Teilhard and Piltdown *

Thomas M. King, S.J.

King & Salmon, Teilhard and the Unity of Knowledge 1983



[159] Much of the following account is based on a lecture by Dr. J. S. Weiner delivered at Georgetown University, April 28, 1981. Weiner-together with Kenneth Oakley and W. E. LeGros Clark-uncovered the Piltdown hoax in 1953. Weiner immediately began an extensive investigation to determine who was responsible. His account was published as The Piltdown Forgery (Oxford, 1955; recently reissued as a Dover paperback). A videotape of Weiner's talk is available in the Georgetown University Library.


In December 1912 newspapers around the world announced that the skull and jawbone of an early hominid had been found in the gravel beds of Piltdown, a quiet English village about forty-five miles south of London. From the same gravel beds came what appeared to be ancient tools together with hippo and elephant teeth. Soon a second site two miles distant was said to yield an ancient molar and fragments of a second skull. Anthropologists generally accepted the finds. But as additional human fossils were found in Asia and Africa, Piltdown became a puzzling anomaly. Then in November 1953 it was announced that the fossils were part of an elaborately contrived forgery. The skull was human and somewhat recent, while the jawbone had come from an orangutan. Both had been stained and doctored to appear as part of a single ancient hominid. In 1953, before the public story broke, Weiner went to [`60] Piltdown and began gathering information on the supposed finders. His attention soon focused on Charles Dawson, an amateur collector of some standing who was at the center of all the events. In 1955 Weiner published his carefully documented case against Dawson. Teilhard is mentioned several times in Weiner's account, for as a seminarian he had been with Dawson at Piltdown. Since Stephen Gould allows that "J. S. Weiner's elegant case virtually precludes Dawson's innocence," the only question considered here is whether Teilhard assisted Dawson in preparing the forgery-as Gould has charged.

Now to the major points of Gould's accusation:

First Point: Errors in Teilhard's letters to Oakley shortly after the hoax was exposed. Teilhard was seventy-two and working at what is now the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York when a front-page story in the New York Times (Nov. 22, 1953) announced the elaborate hoax. Kenneth Oakley wrote Teilhard asking him for his recollections of Piltdown. Teilhard's response included an account of how Dawson "brought me to the site of Locality 2 and explained me (sic) that he had found the isolated molar and the small pieces of skull in the heaps of rubble and pebbles raked at the surface of the field."

Oakley had difficulty with this part of Teilhard's account, so he wrote back saying that he was very unsure when the skull fragments and tooth were found. He asked Teilhard whether this visit to the second site was before or after the supposed discovery. Teilhard responded that Oakley's question had made him doubt. But then he concluded: "Yes, I think definitely they had been already found, and that is the reason why Dawson pointed to me the little heaps of raked pebbles at the site of the 'discovery.'"

Having recounted this, Gould states his case: "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 was shipped immediately to the front, where he [161] 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 (Dawson died in 1916)."

Gould presents this "slip" of Teilhard as his central evidence. But in stating his case Gould has significantly altered what Teilhard said. Teilhard has told of seeing the site , but in writing of this Gould has Teilhard seeing "the remains of Piltdown 2." Gould goes on to write as though Teilhard had claimed to have "actually viewed the fossils," the "finds," the "material," "seen the specimens." The difference between seeing the site and seeing the fossils is significant. If Teilhard had seen the fossils he would have studied them with care and his memory of them would have been more vivid. But that is not all: There is a letter from Dawson to Smith Woodward of the British Museum dated July 3, 1913 in which Dawson tells of finding "the frontal part of a human skull" at another site, "a plough field a long way from Piltdown." (Weiner brought a copy of this important letter with him to Georgetown.) Thus, finds did not begin at Location 2 (as Teilhard quite understandably thought the new site to be) in January 1915-as Gould has claimed-but in July 1913. In August of 1913 Dawson and Teilhard traveled about the whole area, and Dawson showed Teilhard this second site. In doing so he probably would have indicated the rubble wherein he had recently claimed to have found a piece of skull. Then the whole basis of Gould's charge would reduce to this: Dawson showed Teilhard the heaps of rubble wherein he claimed to have found a piece of skull. Forty years later Teilhard recalled the event but misstated the extent of Dawson's claim.

Apart from this error Gould insists that Teilhard's letters to Oakley are "filled with other damaging points," "a series of slips and halftruths." Three are identified: First, in a letter to his family dated May 1909 Teilhard told of meeting Dawson. But in writing to Oakley in 1954 he dated this meeting as 1911. Teilhard's error is undeniable; Gould sees it as an attempt to divert suspicion from himself. Second, When Oakley asked Teilhard about something Dawson had done in 1908, Teilhard responded, "In 1908 I did not know Dawson." Gould allows that this is true. But because Teilhard did not spontaneously add that he met Dawson in the early months of 1909 he includes this in his list of slips and half truths! Third, Teilhard's letters to his family tell of many travels about the countryside: but when he wrote to Oakley he told of being largely confined to his seminary room. The author of the [162] present article was in a Jesuit seminary in the 1950s and recalls being confined to a seminary room to an extent that modern readers would not believe. My letters home at this time tell of bicycle rides about the countryside as this was the only other thing I did. Gould speculates about Teilhard and Dawson spending "long hours in field and pub;" in this Gould shows little familiarity with seminary life before Vatican II. Gould insists that there is a pattern of misstatements in Teilhard's letters to Oakley and that the pattern shows Teilhard trying to excuse himself. But when Gould's evidence is correctly stated it seems that Teilhard made two errors in recalling events forty years before: (1) When Dawson showed him the rubble at the second site Dawson had probably claimed only a piece of skull (not pieces of skull and a molar) had been found there. (2) Teilhard met Dawson in 1909 and not in 1911.


Note: Teilhard erred in stating a date. But one could note that Gould has three erroneous dates in stating his charge: Teilhard entered the Jesuits in l899 (not 1902): he was ordained in 1911 (not 1912); his Parisian letters continued till 1914 (not 1912). So it goes. Gould's effective style can be perplexing: in the same paragraph as he tells of Teilhard's letters to Oakley trying "to exonerate Dawson," he tells of Teilhard in the same letters trying "to extricate himself alone." These letters can be consulted in their entirety; they are published in Teilhard de Chardin: L'oeuvre scientifique, p.4561 ff. In these letters Teilhard is reluctant to see Dawson as dishonest. Gould would have it that he stonewalls. Weiner argues, "If he (Teilhard) had been guilty, he might have been ready to see Dawson accused and thus avert suspicion from himself. He did not take this view. He was bewildered." Gould sees Teilhard burdened with life-long guilt. It could be argued that if Teilhard did have such a burden of guilt he would have remembered each painful detail. If he felt any need to conceal complicity, he could easily have consulted the official accounts of Piltdown and thus avoid incriminating himself. It seems that he simply stated what he recalled and in the process made two small errors.


Second Point: Teilhard's one article on Piltdown was followed by virtual silence. Teilhard wrote only a single article on Piltdown-a pop[163]ular article published in December 1920. In the twenty-three volumes of his collected works (apart from this article and a thirteen line paragraph) Teilhard made only passing references to Piltdown. His 1920 article claimed that the skull and jaw came from different individuals. This considerably diminished the importance of the find, but Teilhard went on to say that the skull itself had considerable significance. After this 1920 article, Teilhard made only minimal reference to Piltdown. Gould sees this of particular significance as he would see Piltdown supporting one of Teilhard's favorite ideas: multiple human lineages could argue for the domination of spirit over matter. But such arguments become difficult to manage; perhaps the large and ancient skull of Piltdown followed by later smaller skulls (as seemed to be the case) would argue for the domination of matter over spirit. That the twenty-three volumes make only occasional reference to Piltdown is neither extraordinary nor "silence to the point of perversity" (Gould). Ten of these volumes are scientific reprints detailing excavations that Teilhard was making in Asia. The others are religious and philosophical works that/ treat frequently of evolution. But more striking than their rare mention of Piltdown Man is their rare mention of Peking Man-an authentic fossil about which Teilhard centered his scientific career. Weiner spoke with Teilhard in the summer of 1954 and asked him about his infrequent references to Piltdown. Telling of this conversation, Weiner explained: 'I had no reason then and I have no reason now-I have said so in public many times-to see in Teilhard a fellow conspirator. But I was interested in one point: I asked Teilhard why he had paid rather little attention to Piltdown after 1920. I wondered whether he had in fact suspected something and therefore began to write less and less about Piltdown, (whether he) might have had some inkling."

Teilhard said that he suspected nothing. He explained his silence by saying that he did not believe that the two parts had come from the same animal. He added that the events took place before he had much training and he had not seen all of the material. (Weiner retains a lingering doubt that perhaps Teilhard had suspected some irregularity, "but he never could take it on himself to denounce anybody. He did not have the evidence.")

Third Point: Other fossil teeth found with the Piltdown skull. Hip[164]popotamus and elephant teeth were supposedly found near the doctored skull. It seems they were added to authenticate and date the find. Subsequently they have been traced to Malta and Tunisia. Gould uses the teeth to further implicate Teilhard as Teilhard had traveled from France to Egypt in 1905 and returned in 1908. Gould notes that the trip to Egypt did not pass these areas (it went by way of Messina and Crete). As for the return voyage in 1908 Gould writes an amazing sentence: "I can find no trace of his passage back, and the two areas (Malta and Tunisia) are right on his route from Cairo to France." Yes-Gould is able to identify Teilhard's return route in the same sentence in which he tells us he found no record. Malta and Tunisia were not on Teilhard's route down. Is there any reason to situate them on Teilhard's return route other than to implicate Teilhard? Gould allows that Dawson might have obtained the fossils elsewhere. But he does not tell us that Dawson had a stepson with the British army in the Sudan who had loaded Dawson's house with African souvenirs. Nor does he speculate on return routes from the Sudan passing through Malta and Tunisia.

I am well aware of the difficulties involved when an historian in 1980 tries to identify the source of fossil teeth for an incident in 1912. But there are significant texts concerning the teeth that date from the year of the forgery. Teilhard wrote to his parents on April 26, 1912: "Last Saturday, my geologist friend, Mr. Dawson, came for a visit. He brought me some prehistoric remains (silex, elephant and hippopotamus teeth, and especially, a very thick well-preserved skull) which he had found in the alluvium deposits not far from here; he did this to stir me up to some similar expeditions, but I hardly have time for that anymore."

This seems to be the earliest reference to the teeth and to the skullteeth-Dawson-Teilhard connection. The letter could give Gould several problems: Teilhard's letters to cher papa and chere maman are filled with tenderness and filial piety; then why is he making his mother and father the first victims of the Piltdown hoax? Further, Dawson had been showing the skull all around the neighborhood since the Spring of 1908 (before Teilhard had come to the area). If Dawson and Teilhard were three-year companions in natural history-as Gould would have it-why did he not show him the skull before this time?


[165] Note: Previous letters of Teilhard to his parents tell of a first meeting with Dawson in May 1909, a single exchange of letters, a day of common exploration, and three visits of Dawson to the seminary (in the French edition these letters are numbered #18, 21, 23, 33, 39, 64). It is unlikely that they had any additional meetings during those three years. Gould would seem to overstate it in calling them three-year companions in natural history, or "good friends and colleagues," or "warm friends, colleagues and co-explorers." Weiner sees a different relationship. He told of the letters that Teilhard later wrote to Dawson as "unmistakably letters of a junior person writing to a senior man in great deference and respect." Teilhard's letters to his parents tell of his first visit to Dawson's home in June 1912. He left England for France on July 16 of that all important year. Gould with his general tendency to overstate Teilhard's involvement has Teilhard staying in England until "late in 1912." A curious circumlocution to indicate July 16!


Fourth Point: Teilhard's glum disinterest in viewing a London exhibit concerning the hoax. In August of 1954 while returning from Paris to New York, Teilhard stopped in London to see Oakley and others. Oakley found him reluctant to discuss Piltdown and Teilhard walked glumly past an exhibit showing how the hoax was uncovered. Gould interprets Teilhard's reaction as "intense embarrassment" and ascribes this embarrassment to guilt. Apart from this interpretation there seems to be some question of Teilhard's mood at the time. During the same visit to England Weiner spoke with Teilhard concerning Piltdown for about an hour. Weiner did not find Teilhard reluctant: "He (Teilhard) discussed all the points that I put to him perfectly frankly and openly." That Teilhard was glum at the time seems to be certain. Five days before coming to London he was in Paris when his religious superiors ordered him to terminate his visit, to leave Paris and not return. Teilhard saw this as the final rejection of the religious message of his life. Several days after receiving this order he was twice led past an exhibit showing how he had been duped. So he was glum!


Fifth Point: Other anthropologists suspected Teilhard. Gould does not list this as one of his points, but weight is added to his argument by telling of others who suspected Teilhard. Weiner commented on three of these: Louis Leakey, Kenneth Oakley and W. E. LeGros Clark. Lea[166]key twice published his suspicions concerning Teilhard; this gave some currency to Teilhardian complicity before Gould took up the charge. Weiner commented: "I know that Louis Leakey felt that Teilhard had a hand in it. But I asked him about it and he had no evidence." (The official biographer of the Leakey family writes, "Louis had no real evidence, only a hunch.") Concerning Kenneth Oakley, Weiner stated: "Gould would have you accept that Oakley was the same mind (as himself); but it is not so. When Gould's article came out Oakley dissociated himself from it. He wrote to the (London) Times pointing out that Teilhard's letters disturbed him, but since there was no positive evidence against Teilhard he should have the benefit of the doubt. But I have seen Oakley recently and he has no reservations-that I felt-about his belief that Teilhard had nothing to do with the planting of this material and manufacture of the fraud."

As to the opinion of W. E. LeGros Clark, Weiner states, "I saw him practically every day from 1953 until after he retired in 1965. I never heard him controvert my opinion that Dawson had done it alone."

Apart from the major points listed by Gould his case would seem to contain additional errors: Gould would have it that Teilhard was the only one to find any of the material in situ. Weiner objects that "three or four things were definitely found in situ." Gould claimed that Teilhard and Dawson were companions in natural history for three years before any professionals saw the material. Weiner objected that several professionals had seen the material before Teilhard (Abbott, Woodhead, and others). Gould claims that Teilhard wrote eleven letters home telling of excursions with Dawson. Using the same collection of letters one finds that eleven letters mention Dawson, but only six tell of common excursions (several concern the same event).

After Gould has listed his evidence against Teilhard, he warns us that the evidence may be overwhelming, but we are still not satisfied unless there is a reasonable motive. Here he sees "no great problem." He does not believe that Teilhard acted with malice or with hope of a reward. Instead he proposes that Teilhard became involved with Piltdown [167] as a prank; it was a youthful caper. However events passed beyond control to become "a joke that went too far." Why the prank? Gould conjectures that at the time Teilhard was only an amateur with no hope of a professional career in science. Furthermore, Teilhard was French; then why not play a delicious joke on the British professionals? Gould observes, "the joke quickly went sour."

The recognized sequence of events conflicts with all of these conjectures: Teilhard's letters show that the joke had begun by April 1912, it continued through his finding a canine tooth in August of 1913, and included Teilhard's article of 1920 that still argued for the significance of Piltdown. How can eight years of active deceit be termed a joke that quickly went sour? As to the "joke:" Weiner sees too much careful preparation of the fossils for it to be only a joke. As for it being a youthful caper: Teilhard was thirty-nine in 1920. Second, if for some reason Teilhard did want to delude the British professionals (for which there is no evidence), why did he first delude his unsuspecting parents living in rural France? Third, Weiner asks, "Why should Teilhard wish to deceive Professor Smith Woodward, Sir Arthur Keith, and others who had been so kind to him?" Fourth, in the Spring of 1912 arrangements had been made for Teilhard to begin professional studies in geology. When the canine was found in August 1913 Teilhard had completed his first year of these with the master of French paleontology, Marcellin Boule. Gould ignores this to claim that at the time Teilhard had no hope of a professional career. Scientists do not take kindly to such jokes (and Jesuit superiors are much the same). Then why would Teilhard want to ruin his career as both scientist and priest to play a pointless joke on British professionals? By August of 1913 Piltdown had become the focus of an international search for human origins. If Teilhard had announced his "joke" at this time, would Marcellin Boule have received him back into his lab?


Note: Concerning motivations: Weiner has told of Dawson being long eager to be received into the Royal Society (of science). Gould seems to accept this as Dawson's motivation, while maintaining that Teilhard was pranking (June 1981). Gould explains that conspirators frequently have different motivations. This is probably true, but it does not apply here. How could they conspire if Teilhard were joking and Dawson were trying to gain admission to the Royal Society? A joke [168] would require that the hoax be revealed to embarrass the Brit-ish professionals; while Dawson's promotion would require that the hoax remain concealed.


It is clear that I find Gould's case altogether lacking in evidence, but ultimately my belief in Teilhard's innocence is based on his character. First, Teilhard was an honest man, as many of his associates have testified. Second, he was a shy man who was not given to practical jokes (Gould gives no evidence of other pranks). Third, Gould envisions Teilhard suffering guilt, remorse, galling bitterness almost beyond belief and weeping inwardly as friends fall for a hoax that he is powerless to undo. These data-free conjectures ignore the incredible documentation available on the psyche of Teilhard: Apart from the twenty-three volumes mentioned above, Teilhard left about 8,000 personal letters and twenty-some copy books of a private journal. I have read the vast majority of these and find no support for the speculative psycho-history offered by Gould. Some theologians have criticized Teilhard as lacking a sense of sin and guilt. Now without offering a single reference, Gould has "no real problem" in turning him into a guilt tortured Kierkegaard.

In sum: Gould's case would seem to involve the following errors. Teilhard claimed to have seen only the site and not the remains or fossils of Piltdown 2. Dawson's first account of a second Piltdown site was in July 1913-not January 1915. Six associations in three years is hardly a three-year companionship: and six letters-not eleven-tell of common excursions. Testimonials by Oakley and LeGros Clark seem inaccurate. Several dates are in error and July 16 is hardly "late in 1912." Glum disinterest does not necessarily imply guilt. Several professionals saw Piltdown material before Teilhard. Diggers other than Teilhard found fossils in situ. A return route from Egypt and a psychohistory have been invented to fit.

Gould has done considerable exploration into a long-buried event, and out of a few splinters has created a new image of both Piltdown and Teilhard. But the world's expert on Piltdown (with no detectable interest in Teilhard's philosophy) is not at all convinced, and Teilhardian scholars do not recognize the image they are being offered. Vast amounts of material concerning Teilhard has been ignored, and Weiner tells of having boxes of material on Piltdown that Gould has not asked to consult. As one long familiar with the mind of Teilhard, I can only say what Teilhard said of Piltdown Man in 1920: anatomically the pieces do not fit.




* "A Response to Stephen Jay Gould's Charge of Teilhard Complicity" (see Natural History ,

March 1979, Aug. 1980, June 1981).

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