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A Phony Ancestor

Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery

by Frank Spencer
Oxford University Press, 272 pp., $24.95

The Piltdown Papers, 1908–1955: The Correspondence and Other Documents Relating to the Piltdown Forgery

by Frank Spencer
Oxford University Press, 282 pp., $59.95

Today there is little argument about our ability to trace the broad lines of man’s fossil history for some half million years and, controversially, even for two to three million years, almost to the beginning of what is called the Quaternary geological period, of which the last fifteen thousand years are styled the Holocene or Recent epoch. The major part of the Quaternary, known as the Pleistocene, comprised four ice ages, during which the Arctic ice cap extended across, and then receded from, a large part of the northern hemisphere. The most recent ice age reached its zenith some twenty thousand years ago, when ice covered the northern parts of the Eurasiatic continent—extending over the British Isles and into France and Germany, as well as over enormous areas of the North American continent. It is only some fifteen thousand years ago that the ice started to recede, while still leaving the better part of Greenland uninhabitable under thousands of feet of ice, as were many other parts of the land that glaciers had previously covered, and by whose weight and movement it was transformed.

In the intervals between the ice ages, each of which lasted tens of thousands of years, our ancestors, few and scattered as they were, lived in caves, foraging and hunting game. Only at the beginning of the Holocene, some twelve thousand years ago, did settled village life begin, with the “invention” of animal husbandry and cultivation of crops. When we talk about our caveman fore-bears, we have to think of ancestors of thousands of generations back.

The Emergence of Fossil Man

Well before Darwin proclaimed his theory of evolution by natural selection, stone implements that had clearly been fashioned by human hand had been found in cave deposits associated with the fossil remains of extinct animals. In 1856 fragments of fossil bone that were clearly recognizable as human were found in Germany, soon to be followed by similar finds in France, and in 1891 in Java. All these early men had large, somewhat chinless jaws, heavy eyebrow ridges, and sloping foreheads. But although clearly human, they differed greatly from modern man. Nor were they all alike, or of the same geological age, or associated with the same variety of fashioned stone and, later, bone implements.

As each was unearthed, controversy was stimulated about its possible status as a “missing link” in our lineage, with two or three even being dignified as belonging to a special hominid genus of their own. But whatever their differences, most in fact fitted fairly well into a group that became generally known as Neanderthal man, named after a specimen that was found in 1856 in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf. Today we know that Neanderthaloids existed over a period of about half a million years, dying out, or disappearing, only some forty to fifty thousand years ago. They were usually classified together as Homo neanderthalensis to distinguish them from modern man, Homo sapiens.

Then in 1912 came the subject of Dr. Spencer’s two books, “Piltdown man,” apparently bridging the gap between the two.

Piltdown is the name of a small village almost due south of London and some fifteen miles from the channel coast. The region, like the rest of the south-east corner of England, has long been a hunting ground for geologists and paleontologists, amateur and professional, seeking stone implements and the remains of extinct animals. One of the amateur fossil collectors was a Mr. Charles Dawson, a solictor who practiced in the small town of Uckfield, close to Piltdown, where, on a farm near the village, gravel was dug to repair the roads of a nearby country house that Dawson visited from time to time on business.

One day in 1908—the year is uncertain, it might have been closer to 1911—a farmhand working in the gravel pit shattered what he later described as something that looked like a coconut. He kept a fragment, which Dawson, to whom it was later given, recognized as being part of the brain case of a human skull. “Several years later,” Dawson—to quote Dr. Spencer—was casting his eye over the “rain-washed spoil-heaps” at the side of the pit and found another piece of the skull, as well as part of a fossil hippopotamus tooth. In early 1912 he reported his finds to Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, the Keeper of Geology in the Natural History Museum in London, who a few months later visited Dawson to survey the site and to see the finds. He and Dawson were accompanied by Teilhard de Chardin, a young Jesuit priest who was interested in fossils, and who was living at a seminary not far from Piltdown.1

Smith Woodward was impressed by what he saw and agreed to spend his weekends that summer working with Dawson, sifting through the spoil as it was being thrown from the pit by a laborer. Some other fragments of the skull were found, as well as a few fossil teeth of extinct animals, and also what were presumed to be stone implements, and, most important, part of the right half of a jawbone that looked very much like that of an ape. Some time later Chardin picked from the spoil a canine tooth, also more apelike than human. Judging partly from the associated fossil animal remains, all were assumed to derive from an early Pleistocene period. In 1913 some further cranial fragments were found a couple of miles from Piltdown.

The Controversy

From the outset, opinions differed about the significance of the remains. Opinions also differed about the way the fragments of the brain case should be fitted together, and at least nine different schemes of reconstruction were at one time or another suggested. Most anatomists, however, agreed that the brain box was similar in shape and size to that of a modern man. Controversy focused mainly on the association of a human brain box with an apelike jaw.

Dawson and Smith Woodward believed that they belonged to the same individual. Some other distinguished scientists endorsed this view, as well as the diagnosis of human characteristics of the jaw.

With casts of the specimens soon available for study, others then entered the fray. Professor David Waterston2 of the University of London took an entirely opposing view, as did Mr. Gerrit S. Miller,3 a zoologist on the staff of the Smithsonian. Miller did not question the human nature of the brain case, but insisted that the features by which the jawbone had been diagnosed as human were merely those which man and apes possess in common. Other characteristics were “unlike those known to occur in any race of man” and were “found in the great apes only.”

Waterston and Miller soon found their supporters. Dr. F. Weidenreich, 4 a German physical anthropologist, was even more skeptical than they were. In his view the Piltdown skull should be “erased from the list of human fossils.” It is, he wrote, “an artificial combination of fragments of a modern human brain-case and orang utang-like mandible and teeth.”

In addition to statements of this kind, there were a number of students who took a somewhat intermediate position. Among them was Sir Arthur Keith, the curator of the famous Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and a scientist whose main preoccupation at the time was the problem of man’s ancestry.5 His contribution to the controversy concentrated on Smith Woodward’s reconstruction of the brain case. He showed a model of his alternative reconstruction to a number of scientists some six months after the meeting of the Geological Society at the end of 1912 when Smith Woodward had exhibited his version. Among them was Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, the fore-most neuroanatomist of the day, who had been asked by Smith Woodward to comment on the endocranial cast of his model.

Keith, however, was also worried by features of the jaw, and it was not until 1939 that he declared that the studies he had made of the remains during the preceding twenty years had in the end led him to accept the view that the “skull and mandible are in harmony.”6 He implied that he had reached this conclusion on anatomical grounds, and not because of the difficulty in believing that sheer chance had brought together in the same Pleistocene deposit the brain case of a man and the jaw of an ape. Here he differed from other students who felt impelled, against their better anatomical judgment, to attribute the mandibular and cranial fragments to the same creature because the remains were found close to each other.

The Discovery of the Fraud

No doubt the whole subject would have been allowed to rest, each school of thought believing what it wished, if it had not been for the interest taken in the remains by Mr. A.T. Marston, a London dental surgeon and amateur paleontologist, who in 1935 had unearthed, near the hamlet of Swanscombe in Kent, the more complete fossil remains of another human skull.7 The Swanscombe skull resembled that of a modern man far more than it did that of the beetle-browed Neanderthaloids. What was more, the skull was unearthed in an undisturbed geological stratum of unquestionable geological age far greater than the heterogeneous gravel bed that had yielded the Piltdown remains. Marston was also convinced, on purely anatomical grounds, that the Piltdown jaw and the isolated canine tooth were those of an ape. What was more, he suspected that the Piltdown fragments owed their fossil-like appearance to the fact that, in the belief that the treatment would harden them, Dawson had dipped them in a solution of the chemical potassium bichromate.

Some fifteen years later Marston contacted Dr. Kenneth P. Oakley, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum who had started to have tests made of the flourine concentration of fossil bones as a means of determining their age.8 The technique had long been known, and is based on the fact that the amount of the chemical in bones increases with geological age. Oakley was aware of Marston’s interests—the test had confirmed the age of the Swanscombe specimen—and in 1948 had suggested that the test should be applied to the Piltdown remains. The first results showed that the concentration of flourine in the cranium and mandible was the same, but also that the remains were not as old as had always been believed. On the assumption that both mandible and cranium were genuine fossils, he was therefore ready to believe that they had been derived from the same creature. Within a few years, however, a second study, stimulated by Dr. J.S. Weiner of Oxford, convincingly suggested that this was not so and that Piltdown was a hoax. Weiner and his colleagues, who included Kenneth Oakley as well as W.E. Le Gros Clark, wrote that while the cranium might be a genuine fossil, the jawbone and other bits and pieces that had been removed from the pit might have been “planted.”9 Further and more sensitive chemical tests, including one to determine the concentration of radioactive uranium, led to the conclusion that all the Piltdown finds were bogus.

  1. 1

    Chardin was later to become well known for his controversial views about man’s origins and destiny.

  2. 2

    D. Waterston, in the appendix to C. Dawson and A.S. Woodward, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London, Vol. 69 (1913), p. 117.

  3. 3

    G.S. Miller, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection, Vol. 65, No. 2,376 (1915); G.S. Miller, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Vol. 1 (1918), p. 25.

  4. 4

    F. Weidenreich, “The Skull of Sinanthropus Pekinensis,” Paleontologia, Sinica, N.S. (D), No. 10 (1943).

  5. 5

    A. Keith, The Antiquity of Man, Vols. I and II (London: Williams, 1925).

  6. 6

    A. Keith, Journal of Anatomy, Vol. 73 (1939), p. 234.

  7. 7

    A.T. Marston, British Dental Journal, Vol. 88 (1950), p. 292.

  8. 8

    K.P. Oakley, Advanced Science, Vol. 6 (1950), p. 343.

  9. 9

    J.S. Weiner, K.P. Oakley, and W.E. Le Gros Clark, Bulletin of the British Museum of Natural History, Vol. 2 (1953), p. 141.

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