of Dawson's involvement. Who would know more than Father Teilhard de Chardin himself? Some very critical clues provided by Teilhard attest to Dawson's innocence. In Teilhard's first letter to Oakley, he goes to great lengths to exonerate Dawson. He insists that it is inconceivable that Woodward and Dawson were the kind of men to do such a thing. Later, in posing the question whether some collector may have discarded the ape bones in a gravel pit that legitimately contained a human skull, he states, "The idea sounds fantastic, but in my opinion, no more fantastic than to make Dawson the perpetrator of a hoax." In the same letter to Oakley with the "fantastic" collector- dumping scenario, Teilhard accurately suggests the bone staining could have occurred from local water; "Water in the Wealdon clay can stain at a remarkable speed." Moreover, in a conversation with S. L. B. Leakey after the fraud was uncovered, Teilhard told him that Dawson was "not responsible." When further pressed by Leakey, Teilhard refused to elaborate.

Even more important, however, is Teilhard's own published record on Piltdown. "Le Cas de l'homme de Piltdown," written in 1920 for a popular French journal, appears as his first and only article on Piltdown. In it, Teilhard describes the Piltdown skull as though it came from an advanced human older than Neanderthal man, whereas the jaw came from a fossil ape. He says, "We must suppose that the Piltdown skull and jaw belong to two different subjects." And in discussing scientific tests to determine whether the Piltdown finds could represent one or two creatures, he explained, "Since the glenoid fossa exists in perfect state on the temporal bone, we could simply have tried to articulate the piece, if the mandible had preserved its [400] condyle , we could have learned without possible doubt if the two fit together." And then in a line all to itself he exclaims, "As if on purpose the condyle is missing!"

Gould believes this was Teilhard's attempt to tell his colleagues that Piltdown was a phoney. I agree with him, but I think it tells us more. It tells us that from 1920 onward, Teilhard had given clues to the skull being a legitimate find and that Dawson's original contribution was beyond suspicion.

It was Dawson's discovery that truly supported Teilhard's belief that man evolved through multiple parallel lineages. The jaw bone need not be attached to the skull to show this. It need only lie in the same geological stratum to show that the two creatures were of the same antiquity, older than Neanderthal Man. As he stresses in the 1920 article: "Thanks to the discovery of Mr. Dawson, the human race appears to us even more distinctly, in these ancient times, as formed of strongly differential bundles, already quite far from their point of divergence."

The evidence from Teilhard is sparse, but in the few instances where he discusses Piltdown, he supports Dawson, yet nearly totally ignores mention of himself or his own contributions. This could be extraordinary humility but could also be the response of a pious man who does not wish to falsely accuse one he knows to be innocent, while reluctant to volunteer his own guilt.

The greatest problem standing in the way of full exoneration of Dawson is Piltdown 2. Gould argues that Dawson cannot be excused so easily from the second site, since he found the material there after Teilhard had left England. He believes the chance that Dawson would have been able to find a few salted bones in an imprecisely marked general area more than six months after someone had falsely planted them there was "more remote than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack." Piltdown 2 is shrouded in mystery. No one today knows exactly where the site is. Even Woodward in 1917 described it only as about two miles from the Piltdown I pit. According to Oakley, the only manuscript record of this second site is a postcard from Dawson to Woodward dated 20 July 1915. So far as we know, no one, including Woodward, ever went to the site after Dawson reported his July 1915 discovery. This was strange behavior on Woodward's part, since it was Piltdown 2 that tipped the balance in his favor. Although he never returned to the second site, he continued to dig at Piltdown 1. Devoting only four and a half lines out of his last book, The Early English/man, [401] to the creature that gave him his strongest support, he appeared as embarrassed by Piltdown 2 as Teilhard was by all of Piltdown.

From what is now known, I believe three reasonable speculations can be advanced for Teilhard's primary involvement at Piltdown 2 even though he was absent from England at the time Dawson reports finding the material. One: the skull at Piltdown I was a genuine find as reported, but the jaw, canine tooth, and discoveries were planted by Teilhard. For some unknown reason, Dawson willingly joined Teilhard in furthering the deception later. This would explain the different depth of skull and jaw staining and Teilhard's 1920 distinction between skull and jaw. Although a definite possibility, I believe it unlikely because it is not consistent with their personalities. In Essex's estimation, Teilhard was well known as a practical joker, whereas Dawson was self-opinionated but unimaginative, far more likely to be a victim than a willing perpetrator of such a hoax. At least two reported descriptions of Dawson's behavior after the discovery suggest he had doubts himself about the validity of some of the items recovered from Piltdown.

It is known from Weiner that Dawson attempted some experiments in 1913 on bone staining. A Captain Guy St. Barbe told Weiner he saw a "dozen or so crucibles" in Dawson's office with "bones floating in brownish liquid." During that and a subsequent visit, Dawson explained to Barbe he was interested in the way bones and flints stain in nature. These experiments done in Dawson's office and discussed with others, a year after the crucial jaw bone discovery, can hardly be evidence of Dawson caught in the process of faking. His activities were much too open and late for that. But they do suggest Dawson had become curious, perhaps even suspicious, about how fossils may be faked to look naturally stained.

Essex tells of a conversation he had with Charles Dawson and with John Montgomery, headmaster of the Uckfield Grammar School, outside Dawson's office in 1914. At the time, Teilhard was also outside the office, carrying on another conversation with a small group nearby. Dawson was proudly boasting he had never seen anything like the "sixteen-inch bat" found at Piltdown when Montgomery mentioned he had seen one before. It was in Dordogne, France. Essex recalls that as soon as Montgomery said "Dordogne," Dawson's eyes glanced toward Teilhard's group, and he then abruptly ended the conversation by walking indoors. Essex says he was certain Dawson suspected something, but had no idea at the time what it was.

[402] Two: Dawson finally became involved as an accomplice (under duress) to Teilhard in the Piltdown 2 discovery. The motivation at this late stage would have been the fear of being made the laughing-stock of the community. He had been taken in completely and, in so doing, had acquired acceptance by the greatest geological names in Britain. It would have been very human to have fallen in with Teilhard or even to have continued the deception on his own under such pressure. If one of the cranium finds at Piltdown 2 were actually part of Piltdown I (as suggested by Vere in 1955 and mentioned as a possibility by Sir Ray Lankester in Woodward's 1917 paper), it would strengthen the argument for Dawson's involvement; but, assuming the skull is genuine, it would not be for the reasons generally given. With the enthusiastic, but gullible, personality of Dawson, this possibility is much greater than the first; but there is yet a simpler solution that requires no conspiracy.

Three: Teilhard salted the Piltdown 2 site for later recovery by Dawson. The main obstacle to this possibility is that raised by Gould regarding the difficulty of putting a few salted bones in an imprecisely marked general area. Ways do exist, however, for greatly increasing the chances of bones being found. First, the area where Dawson was searching may not have been so imprecise as we imagine. Woodward explains, in his 1917 paper, that when he and Dawson were searching the large field unsuccessfully, the stones were spread out. "When, however, in the course of farming, the stones had been raked off the ground and brought together in heaps, Mr. Dawson was able to search the material more satisfactorily."

Unless the whole story about seeing the site is an entire fabrication, Teilhard may actually have seen the heaps. He is most insistent upon having seen them in his letters to Oakley, even though it was obvious in their correspondence that he was in trouble with the time of sighting, not the location. It is very possible he actually saw the little heaps where he planted the bones to be found. Even after forty years, this strong visual memory would help greatly to confuse him. He could, of course, have gotten the idea of heaps from Woodward's 1917 article. But unless he read it in 1954, why is he so insistent on such unnecessary specificity that could trip him up? Teilhard also calls the heaps "little" in his second letter to Oakley (29 January 1954), whereas Woodward does not give any clues to size.

If Teilhard actually saw the "little heaps" where Dawson was searching in the late fall of 1914, he could have increased the odds [403] of discovery considerably. There was probably some order to the search. He may have planted the bones where he was almost sure Dawson would look. In either case (Dawson or Teilhard), we must allow for the planter's being able to anticipate the finder. After all, Woodward found four pieces, at least one of them totally on his own, at Piltdown 1, and he mentions a friend who found a rhinoceros tooth in the Piltdown 2 piles.

In view of the considerable circumstantial evidence against Teilhard and the very little against Dawson at Piltdown I (apart from actually finding most of the pieces after many hours of labor), a plausible argument is that Teilhard planted the bones in relatively small, easy-to-locate piles that attracted Dawson's attention. Perhaps this argument would be even more convincing if we could determine why Dawson chose Piltdown 2 as a site over all the other fields around the Sussex countryside, any one of which had similar seams of Wealden gravel. What motivated Dawson to spend two years searching (without success) this one specific site?

Vere, in his book, describes some interesting aspects of Sussex gravel digging and Dawson's style of searching that may help us with this problem. Vere tells us it was common for the laborers to dig in a trenchlike fashion, piling the gravel along the sides to be used as needed. At Piltdown 1, they dug down to an average level of five feet, where it became a "muddy basement layer." Gravel was spread around the Barkam [sic] Estates, for roads or wherever it was needed to firm up the surface.

The gravel might be carried for miles for this purpose. Vere believed he knew where the second site was and that it was very possible that gravel was carted there from Piltdown I. Since Piltdown 2 is described simply as a field, there was no special reason for Dawson to spend much time looking at surface gravel, unless he believed he might find some pieces that were carted there from Piltdown 1.

Dawson seldom dug in the trenches himself. His luck was primarily in searching the "spoil heaps." These were the piles of gravel the workmen laid up along the sides of the trenches to be carted away to parts of the estate as needed. This loose gravel shifted and moved with seasonal floods that would sometimes bring previously buried material to the surface. It was in these spoil heaps that Dawson eventually found four pieces of cranium to match the one given him by the workman three years earlier. The first of these he describes: "it was not until some years later, in the autumn of 1911, on a visit [404] to the spot, that I picked up, among the rain-washed spoil heaps of the gravel pit, another and larger piece belonging to the frontal regional of the same skull, including a portion of the left superciliary ridge."

Dawson searched the Piltdown 2 site because he had reason to believe gravel from spoil heaps of Piltdown I had been carted there and spread in the field. When he spotted the little heaps, he may have assumed, as Woodward says, that they were raked there in the course of farming. Or perhaps he thought the little piles of gravel had been produced by flooding of the area as in Piltdown 1. He realized that gravel brought there most recently by the workers would be most likely to accumulate from such water action. At any rate, he was accustomed to having his best luck at searching "little heaps."

If Dawson is exonerated and Teilhard accused, there still remains a nagging question. Why would a Jesuit do such a thing? Those who first suspected someone other than Dawson believed the motive to be a practical joke. According to Essex, Teilhard at that stage of his life was known to be a practical jokester. It may have been a joke that went too far. Vere argues that the prank was meant to be discovered much earlier, but the reluctance of Smith Woodward to let others carefully examine the actual pieces prevented this. If it were a prank, perhaps it was motivated simply out of national pride. France already had Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon. Teilhard's comment in his letter to Oakley that it was shocking that a "Dawn man" could occur in England generally reflects the Frenchman's attitude toward English anthropology. Also, it may well be that he felt both Dawson and Woodward deserved a fall. Perhaps they had a patronizing attitude toward the younger member of the trio. But to carry out such an elaborate scheme would seem to require a stronger motive than just having a good laugh at his friends. Weiner agrees. "The planning of a sequence of events of this degree of elaboration, of a watchfulness of the reactions of the scientific community from the days of the first meeting onward, must betoken a motive more driving than a mere hoax or prank." And it was far too well planned over too many years to be simply a joke that went too far. Weiner, again, correctly stills this motive with the question: "If the hoaxer felt he dared not make his confession, why should it be carried on any further and for three more years with even more startlingly novel finds, all carefully timed?"

Considering Teilhard as the suspect, we should therefore look to another stronger motive. Weiner, in going through a list of possible motives for the forger, brought up one that he should have considered [405] further. "There could have been a mad desire to assist the doctrine of human evolution by furnishing the 'requisite, missing link.' With the general truth of biological evolution so well attested, with signs of abundance of tool-making man at the earliest Pleistocene times, if not earlier, the gravel of that very date at Piltdown might have offered an irresistible attraction to some fanatical biologist to make good what nature had created but omitted to preserve." The motive for Teilhard could have stemmed from his almost fanatical belief in theistic evolution and his chosen mission as someone who speaks with authority from God.

From his writings Teilhard is known to have been a driven individual, who from the first had high ambitions for accomplishing a mission. As he writes from the front during World War I: "I have come, these days, to realize one very elementary fact: that the best way to win some sort of recognition for my ideas would be for myself to attain, in the truest possible sense of the word, to a 'sanctity' that will be manifest to others-not only because of the particular force God would then give to whatever good is in my aspirations and influence-but also because nothing can give me more authority over men than for them to see me as someone who speaks to them from close to God [emphasis mine]. Without God's help, I must live my 'vision' fully, logically, and without deviation."

His 'vision' was theistic evolution. For Teilhard, evolution was far more than a scientific theory; it was a theology that consumed his every thought. In the Christic , he muses on the religion of tomorrow, "A Religion of Evolution: That when all is said and done, is what Man needs ever more explicitly if he is to survive and 'superlive,' as soon as he becomes conscious of his power to ultra-humanize himself and of this duty to do so."

Teilhard believed the path of evolution showed a direction from matter to spirit over matter. Ultimately, when spirit completely prevails over matter, it will be concentrated into a single point in union with God, the Omega of Evolution. In reconciling Christianity with evolution. it is Christ himself who is the Omega. He speculates: "What... do we find it our minds can embrace simultaneously both contemporary neo-Christianity and contemporary neo-Humanism, and so first suspect and then accept as proved that the Christ of Revelation is none other than the Omega of Evolution ?"

From the beginning of the cosmos to the biosphere, that long time [406] while matter changed from lifelessness to living things, on until man started to appear, evolution proceeded through lineages that become more unlike. To Teilhard this was borne out in history by evolution of the diversity of species. But, overlying the biosphere, in Teilhard's language, is the "noosphere," a layer of spirit-thought brought into the universe with the introduction of man. With the advent of human socialization, as displayed by these ancient human-like creatures, evolution had begun its slow convergence toward the time, still in the future, when only spirit will prevail.

Teilhard was convinced that the science of biological history held the key to proof of this theology. According to Gould, Teilhard "looked to the past for twin signs of divergence accompanied by similar upward direction," or "for multiple, parallel lineages within larger groups." No theme, Gould stresses, receives more emphasis from Teilhard in his scientific works than the search for multiple, parallel lineages. He tried to support this idea from mammal fossils. But Piltdown, with or without the jaw bone, provided the only available proof of multiple, parallel lineages within human evolution. Piltdown's skull found legitimately by Dawson showed an advanced human older than, and therefore parallel to, Neanderthal. Dawson's find, judged from the age of the surrounding gravels, supported Teilhard's theory. The rest of mankind needed a push.

The complete story behind the hoax may never be known. But by taking a fresh view of all the available data, a hypothesis can be supported for exonerating Dawson of scientific fraud and for implicating Teilhard. My review embraces information generally available to the original investigators but overlooked in the more recent examinations. This is attributable mainly to the conclusions of the British scientists who, although meticulous in examining the hard evidence that proved a fraud had been committed, then sacrificed their objectivity by leaping to the conclusion that Dawson was guilty.

The temptation for Teilhard, as a servant of God, to prod scientific discovery may have been too great. He would not be alone in the annals of famed scientists who knew they were right, but did not have the patience to await the facts turning up in their own due time. In the case of fossils, one might wait forever. Such men are not driven by fame, prestige, or money so much as they are obsessed with their own personal importance in revealing "truth" to mankind.

Gould concluded Teilhard must have been anguished for his part in the Piltdown hoax as he watched his friends make fools of themselves. [407] While he may indeed have been anguished over his actions at Piltdown, he carried this wrong with him to the bitter end. Only a few days before his death, he still worried about his "mission." The last page of his diary records Teilhard's notes on some last thoughts:


4 April 1955 (... )

distinguish man (1) fully developed (cosmos humanism)

(2) fully evolved ( = the planetary - physical)

the planetary human


7 April

(Maundy Thursday)-What I believe

Synthesis (theological confirmation!... (revelation ultra-satisfied!)


Better that he had cleared the name of the man who befriended him in the Weald of Sussex, England, so many years before.



Harold R. Booher was until this year a senior psychologist on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C., and is presently a senior executive for the Department of the Army. About ten years ago he developed an extracurricular interest in the history of science, and he has recently completed a book on "Illusions, Icons, and Origins."

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Defending Teilhard de Chardin