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.

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 …

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Phony Ancestors May 16, 1991

The Piltdown Mystery: An Exchange January 17, 1991