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A Phony Ancestor

The Amateur Sleuths

Dr. Spencer’s book, which tells the story with verve and in enormous detail, is an attempt to unmask the forger or joker. He wrote it at the behest of the widow of a Dr. Ian Langham, an Australian scholar and a friend of his, who had started but not completed the task by way of a study of Arthur Keith’s diaries,10 and of Smith Woodward’s papers.11 An annotated selection of, and commentary on, the papers over which both had pored is assembled in a small volume that accompanies the one in which Dr. Spencer tells about his detective work, and which is lavishly illustrated with indistinct photographs of the many people to whom he refers. The first six of his eight chapters, to each of which are also appended masses of notes, provide what he calls “an impartial account of events as they unfolded.” The seventh considers a list of possible suspects, before Dr. Spencer makes it clear in the eighth that like Dr. Langham’s, his finger points to Sir Arthur Keith.

Weiner and Oakley had also carried out their own detective work, and had reached the conclusion that the culprit was Dawson, who they believed had either acted on his own, or was some unknown second person’s co-conspirator—even someone by whom he was being blackmailed, but for what conceivable reason they did not suggest. Was Dawson in league with Smith Woodward? asks Dr. Spencer. His answer is no. Smith Woodward could not have been either the forger or a co-forger, for otherwise why would he have gone on working away at the Piltdown pit after the “planted” pieces had been found, when he would therefore have known that it no longer contained anything worth picking up? But why, Spencer asks, as did Weiner, did Smith Woodward not keep copies of the letters that he sent to Dawson? Had he destroyed them lest the forgery be discovered?12 Were such letters as Smith Woodward sent Dawson during the four months after he had been told about the finds, and before he had seen them or visited the pit, “a mere subterfuge” to provide him with an alibi? Dr. Spencer goes on speculating in this fahion, demolishing one Aunt Sally after another, before he exonerates Smith Woodward, and then Dawson, Chardin, as well as several others.13 Only after all these suspects have been eliminated are we told that for Dr. Spencer, Arthur Keith was the culprit.

The Presumed Culprit

His evidence, I fear, is extremely thin. We are told that at the start of the affair Keith knew far more about Piltdown than he could have done had he been innocent. He was, it turns out, the anonymous author of an article that appeared in the British Medical Journal (the BMJ) on December 21, 1912, three days after Smith Woodward and Dawson had first presented and described the finds and the circumstances of their discovery at the meeting I have mentioned of the Geological Society in London. In the BMJ the anonymous author indicated a closer knowledge of the whereabouts of the Piltdown pit than, according to Dr. Spencer, Smith Woodward had publicly revealed. Ian Langham had noted that Keith, in his brief diary note for the week of December 12, had mentioned that he had prepared the article—it was the main editorial—for the BMJ on December 16, two days before the meeting took place. Spencer, like Langham, thinks this suspicious. In fact, however, the finds were “public knowledge” weeks before the well-advertised meeting at the Geological Society. Smith Woodward had shown Keith both the remains and his reconstruction two weeks before the meeting took place. There also was nothing in the article about the site that was what Dr. Spencer calls “privileged” information. All had been revealed in detail at the meeting—maps and all. Keith recorded in his diary that he visited Piltdown a fortnight after the meeting.

Instead of speculating about foul play, would it not have been more reasonable, I find myself asking, for Dr. Spencer to have concluded that, had it turned out to be necessary, Keith would have added details to the draft he had prepared for the BMJ in the light of whatever new facts he may have learned at the meeting, or if he had already submitted his draft, that he would have amended the article in proof? Keith knew much more about human anatomy than did Smith Woodward, and the moment that casts became available he saw, as indeed any competent anatomist would have done, that Smith Woodward, not himself a human anatomist, had made a serious error in reconstructing the fragments.14

Dr. Spencer sees another clue as pointing to Keith—the answers that he gave Weiner and Oakley when they visited him in 1953, two years before his death at the age of eighty-nine. The purpose of the visit was to tell the old man about the discovery of the fraud, that Dawson was the culprit, and to question him about dates and other details of events that had taken place nearly forty years before.

Keith apparently received his guests with pleasure and interest, and tried his best to answer all their questions. The day after the visit, he wrote to Weiner saying that after they had left he had rummaged around and found an account that he had written after his first inspection of the fragments. His letter also gave a date for his first meeting with Dawson, the man who had produced the bones, which, after cross-checking against other documents, Dr. Spencer decided was wrong. He writes that this reinforced Langham’s—and clearly his—suspicions “that Keith was not being entirely honest in his account of his relationship with the Sussex solicitor,” Dawson.

And so Dr. Spencer rambles on, speculating, pointing out minor inconsistencies in what Smith Woodward, Keith, and Dawson may have said, whether something happened on the Monday or the Tuesday, and punctuating his text with qualifications such as “it is suspected,” or “it is probable,” or “it is possible,” or “it is not entirely certain”—but nonetheless ending with the verdict that Keith was the forger and that he had done what he did in order to provide material evidence for his belief in a greater antiquity for the human species than most other anthropologists of the time were ready to admit—but about which, as the quarter-million-year-old Swanscombe find was later to show, Keith happened to be right.

Another View of the Suspects

The trouble with Dr. Spencer is that the pictures he draws of most of the scientists are grotesque caricatures. Keith, Smith Woodward, as well as other distinguished scientists of the day, may have argued with one another about scientific matters, but they were certainly not knaves, and not one of them had anything to gain by becoming involved in a fraudulent act. I knew Arthur Keith well, and at one time worked in the Hunterian Museum. He was a quiet, kind man, who had made a number of valuable contributions to anatomical and medical knowledge, and in the UK was the best-known physical anthropologist of his day. He was, it is true, sometimes too firm in his views and on occasion eccentric in their expression.15 But, as is said about him in the Biographical Memoir that was published by the Royal Society,16 he also had “an intellectual humility which allowed him at once to recognise and admit the validity of new evidence even when it ran counter to previous pronouncements of his own.” In any event, if Dr. Spencer exonerates Smith Woodward because he had gone on sifting rubble at the Piltdown pit long after all the planted material had been removed, so too should Keith be acquitted. For if he was the “forger,” why should he, as Dr. Spencer tells us he did, have gone on puzzling and trying to fit together a piece of an ape jaw with the fragments of a human cranium when he knew what they actually were?

To spend page after page considering other “possibles”—such as Smith Woodward, a tall, trim-bearded, conservative, dignified, and slightly withdrawn man, or Elliot Smith—is equally ludicrous. What conceivable reason was there for either, both at the top of their professions, to waste time committing an elaborate forgery? I knew them both—Smith Woodward slightly, but Elliot Smith well. When he was asked by Smith Woodward for his views on the endocranial cast of the reconstruction that he had made, Elliot Smith did not question the way the pieces had been fitted together, but concentrated his observations on such hominid characteristics as the cast revealed. But when, six months later, Keith drew his attention to the mistake that Smith Woodward had made in his reconstruction, he immediately retracted his views. He certainly disliked the personal element that Keith introduced into the argument, but was equally firm in his opinions and unafraid of controversy, yet also ready to have his own views overturned whenever he was convinced either by new evidence or a new interpretation that he had been wrong.17

He could not have believed, any more than did most of the other distinguished scientists who were drawn into the dispute, that sheer chance had brought together in the same gravel pit parts of a human skull, part of an ape jaw, and implements, associated with animal remains, some of undoubted Pleistocene age. Scientists could make mistakes, they could argue with each other; but the idea that they could cheat—as Dr. Spencer concludes Keith did in order to manipulate scientific opinion—was remote from the scientific ethos of those days 18—if, sadly, not from that of today.

The Clue That Was Missed

I fear that for all the pleasure he clearly derives from the technicalities of archival research and bibliographical recording, Dr. Spencer’s preconception that the tall but not overmuscular Keith had carried out what was an elaborate and highly laborious hoax has caused him to miss a critical reference and also to misread clues that point to another and far more likely culprit—to Martin Hinton, a man who appears a few times in his story, but only to be dismissed as the possible villain.

Hinton, one of the nicest scientific eccentrics whom I ever knew, had been an infant prodigy, whose widowed and suddenly impecunious mother had had to send him at the age of twelve to work as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. By then Hinton was already interested in geology, and spent the lengthy legal vacations studying in museums and on collecting trips in Norfolk, Essex, and Kent. He was only sixteen when he read his first paper to the Geological Association, and he rapidly became an authority on the Pleistocene stratigraphy and fossil mammalian fauna of the southeast part of England. As a boy he had started to frequent the Natural History Museum, and in 1910 was given the status of “voluntary worker,” with his first job that of cataloging the fossil rodents in Smith Woodward’s geology department. He soon managed to get himself moved to the zoology department, which was directed by a far more amiable man.

Having been declared unfit for active military service during the First World War, he resigned his legal clerkship and went to work in a munitions factory. Three years after the war’s conclusion, he was appointed to a junior post, this time with a salary, in the museum’s zoology department. He rose steadily in the hierarchy until when he retired in 1945 he was head of the entire department. He was by then the leading authority on the Pleistocene history of the whole Thames Valley, where both Piltdown and Swanscombe belong.

Hinton, who was an excellent raconteur with a delightful sense of humor, could hardly have been less like the authoritarian, taciturn, and well-dressed Smith Woodward than he was. Nor, when in my young days I was prosector to the Zoological Society of London, can I recall them ever exchanging a friendly word at a small dining club of zoologists of which both were members. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the two disliked each other.

Dr. Spencer notes that when he was still a volunteer worker at the museum, Hinton, having read the paper in which Miller declared that the piece of Piltdown jawbone was that of an ape, immediately sent the author a letter of congratulations expressing his pleasure “at the dissolution of Eoanthropus“—the name that had been given to the Piltdown skull—and by implication of Smith Woodward. Nearly forty years later, when Weiner and Oakley revealed the “forgery,” Dr. Spencer also tells us that Hinton “rushed off” a letter to the London Times saying that had Smith Woodward allowed him to handle the specimens, he would immediately have seen that the piece of the jawbone and the tooth were those of a chimpanzee. As an enthusiastic young worker, Hinton, already an authority on the Pleistocene fauna of the Thames Valley, might well have expected to be allowed to examine the specimens more closely than he was able to at the meeting of the Geological Society at which they were first exhibited.

Dr. Spencer removes Hinton from his extraordinary list of possible suspects for two main reasons: first, because had the fraud been discovered it would have ruined his chances of getting a paid job at the museum; and second, because if his attempt to make a fool of Smith Woodward had been found out, he would have delivered “a devastating blow to the credibility” of a group of fossil hunters of which he was a member. In dismissing the possibility that he might have been involved, Dr. Spencer forgets that Hinton had indicated to Miller that Smith Woodward’s case for Eoanthropus was nonsense; nor does Dr. Spencer attach the weight he might have done to the fact, which he also notes, that Hinton had, even if indirectly, advised Marston, the discoverer of the genuine Swanscombe skull, not to pay “too much attention” to Piltdown.

Nor does Dr. Spencer realize that of all the suspects he considers, Hinton was a convinced Lamarckian who believed that evolution was caused not by natural selection but by the inheritance of acquired characteristics. He was also the only one who might have had a grudge against Smith Woodward, and a wish to show up the unsmiling and authoritarian geologist as a fool. Smith Woodward was a conventional Darwinian, whereas from his early days Hinton was a Lamarckian. I can well imagine him thinking that providing Smith Woodward with a phony “missing link” would be a good joke.

But for all the signs that Dr. Spencer gives of wide reading, there was one clue that he totally missed—Hinton’s entry in Who’s Who, in which his name appeared for the first time in 1935, some twenty years before the fraud was uncovered. It included the statement—which was never deleted or changed—that he, Hinton, was interested in hoaxes, of which he had “studied many.”19

What is odd, too, is that Dr. Spencer does not refer in his text to what is said about Hinton in a lengthy and elegantly written reconstruction of the Piltdown story that appeared in 1981 in successive issues of the New Scientist—he indicates a knowledge of its existence only in his long list of “literature cited.” The author of the series was the late Leonard Harrison Matthews, a distinguished zoologist who knew a number of the characters who were involved in the confused saga. He saw a lot of Hinton, particularly after his retirement, and was well aware of his antipathy to Smith Woodward. Enough passed between the two for him to deduce that Hinton had been involved in the perpetration of at least part of the hoax, although his belief that Hinton was also in some way linked in the enterprise to Chardin has been challenged. My own view is that if Hinton was capable of part of the deception, he was capable of it all. Dr. Spencer was clearly so blinded by his obsession with the name of Keith that his so-called impartial account of the story became clouded from the start.

Another Moral of the Story

The final chapter of Dr. Spencer’s book opens with a passage from a letter of mine that appeared in The Times Literary Supplement. The faker, I had written, “must have known more about primate anatomy than all the highly distinguished anatomists he deluded. He knew enough to take them in not once but repeatedly. If he knew as much as this, why did he not satisfy his ego more simply by becoming the foremost physical anthropologist of his day?”

Had Dr. Spencer looked further, he would have discovered that this passage came from an article of mine that was published in 1954, under the title, “Art and Science in Anatomical Diagnosis,”20 in which I elaborated the theme that whenever a new fossil bone with hominid features is unearthed, there is an immediate tendency for the “discoverer” to attribute to it some special significance in the story of human descent. This is because of overreliance on what Keith called “the ancient methods employed by zoologists in the recognition of species and varieties”—by which he meant the assessment with the unaided eye of the diagnostic significance of anatomical characters.” 21 I commented that “essential diagnostic features are tricky things to play with,” and having referred to the many controversies that had been generated in the story of man’s ancestry by the pursuit of Keith’s methods, went on to say that “the moral is that when one is diagnosing, too much art tempered with too little science can sometimes be highly dangerous.”

Hoaxing and faking are far more common in the fine arts than in science, and the motives for faking appear to be many—honest emulation of something admired, unsatisfied ambition, the desire to score off unsympathetic critics, and, above all, the hope of financial reward. The Piltdown hoaxer was obviously not out for financial gain. If I am right about my prime suspect—and here I share the view of others who knew Hinton well—the motive was the wish of a young man who had had years of experience in a distinguished legal office to deflate pompous authority. The joke misfired because not only Smith Woodward but other anatomists as well were all too ready to delude themselves about their capacity to diagnose with the unaided eye what they imagined were hominid characters in bones and teeth. The trouble is that they still do. Once committed to what their or someone else’s eyes have told them, everything else has to accord with the diagnosis. Dr. Spencer’s book is drawn out but this is the only useful moral to which it points.

Letters

Phony Ancestors May 16, 1991

The Piltdown Mystery: An Exchange January 17, 1991

  1. 10

    Kept in the archives of the Royal College of Surgeons.

  2. 11

    In the archives of the Natural History Museum.

  3. 12

    Dr. Spencer seems to have supposed that in those days British scientists, even those as eminent as Smith Woodward; were provided with personal secretaries and typewriters, which to my knowledge they never were, even twenty years after the events about which he writes.

  4. 13

    In 1980 Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard zoologist and paleontologist, published a highly speculative article that suggested Chardin could have been the forger. See “Piltdown Conspiracy,” in Natural History, Vol. 89, No. 8 (August, 1980), pp. 8–24.

  5. 14

    The fact that the article about Piltdown in the BMJ, as well as a few that appeared in other weeklies, and even in one daily, were anonymous—which Dr. Spencer seems to imply is suspicious—is neither here nor there. In those days it was the custom for such pieces to be published unsigned than signed. I knew the scientist, every bit as eminent as was Keith, who remained “anonymous” science correspondent of The Times well into the Thirties. For some scholars, writing anonymously for the papers was a way to earn an extra penny.

  6. 15

    In his well-known New Discoveries Relating to the Antiquity of Man, which appeared in 1931, I was surprised to discover that he had referred to something that I had said in a published paper, with the qualification, “Dr. Zuckerman would be the first to acknowledge that his observations had been made on captive animals.” But Keith had never discussed the matter with me, and I should certainly not have necessarily agreed with what he intended by the qualification.

  7. 16

    Vol.I (1955), p. 156.

  8. 17

    Among the lengthy list of names that are paraded by Dr. Spencer—many of whom had no connection with the Piltdown story—is that of a disciple of Elliot Smith, Professor Davidson Black who, as the Professor of Anatomy at Peiping Medical College, had been involved in the discovery of the fossil known as Peking Man. Elliot Smith had written a number of papers and monographs in which he defended Black’s thesis that Sinanthropus, the new genus to which the Peking remains had been assigned, represented a form of man generically distinct from all other known fossil human types. One day he asked me to stand in for him and deliver a lecture on the subject to the Royal Anthropological Institute.

    Having set about the job, I soon conluded that both Black’s and Elliot Smith’s belief in the uniqueness of Peking Man was untenable, and came to the conclusion that what was wanted was a reassessment of the interrelationships of all fossil men (S. Zuckerman, Eugenics Review, Vol. 24 [1933], pp. 273–284). A rational classification seemed to imply the subdivision of the family Hominidae into two subfamilies, for which I suggested the names Palaenthropidae (to include Peking man with Neanderthal types) and Neanthropidae (for types with skulls like those of modern man). Instead of defending the views that he had previously proclaimed, Elliot Smith sent me a letter in which he said that I had resolved a “most important issue in a way which points the satisfying solution.”

    At the time of Piltdown, he was far less interested in arguments about fossil men than he was in theories about the diffusion of human culture, a topic that became his overriding intellectual passion. He did not examine casts of the cranial fragments until Keith had pointed out Smith Woodward’s error.

  9. 18

    One case that I can recall is that of Dr. Kammerer, who cooked experiments on the midwife toad in order to prove that acquired characteristics can be inherited. The Case of the Midwife Toad, written by Arthur Koestler in 1971, was an attempted defense of the Viennese biologist.

  10. 19

    Hinton was not only an irrepressible collector, he never threw anything away, whether it was a page of paper or an empty tobacco tin (his Royal Society biographer records that throughout his life he smoked an ounce tin of tobacco every day, and that at his death some ten thousand “empties” were found in his rooms in Bristol where he lived in retirement). Among other bits and pieces that had to be disposed of were papers and specimens that belonged to the museum. Hinton not only knew how to get hold of zoological and geological material, he also knew how to make it disappear. In 1927 and 1928 schools of false killer whales stranded themselves on the shores of Scotland, of South Africa, and, I believe, of Ceylon. Hinton made a detailed study of the Scottish specimens, and since I was about to pay a visit to South Africa, I was asked to have prepared and bring back to the museum the skeleton of one of the South African mammals that he wanted for comparison. I did so but some years after his death it turned out that the skeleton had vanished!

  11. 20

    Manchester University Medical School Gazette, Vol. XXXIII, No.3 (1954).

  12. 21

    A. Keith, New Discoveries Relating to the Antiquity of Man (London: Williams and Norgate, 1931).

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