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.


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.

This Issue

November 8, 1990