Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution
“You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes. I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure? It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess that I covet your skull.”
Thus the meeting of Dr. Mortimer with Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles; and thus a crucial clue for those who claim that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle faked Piltdown Man, the scientific fraud of the twentieth century. The fake, discovered in Sussex a decade after Dr. Mortimer’s 1902 adventure, was not in fact a half-million-year-old human ancestor, Eoanthropus, “dawn man,” but a crude amalgam of a medieval human brain case with an orangutan jaw of the same age. A few of the bones were painted with household brown paint and others roughly stained to resemble a fossil. They had, some said, been planted by the founder of detective fiction.
Ridiculous? Well, consider the fact that Conan Doyle (a trained anatomist) several times visited the Piltdown dig. He was at the time writing The Lost World. What better publicity for a missing universe of ape-men than to find an extinct ape-faced human? There are other clues: he had once collected fossils in Malta (the real source of ancient hippopotamus bones scattered at the Piltdown site) and was a friend of an expert on 500-year-old orangutan skulls used for ritual purposes in Borneo. What is more, as a spiritualist Conan Doyle was anxious to attack conventional science. In The Lost World he had gone so far as to write, “You can fake a bone as easily as you can fake aphotograph.”
There have been a hundred books on the Piltdown case. Fifty name the Guilty Man (or Men, more than a dozen altogether). When it comes to fraud, John Evangelist Walsh is against it: the Piltdown fake was “despicable, an ugly trick played by a warped and unscrupulous mind.” He writes as a private eye rather than a biologist. His book both gains and loses as a result.
The loser is science. There is almost nothing here on the real facts of evolution, either as seen at the turn of the century or in the radical new landscape revealed by the genes that turn each one of us into a living fossil. The gain is in the sleuthing; the rejection of the impossible until “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, it makes a rattling good read.
Whoever did the deed, Piltdown was a fraud. As such, to a scientist it loses all interest; but to the public—and to John Evangelist Walsh—it assumes a fascination of its own. Unraveling Piltdown goes through the usual suspects. Earlier claims are dismissed: evidence is “disappointingly superficial,” “built on the veriest gossamer,” or shows “a reckless use of hearsay.” This book, though, is different. According to the cover, it exposes the true culprit, and …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.