"Piltdown Recollections"

An Autobiography 1950

Arthur Keith


[323] Soon after my return rumours began to reach me that the authorities at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington had come into possession of fossil remains [324] of man that blew my contention of the antiquity of the modern type of man sky-high! These rumours roused not only my sense of curiosity, but also a feeling of jealousy, for I had hoped to maintain the reputation of the R.C.S. Museum as the proper home for all fossil remains of ancient man. South Kensington, to be sure, had an excellent anthropological collection, but no anthropologist, whereas I had trained myself for just such a task as had apparently fallen to a rival institution. I learned that the alleged discovery had been made at Piltdown, in the county of Sussex, by Mr. Charles Dawson (1864-19I6), a lawyer and land-agent and, by good fortune, a keen-eyed archaeologist. In searching for palaeolithic implements in the Weald he came across fragments of a thick fossilized human skull, which he carried to his friend, Arthur Smith Woodward (I864-I944), Keeper of Geology in the South Kensington Museum. All through the summer of 1912 Smith Woodward and Dawson had been quietly digging the stratum at Piltdown from which the fossil fragments had been derived, and had made additional and important discoveries. It was all a "hush-hush" affair, but news kept leaking out. As a palaeontologist Smith Woodward enjoyed, and deserved, the highest reputation, but he had no special knowledge of the human body. In our chance meetings he had struck me as a proud and cold man, one with whom I found it difficult to establish a friendship. No doubt he was just as jealous for the interests of his institution as I was for mine. Smith Woodward was a pupil of the veteran palaeontologist of Manchester, Sir William Boyd Dawkins (1837-1929). Both regarded my belief in the antiquity of Homo sapiens as an amusing evolutionary heresy. The irony of my situation lay in this–the evidence which the future was to bring proved so strong that I had to accept their conviction.

To return to the Piltdown discovery. On December I, 1912, the first authentic account of it appeared in the [325] Manchester Guardian. Next day I was invited by Smith Woodward to visit South Kensington and see the Piltdown fossils. It was late in the evening when I arrived; the lights were being turned out in the great hall of the museum. When I met Smith Woodward in his private office, our mutual greetings were curt. He unlocked a drawer and laid the precious fossils on a table in front of me. I went over part after part, noting their massiveness, their complete state of fossilization, making a mental estimate, as I went over them, of the probable size and shape of head and brain. Especially did I note the teeth and the ape-like formation of the region of the chin. The simian characters of the lower jaw surprised neither of us: if Darwin's theory was well founded, then a blend of man and ape was to be expected in the earliest forms of man. I was shown the reconstruction that had been made, giving Piltdown man the large canine teeth of an anthropoid ape. The hinder part of the skull, to my passing glance, seemed to be wrongly put together. I left the museum in no doubt that a discovery of the highest importance had been made in the most unlikely of places–the Weald of Sussex.

On reaching Highbury I went to my diary and noted the various points that had surged through my head during those twenty minutes I spent at South Kensington. On re-reading my notes today I am pleasantly surprised to see that I had carried away with me all the essential features of the Piltdown race.

Soon after (December 18, 1912) the Piltdown fossils were shown at a crowded meeting of the Geological Society. I took part in the discussion. I pointed out that the articulation on the skull for the lower jaw was similar to that of modern man and that an ape-like canine was incompatible with this form of joint. In this Smith Woodward proved me to be in the wrong, for in the following year (1913) the missing canine was found; it was not so big as my opponent had supposed, but it was simian in shape. So in the [326] first round of the controversy honours went to Smith Woodward.

The next phase was entered in June, 1913 . In that month excellent casts of the Piltdown fragments came to the Museum of the College of Surgeons; also a model of Smith Woodward's reconstruction of the skull. I fitted the various fragments of the skull into what I believed to be their proper places, and became convinced that Smith Woodward, in his reconstruction, had deprived Piltdown man of some 250 or 300 c.c. of his brain-space. The errors made in reconstruction seemed to me patent to the practised eye of an anatomist. Elliot Smith was then Professor of Anatomy in Manchester. We were on the most friendly terms, both working for the advance of British Anatomy. I wrote to him, and he arranged a meeting at the R.C.S. Museum to look into the validity of my claims. In the following month (July) this meeting took place. Those present were: Smith Woodward, Ray Lankester, W. P. Pycraft (ornithologist), Underwood (dentist), Elliot Smith, and myself. To my surprise, Elliot Smith hesitated. The only one to whom I carried conviction was Ray Lankester. I was irritated, for the errors seemed so manifest. In the following month (August, 1913) an International Congress of Medicine met in London. Visitors from abroad were shown the Smith Woodward reconstruction when they visited South Kensington. When they assembled in the theatre of the College of Surgeons I did not hesitate to point out the anatomical impossibilities of that reconstruction. Had I not done so I knew that German anatomists would. I also wrote an account of my criticism and sent it to The Times, where it duly appeared. The fat was now in the fire. Elliot Smith poured the vials of his wrath on me–through the post. He carried the controversy to the pages of Nature (September, 1913) and read a paper to the Royal Society on the brain of Piltdown man. I attended that meeting, and in the discussion which fol[327]lowed I did not mince my words in pointing out the glaring errors in the reconstructed brain-cast he exhibited to the meeting. It was a crowded meeting, and it so happened that he and I filed out side by side. I shall never forget the angry look he gave me. Such was the end of a long friendship. He must have felt I was in the right, for he never published the paper he read to the Royal Society, and when, at a later date, he and Dr. John Beattie made a reconstruction of the Piltdown skull, their result did not differ materially from mine. Nevertheless the Royal Society looked on me as a brawler, and continued to frown on me for my outspoken criticism.

That was not the end of the Piltdown controversy. Two of my friends–F. G. Parsons, of St. Thomas's Hospital, and Douglas Derry, Professor of Anatomy at Cairo– made the following proposal to me–that, if they cut from a skull in their possession fragments corresponding to those of Piltdown, would I undertake to reconstruct from the fragments submitted to me the original skull from which they were derived? I gladly submitted to the test. The fragments duly arrived, and in a few days I returned my reconstruction. In the main it answered to the original– in all save one important respect: I failed to reproduce the proper form of the forehead. * Readers may well think I am fussing far too much over the reconstruction of the Piltdown skull. But when they understand that my chief concern had become, not the establishment of this character or that in the Piltdown race, but whether an anatomist, given fragments of a skull, could give a reliable reconstruction of the original, they will perhaps forgive my insistence. The real matter at issue was: Is there, or is there not, a science of skull reconstruction? I made blunders, to be sure, but these were due to my ignorance. A science of reconstruction is a necessity, for our know[328]ledge of man's evolution will have to be built out of fossil fragments.

To such a degree did the Piltdown problem take hold of me that in 1013 I resolved to make it the subject of a book. As I wrote my text and drew my illustrations I came to realize that I was building on too narrow a foundation So in 1914 I began to write a systematic account of all the important discoveries that had been made of prehistoric man, from the remotest past down to the dawn of written history. In this account Piltdown man was given rather more than his just share. So was Galley Hill man. Williams and Norgate undertook to publish this book, which was given the title The Antiquity of Man. The outbreak of the First World War prevented its immediate publication. In 1915, although War was raging, my publishers courageously placed the book on the market. It sold quite well, a fourth impression being called for by 1920; a new edition was prepared and issued as a two-volume work in 1925.

It may not be amiss if I recall now some of the happy sequelae which came out of the Piltdown controversy. One morning early in 1913, when I entered my office at College, I found a gentleman waiting for me. He introduced himself as Mr. Charles Dawson. We had a pleasant hour together. His open, honest nature and his wide knowledge endeared him to me. He quite appreciated the attention I was giving to his own special child–Piltdown man! A little later I came to know Sir William Boyd Dawkins intimately. He was a gallant fighter, but when the fray was over was always ready to stretch out the hand of friendship to his opponent. His alert mind remained with him to the end; he died in 1929. Nor did death terminate my friendship with his family, for until this day (October 16, 1947) his widow, Lady Boyd Dawkins, continues to be my most intimate friend and companion. Of this more anon.

Smith Woodward and I drew together as the years went [329] on; we became the joint defenders of the "rights" of Piltdown man. On his retirement he and Lady Smith Woodward went to live in Sussex, near the scene of his former labours. Nor did he forget his early partner– Charles Dawson. In 1938 he erected on the site of the discovery a plaque to Dawson's memory and invited me to unveil it, which I did on June 4 of that year. Long before then the hatchet had been buried. Nor did our friendship end there. In his later years (Sir Arthur died in 1944, at the age of eighty), when he had lost his sight, he dictated to his wife an account of all the circumstances which led up to the discovery of Piltdown man. After his death, Lady Smith Woodward invited me to write a Foreword to this book, which was published by Watts and Company under the title The Earliest Englishman. All is well that ends well. Controversy in science is a sign of life; men quarrel only when they are in earnest. And from the instances just given it is clear that the wounds inflicted in controversy are readily cured.

Nor had I really finished with the Piltdown skull in 1938. In that year Ted McCown and I had brought to an end our five years of labour on the fossil men of Mount Cannel. With my increased experience of the skulls of men and of apes, I again assembled the Piltdown fragments to see if a new reconstruction would tally with the one I had made a quarter of a century earlier. The result confirmed the rightness of my previous efforts (see Journal of Anatomy, 1939, (73), pp. 155, 234), but, in spite of my increased experience, there still arose, as I adjusted one cranial fragment to another, questions I could not answer. The human skull is a very complex structure; we have much to learn of its growth and of its evolution before we can speak of a "science of reconstruction."

In this chapter I have dealt with one of the several lines of activity which engaged my earlier years as Conservator. These years–from 1908 to 1914–were the busiest....

[644] [The] similarity of the Swanscombe to the Piltdown skull was such as to suggest that both were variants of the same type; but, alas!, we knew only the hinder region of the Swanscombe skull, and it is the frontal region which carries the distinctive features of the Piltdown race. Still, it was worth while going on with the comparison for other reasons. The exact relation of the occipital bone to the parietal in the Piltdown skull was debatable; this relationship was preserved and certain in the Swanscombe skull. So I again set up casts of the Piltdown cranial fragments to make a reconstruction in which the occipital would be given the parietal relationship seen in the Swanscombe skull. I went on with this new reconstruction of the Piltdown skull for another reason. Since the publication of my reconstruction in 1915 anatomists, both at home and abroad, had published other and differing versions. It did look as if I were quite wrong in maintaining that the reconstruction of fossil fragments so as to form a complete skull was a science. I was to have one more try. Between 1915, and 1938 I had added greatly to my store of knowledge concerning skulls, ancient and modern. With this increased knowledge and with the guidance given by the discovery at Swanscombe, I set out, in October, 1937, to make a final reconstruction of the Piltdown skull.

I expected this task to occupy me for only a week or two. Never was I more deceived. Soon I was back in the old snags which beset my earlier reconstructions. One edition after another was discarded because of some anatomical error which became manifest only when all parts were in place and drawings made. To cut a long story short, it was not until June, 1938, when I had spent eight months on Piltdown, that I discovered the source of my error. I had supposed, as did all my fellow anatomists, that the two sides of the head of ancient man would be symmetrical and of equal size; asymmetry of the human brain and head we had presumed to be a recent specialization. In reality, the total [645] result of my labours during the last three months of 1937 and the first five of 1938 was to convince me, amid great vexation of spirit, that the left half of the Piltdown brain and skull were considerably larger than those of the right. There was an extreme degree of asymmetry. When I proceeded on this assumption, all parts of the Piltdown skull fell into place. I spent eleven months exploring all aspects of the Piltdown-Swanscombe problem, the results of which were published in the Journal of Anatomy . ** In this publication there were thirty-two drawings and 15,000 words of text. Seeing that I was dealing with the earliest known representatives of man in Western Europe, I did not regard my time as mis-spent. These early inhabitants of England had brains of medium size–about 1350 c.c.

In the autumn of 1938, just as I finished my Piltdown investigations, the war-cloud over Europe seemed about to burst. The entry in my diary for September 22 is: "There is now no hope of peace." . . .

[654] I ought to have mentioned that before setting out for Giggleswick an honour had come my way which I greatly prized. In the early days of the Piltdown discovery, Smith Woodward and I had been open antagonists–enemies, I might almost say.. As years went by we were gradually drawn together by two circumstances: he and I never differed as to the genuineness and importance of the discovery made at Piltdown; and we had both the same love and respect for Charles Dawson, the lawyer-antiquarian, the man who discovered the site on Barkham Manor which yielded the fossil remains of Piltdown man. In 1938, to commemorate Dawson and his discovery, Smith Woodward had erected at Barkham Manor, at his own expense, a stone monument which he invited me to unveil on July 22. This I did in the presence of a goodly company and amid the pleasantest of surroundings. ***



* An account of this test will be found in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1914, (44), p. 12.

** "A Resurvey of the Anatomical Features of the Piltdown Skull, with some Observations on the recently discovered Swanscombe Skull," Jour. Anat., 1938, (73), pp. 135-85; 234-54.

*** The brief speech I made on this occasion will be found in the pages of Nature (July 30, 1938). See also The Earliest Englishman, by Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, with a foreword by Sir Arthur Keith (Watts and Co.), 1945.

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