• Dawson Finds a Skull

  • A Forgery Exposed?

  • Identifying the Culprit


After Eugene Dubois's discovery of Java man in the 1890s, the hunt for fossils to fill the evolutionary gaps between ancient apelike hominids and modern Homo sapiens intensified. It was in this era of strong anticipation that a sensational find was made in England—Piltdown man, a creature with a humanlike skull and apelike jaw.

The outlines of the Piltdown story are familiar to both the proponents and opponents of the Darwinian theory of human evolution. The fossils, the first of which were discovered by Charles Dawson in the years 1908-1911, were declared forgeries in the 1950s by scientists of the British Museum. This allowed the critics of Darwinian evolution to challenge the credibility of the scientists who for several decades had placed the Piltdown fossils in evolutionary family trees.

Scientists, on the other hand, were quick to point out that they themselves exposed the fraud. Some sought to identify the forger as Dawson, an eccentric amateur, or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic priest-paleontologist with mystical ideas about evolution, thus absolving the "real" scientists involved in the discovery.

In one sense, it would be possible to leave the story of Piltdown at this and go on with our survey of paleoanthropological evidence. But a deeper look at Piltdown man and the controversies surrounding him will prove worthwhile, giving us greater insight into how facts relating to human evolution are established and disestablished.

Contrary to the general impression that fossils speak with utmost certainty and conviction, the intricate network of circumstances connected with a paleoanthropological discovery can preclude any simple understanding. Such ambiguity is especially to be expected in the case of a carefully planned forgery, if that is what the Piltdown episode represents. But as a general rule, even "ordinary" paleoanthropological finds are enveloped in multiple layers of uncertainty.


As we trace the detailed history of the Piltdown controversy it becomes clear that the line between fact and forgery is often indistinct.



Sometime around the year 1908, Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur anthropologist, noticed that a country road near Piltdown, in Sussex, was being mended with flint gravel. Always on the lookout for flint tools, Dawson inquired from the workmen and learned that the flint came from a pit on a nearby estate, Barkham Manor, owned by Mr. R. Kenward, with whom Dawson was acquainted. Dawson visited the pit and asked two workers there to be on the lookout for any implements or fossils that might turn up.


In 1913, Dawson wrote:

"Upon one of my subsequent visits to the pit, one of the men handed to me a small portion of an unusually thick human parietal bone. I immediately made a search but could find nothing more. . . . It was not until some years later, in the autumn of 1911, on a visit to the spot, that I picked up, among the rain-washed spoil-heaps of the gravel pit, another and larger piece belonging to the frontal region of the same skull."

Dawson noted that the pit contained pieces of flint much the same in color as the skull fragments.

Dawson was not a simple amateur. He had been elected a Fellow of the Geological Society and for 30 years had contributed specimens to the British Museum as an honorary collector. Furthermore, he had cultivated a close friendship with Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the Geological Department at the British Museum and a fellow of the Royal Society. In February 1912, Dawson wrote a letter to Woodward at the British Museum, telling how he had,

"come across a very old Pleistocene bed . . . which I think is going to be very interesting . . . with part of a thick human skull in it . . . part of a human skull which will rival Homo heidelbergensis."

Altogether, Dawson had found five pieces of the skull. In order to harden them, he soaked them in a solution of potassium dichromate.

On Saturday, June 2, 1912, Woodward and Dawson, accompanied by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a student at a local Jesuit seminary, began excavations at Piltdown and were rewarded with some new discoveries. On the very first day, they found another piece of skull. More followed.


Dawson later wrote:

"Apparently the whole or greater portion of the human skull had been shattered by the workmen, who had thrown away the pieces unnoticed. Of these we recovered, from the spoil-heaps, as many fragments as possible. In a somewhat deeper depression of the undisturbed gravel I found the right half of a human mandible. So far as I could judge, guiding myself by the position of a tree 3 or 4 yards away, the spot was identical with that upon which the men were at work when the first portion of the cranium was found several years ago.


Dr. Woodward also dug up a small portion of the occipital bone of the skull from within a yard of the point where the jaw was discovered, and at precisely the same level. The jaw appeared to have been broken at the symphysis and abraded, perhaps when it lay fixed in the gravel, and before its complete deposition. The fragments of the cranium show little or no sign of rolling or other abrasion, save an incision at the back of the parietal, probably caused by a workman's pick."

A total of nine fossil skull pieces were found, five by Dawson alone and an additional four after Woodward joined the excavation.

In addition to the human fossils, the excavations at Piltdown yielded a variety of mammalian fossils, including teeth of elephant, mastodon, horse, and beaver. Stone tools were also found, some comparable to eoliths and others of more advanced workmanship. Some of the tools and mammalian fossils were more worn than the others. Dawson and Woodward believed that the tools and bones in better condition, including the Piltdown man fossils, dated to the Early Pleistocene, while the others had originally been part of a Pliocene formation.

In the decades that followed, many scientists agreed with Dawson and Woodward that the Piltdown man fossils belonged with the Early Pleistocene mammal fossils, contemporary with the Piltdown gravels. Others, such as Sir Arthur Keith and A. T. Hopwood, thought the Piltdown man fossils belonged with the older Late Pliocene fauna that had apparently been washed into the Piltdown gravels from an older horizon.

From the beginning, the Piltdown skull was deemed morphologically humanlike. According to Woodward, the early apelike ancestors of humans had a humanlike skull and apelike jaw, like that of Piltdown man. At a certain point, said Woodward, the evolutionary line split. One branch began to develop thick skulls with big brow ridges. This line led to Java man and the Neanderthals, who had thick skulls with big brow ridges. Another line retained the smooth-browed skull while the jaw became more humanlike. This is the line in which anatomically modern humans appeared.

Woodward had thus come up with his own theory about human evolution, which he wanted to support by fossil evidence, however limited and fragmentary. Today, a version of Woodward's proposed lineage survives in the widely accepted idea that Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis are both descendants of a species called archaic or early Homo sapiens. Not at all widely accepted, but quite close to Woodward's idea, is Louis Leakey's proposal that both Homo erectus and the Neanderthals are side branches from the main line of human evolution.


But all of these proposed evolutionary lineages ignore the evidence, catalogued in this book, for the presence of anatomically modern humans in periods earlier than the Pleistocene.

Not everyone agreed with the idea that the Piltdown jaw and skull belonged to the same creature. Sir Ray Lankester of the British Museum suggested they might belong to separate creatures of different species. David Waterston, professor of anatomy at King's College, also thought the jaw did not belong to the skull. He said that connecting the jaw with the skull was akin to linking a chimpanzee's foot with a human leg. If Waterston was correct, he was confronted with a skull that appeared to be very much like that of a human and was quite possibly from the Early Pleistocene.

So right from the start, some experts were uncomfortable with the seeming incompatibility between the humanlike skull and apelike jaw of the Piltdown man. Sir Grafton Eliot Smith, an expert in brain physiology, tried to defuse this doubt.


After examining a cast showing the features of the brain cavity of the Piltdown skull, Smith wrote:

"We must consider this as being the most primitive and most simian human brain so far recorded; one, moreover, such as might reasonably have been expected to be associated in one and the same individual with the [apelike] mandible."

But according to modern scientists, the Piltdown skull is a fairly recent Homo sapiens sapiens skull that was planted by a hoaxer. If we accept this, that means Smith, a renowned expert, was seeing simian features where none factually existed.

It was hoped that future discoveries would clarify the exact status of Piltdown man. The canine teeth, which are more pointed in the apes than in human beings, were missing from the Piltdown jaw. Woodward thought a canine would eventually turn up, and even made a model of how a Piltdown man canine should look.

On August 29, 1913, Teilhard de Chardin did in fact find a canine tooth in a heap of gravel at the Piltdown excavation site, near the place where the mandible had been uncovered. The point of the tooth was worn and flattened like that of a human canine. Some nose bones were also found.

By this time, Piltdown had become quite a tourist attraction. Visiting researchers were politely allowed to assist in the ongoing excavations. Motor coaches came with members of natural history societies. Dawson even had a picnic lunch at the Piltdown site for the Geological Society of London. Soon Dawson achieved celebrity status. Indeed, the scientific name for the Piltdown hominid became Eoanthropus dawsoni, meaning "Dawson's dawn man." But Dawson's enjoyment of his fame was short-lived; he died in 1916.

Doubts persisted that the jaw and skull of Eoanthropus belonged to the same creature, but these doubts weakened when Woodward reported the discovery in 1915 of a second set of fossils about 2 miles from the original Piltdown site. Found there were two pieces of human skull and a humanlike molar tooth. For many scientists, the Piltdown II discoveries helped establish that the original Piltdown skull and jaw belonged to the same individual.

But as more hominid fossils were found, the Piltdown fossil, with its Homo sapiens type of cranium, introduced a great deal of uncertainty into the construction of the line of human evolution. At Choukoutien (now Zhoukoudian), near Peking (now Beijing), researchers initially uncovered a primitive-looking jaw resembling that of Piltdown man.


But when the first Beijing man skull was uncovered in 1929, it had the low forehead and pronounced brow ridge of Pithecanthropus erectus of Java, now classified with Beijing man as Homo erectus. In the same decade, Raymond Dart uncovered the first Australopithecus specimens in Africa. Other Australopithecus finds followed, and like Java man and Beijing man they also had low foreheads and prominent brow ridges. Most British anthropologists, however, decided that Australopithecus was an apelike creature that was not a human ancestor.

But after World War II, new finds by Robert Broom in Africa led the British to change their minds about Australopithecus, accepting it as a human ancestor.


So now what was to be done with Piltdown man, who was thought to be as old as the Australopithecus finds that had by then been made?



Meanwhile, an English dentist named Alvan Marston kept badgering British scientists about Piltdown man, contending that something was not quite right about the fossils. In 1935, Marston discovered a human skull at Swanscombe, accompanied by fossil bones of 26 kinds of Middle Pleistocene animals. Desiring that his discovery be hailed as "the oldest Englishman," Marston challenged the age of the Piltdown fossils.

In 1949, Marston convinced Kenneth P. Oakley of the British Museum to test both the Swanscombe and Piltdown fossils with the newly developed fluorine content method. The Swanscombe skull had the same fluorine content as the fossil animal bones found at the same site, thus confirming its Middle Pleistocene antiquity. The test results for the Piltdown specimens were more confusing.

Oakley, it should be mentioned, apparently had his own suspicions about Piltdown man. Oakley and Hoskins, coauthors of the 1950 fluorine-content test report, wrote that,

"the anatomical features of Eoanthropus (assuming the material to represent one creature) are wholly contrary to what discoveries in the Far East and in Africa have led us to expect in an early Pleistocene hominid."

Oakley tested the Piltdown fossils in order to determine whether the cranium and jaw of Piltdown man really belonged together. The fluorine content of four of the original Piltdown cranial bones ranged from 0.1 to 0.4 percent. The jaw yielded a fluorine content of 0.2 percent, suggesting it belonged with the skull. The bones from the second Piltdown locality gave similar results.


Oakley concluded that the Piltdown bones were from the Riss-Würm interglacial, which would make them between 75,000 and 125,000 years old. This is quite a bit more recent than the Early Pleistocene date originally ascribed to the Piltdown fossils, but it is still anomalously old for a skull of the fully human type in England. According to current theory, Homo sapiens sapiens arose in Africa about 100,000 years ago and only much later migrated to Europe, at around 30,000 years ago.

Oakley's report did not entirely satisfy Marston, who was convinced the Piltdown jaw and skull were from completely different creatures. From his knowledge of medicine and dentistry, Marston concluded that the skull, with its closed sutures, was that of a mature human, while the jaw, with its incompletely developed molars, was from an immature ape. He also felt that the dark staining of the bones, taken as a sign of great antiquity, was caused by Dawson soaking them in a solution of potassium dichromate to harden them.

Marston's ongoing campaign about the Piltdown fossils eventually drew the attention of J. S. Weiner, an Oxford anthropologist. Weiner soon became convinced that something was wrong with the Piltdown fossils. He reported his suspicions to W. E. Le Gros Clark, head of the anthropology department at Oxford University, but Le Gros Clark was at first skeptical.


On August 5, 1953, Weiner and Oakley met with Le Gros Clark at the British Museum, where Oakley removed the actual Piltdown specimens from a safe so they could examine the controversial relics. At this point, Weiner presented to Le Gros Clark a chimpanzee tooth he had taken from a museum collection and then filed and stained. The resemblance to the Piltdown molar was so striking that Le Gros Clark authorized a full investigation of all the Piltdown fossils.

A second fluorine-content test, using new techniques, was applied to the Piltdown human fossils. Three pieces of the Piltdown skull now yielded a fluorine content of .1 percent. But the Piltdown jaw and teeth yielded a much lower fluorine content of .01-04 percent. Because fluorine content increases with the passing of time, the results indicated a much older age for the skull than for the jaw and teeth. This meant they could not belong to the same creature.

Regarding the two fluorine content tests by Oakley, we see that the first indicated both the skull and jaw were of the same age whereas the second indicated they were of different ages. It was stated that the second set of tests made use of new techniques—that happened to give a desired result. This sort of thing occurs quite often in paleoanthropology—researchers run and rerun tests, or refine their methods, until an acceptable result is achieved. Then they stop. In such cases, it seems the test is calibrated against a theoretical expectation.

Nitrogen-content tests were also run on the Piltdown fossils. Examining the results, Weiner found that the skull bones contained 0.6-1.4 percent nitrogen whereas the jaw contained 3.9 percent and the dentine portion of some of the Piltdown teeth contained 4.2-5.1 percent.


The test results therefore showed that the cranial fragments were of a different age than the jaw and teeth, demonstrating they were from different creatures. Modern bone contains about 4-5 percent nitrogen, and the content decreases with age. So it appeared the jaw and teeth were quite recent, while the skull was older.

The results of the fluorine- and nitrogen-content tests still allowed one to believe that the skull, at least, was native to the Piltdown gravels. But finally even the skull fragments came under suspicion.


The British Museum report said:

"Dr. G. F. Claringbull carried out an X-ray crystallographic analysis of these bones and found that their main mineral constituent, hydroxy-apatite, had been partly replaced by gypsum. Studies of the chemical conditions in the Piltdown sub-soil and ground-water showed that such an unusual alteration could not have taken place naturally in the Piltdown gravel.


Dr. M. H. Hey then demonstrated that when sub-fossil bones are artificially iron-stained by soaking them in strong iron-sulphate solutions this alteration does occur. Thus it is now clear that the cranial bones had been artificially stained to match the gravel, and 'planted' at the site with all the other finds."

Despite the evidence presented in the British Museum report, it can still be argued that the skull was originally from the Piltdown gravels. All of the skull pieces were darkly iron-stained throughout, while the jawbone, also said to be a forgery, had only a surface stain. Furthermore, a chemical analysis of the first skull fragments discovered by Dawson showed that they had a very high iron content of 8 percent, compared to only 2-3 percent for the jaw.


This evidence suggests that the skull fragments acquired their iron staining (penetrating the entire bone and contributing 8 percent iron to the bones' total mineral content) from a long stay in the iron-rich gravels at Piltdown. The jaw, with simply a surface stain and much smaller iron content, appears to be of a different origin.

If the skull fragments were native to the Piltdown gravels and were not artificially stained as suggested by Weiner and his associates, then how is one to explain the gypsum (calcium sulfate) in the skull fragments? One possibility is that Dawson used sulfate compounds (along with or in addition to potassium dichromate) while chemically treating the bones to harden them after their excavation, thus converting part of the bones' hydroxy-apatite into gypsum.

Another option is that the gypsum accumulated while the skull was still in the Piltdown gravels. The British Museum scientists claimed that the concentration of sulfates at Piltdown was too low for this to have happened. But M. Bowden observed that sulfates were present in the area's groundwater at 63 parts per million and that the Piltdown gravel had a sulfate content of 3.9 milligrams per 100 grams. Admitting these concentrations were not high, Bowden said they could have been considerably higher in the past. We note that Oakley appealed to higher past concentrations of fluorine in groundwater to explain an abnormally high fluorine content for the Castenedolo human skeletons.

Significantly, the Piltdown jaw contained no gypsum. The fact that gypsum is present in all of the skull fragments but not in the jaw is consistent with the hypothesis that the skull fragments were originally from the Piltdown gravel while the jaw was not.

Chromium was present in the five skull fragments found by Dawson alone, before he was joined by Woodward. This can be explained by the known fact that Dawson dipped the fragments in potassium dichromate to harden them after they were excavated. The additional skull fragments found by Dawson and Woodward together did not contain any chromium.
The jaw did have chromium, apparently resulting from an iron-staining technique involving the use of an iron compound and potassium dichromate.

To summarize, it may be that the skull was native to the Piltdown gravels and became thoroughly impregnated with iron over the course of a long period of time. During this same period of time, some of the calcium phosphate in the bone was transformed into calcium sulfate (gypsum) by the action of sulfates in the gravel and groundwater. Some of the skull fragments were later soaked by Dawson in potassium dichromate.


This would account for the presence in them of chromium. The fragments found later by Dawson and Woodward together were not soaked in potassium dichromate and hence had no chromium in them. The jaw, on the other hand, was artificially iron-stained, resulting in only a superficial coloration. The staining technique involved the use of a chromium compound, which accounts for the presence of chromium in the jaw, but the staining technique did not produce any gypsum.

Alternatively, if one accepts that the iron-staining of the skull fragments (as well as the jaw) was accomplished by forgery, then one has to assume that the forger used three different staining techniques:

(1) According to the British Museum scientists, the primary staining technique involved the use of an iron sulfate solution with potassium dichromate as an oxidizer, yielding gypsum (calcium sulfate) as a byproduct. This would account for the presence of gypsum and chromium in the five iron-stained skull fragments first found by Dawson.

(2) The four skull fragments found by Dawson and Woodward together contained gypsum but no chromium. So the staining technique in this case would not have employed potassium dichromate.

(3) The jaw, which contained chromium but no gypsum, must have been stained by a third method that involved use of iron and chromium compounds, but which did not produce gypsum. It is hard to see why a forger would have used so many methods when one would have sufficed. We must also wonder why the forger carelessly stained the jaw to a far lesser extent than the skull, thus risking detection.

Additional evidence, in the form of eyewitness testimony, suggests that the skull was in fact originally from the Piltdown gravels. The eyewitness was Mabel Kenward, daughter of Robert Kenward, the owner of Barkham Manor.


On February 23, 1955, the Telegraph published a letter from Miss Kenward that contained this statement:

"One day when they were digging in the unmoved gravel, one of the workmen saw what he called a coconut. He broke it with his pick, kept one piece and threw the rest away."

Particularly significant was the testimony that the gravel was unmoved.

Even Weiner himself wrote:

"we cannot easily dismiss the story of the gravel diggers and their 'coconut' as pure invention, a plausible tale put about to furnish an acceptable history for the pieces. . . . Granting, then the probability that the workmen did find a portion of skull, it is still conceivable that what they found was not the semi-fossil Eoanthropus but some very recent and quite ordinary burial."

Weiner suggested that the culprit, whoever he may have been, could have then substituted treated skull pieces for the ones actually found. But if the workmen were dealing with "a very recent and quite ordinary burial" then where were the rest of the bones of the corpse? In the end, Weiner suggested that an entire fake skull was planted, and the workmen found it. But Mabel Kenward testified that the surface where the workman started digging was unbroken.

Robert Essex, a science teacher personally acquainted with Dawson in the years 1912 to 1915, provided interesting testimony about the Piltdown jaw, or jaws, as it turns out.


Essex wrote in 1955:

"Another jaw not mentioned by Dr. Weiner came from Piltdown much more human than the ape's jaw, and therefore much more likely to belong to the Piltdown skull parts which are admittedly human. I saw and handled that jaw and know in whose bag it came to Dawson's office."

Essex then gave more details. At the time, he had been science master at a local grammar school, located near Dawson's office. Essex stated:

"One day when I was passing I was beckoned in by one of the clerks whom I knew well. He had called me in to show me a fossil half-jaw much more human than an ape's and with three molars firmly fixed in it. When I asked where this object came from, the answer was 'Piltdown.' According to the clerk, it had been brought down by one of the 'diggers' who, when he called and asked for Mr. Dawson, was carrying a bag such as might be used for carrying tools. When he was told that Mr. Dawson was busy in court he said he would leave the bag and come back. When he had gone, the clerk opened the bag and saw this jaw. Seeing me passing he had called me in. I told him he had better put it back and that Mr. Dawson would be cross if he knew. I found afterwards that when the 'digger' returned, Mr. Dawson was still busy in court, so he picked up his bag and left."

Essex later saw photographs of the Piltdown jaw. Noting the jaw was not the same one he had seen in Dawson's office, he communicated this information to the British Museum.

The discovery of a human jaw tends to confirm the view that the human skull found at Piltdown was native to the gravels.


Even if we grant that every other bone connected with Piltdown is a forgery, if the skull was found in situ, we are confronted with what could be one more case of Homo sapiens sapiens remains from the late Middle Pleistocene or early Late Pleistocene.



Most recent writing, totally accepting that all the Piltdown fossils and implements were fraudulent, has focused on identifying the culprit. Weiner and Oakley, among others, insinuated that Dawson, the amateur paleontologist, was to blame. Woodward, the professional scientist, was absolved.

But it appears that the Piltdown forgery demanded extensive technical knowledge and capability—beyond that seemingly possessed by Dawson, an amateur anthropologist. Keep in mind that the Piltdown man fossils were accompanied by many fossils of extinct mammals. It appears that a professional scientist, who had access to rare fossils and knew how to select them and modify them to give the impression of a genuine faunal assemblage of the proper age, had to be involved in the Piltdown episode.

Some have tried to make a case against Teilhard de Chardin, who studied at a Jesuit college near Piltdown and became acquainted with Dawson as early as 1909. A Stegodon tooth found at Piltdown was believed by Weiner and his associates to have come from a North African site that might have been visited by Teilhard de Chardin in the period from 1906 to 1908, during which time he was a lecturer at Cairo University.

Woodward is another suspect. He personally excavated some of the fossils. If they were planted, it seems he should have noticed something was wrong. This leads to the suspicion that he himself was involved in the plot. Also, he tightly controlled access to the original Piltdown fossils, which were stored under his care in the British Museum. This could be interpreted as an attempt to prevent evidence of forgery from being noticed by other scientists.

Ronald Millar, author of The Piltdown Men, suspected Grafton Eliot Smith. Having a dislike for Woodward, Smith may have decided to entrap him with an elegant deception. Smith, like Teilhard de Chardin, had spent time in Egypt, and so had access to fossils that could have been planted at Piltdown.

Frank Spencer, a professor of anthropology at Queens College of the City University of New York, has written a book that blames Sir Arthur Keith, conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, for the Piltdown forgery. Keith believed that modern humans evolved earlier than other scientists could accept, and this, according to Spencer, impelled him to conspire with Dawson to plant evidence favoring his hypothesis.

Another suspect was William Sollas, a professor of geology at Cambridge. He was named in a tape-recorded message left by English geologist James Douglas, who died in 1979 at age 93. Sollas disliked Woodward, who had criticized a method developed by Sollas for making plaster casts of fossils.


Douglas recalled he had sent mastodon teeth like those found at Piltdown to Sollas from Bolivia and that Sollas had also received some potassium dichromate, the chemical apparently used in staining many of the Piltdown specimens. Sollas had also "borrowed" some ape teeth from the Oxford museum collection. According to Douglas, Sollas secretly enjoyed seeing Woodward duped by the Piltdown forgeries.

But if Piltdown does represent a forgery, it is likely that something more than personal revenge was involved. Spencer said that the evidence "had been tailored to withstand scientific scrutiny and thereby promote a particular interpretation of the human fossil record."

One possible motivation for forgery by a professional scientist was the inadequacy of the evidence for human evolution that had accumulated by the beginning of the twentieth century. Darwin had published The Origin of Species in 1859, setting off almost immediately a search for fossil evidence connecting Homo sapiens with the ancient Miocene apes. Leaving aside the discoveries suggesting the presence of fully modern humans in the Pliocene and Miocene, Java man and the Heidelberg jaw were the only fossil discoveries that science had come up with. And, as we have seen in Chapter 8, Java man in particular did not enjoy unanimous support within the scientific community.


Right from the start there were ominous suggestions that the apelike skull did not really belong with the humanlike thighbone found 45 feet away from it. Also, a number of scientists in England and America, such as Arthur Smith Woodward, Grafton Eliot Smith, and Sir Arthur Keith, were developing alternative views of human evolution in which the formation of a high-browed humanlike cranium preceded the formation of a humanlike jaw. Java man, however, showed a low browed cranium like that of an ape.

Since so many modern scientists have indulged in speculation about the identity and motives of the presumed Piltdown forger, we would also like to introduce a tentative hypothesis. Consider the following scenario. Workmen at Barkham Manor actually discovered a genuine Middle Pleistocene skull, in the manner described by Mabel Kenward. Pieces of it were given to Dawson.

Dawson, who had regularly been communicating with Woodward, notified him. Woodward, who had been developing his own theory of human evolution and who was very worried about science's lack of evidence for human evolution after 50 years of research, planned and implemented the forgery. He did not act alone, but in concert with a select number of scientists connected with the British Museum, who assisted in acquiring the specimens and preparing them so as to withstand the investigations of scientists not in on the secret.

Oakley, who played a big role in the Piltdown exposé himself wrote:

"The Trinil [Java man] material was tantalizingly incomplete, and for many scientists it was inadequate as confirmation of Darwin's view of human evolution. I have sometimes wondered whether it was a misguided impatience for the discovery of a more acceptable 'missing link' that formed one of the tangled skein of motives behind the Piltdown Forgery."

Weiner also admitted the possibility:

"There could have been a mad desire to assist the doctrine of human evolution by furnishing the 'requisite' 'missing link.' . . . Piltdown might have offered irresistible attraction to some fanatical biologist to make good what Nature had created but omitted to preserve."

Unfortunately for the hypothetical conspirators, the discoveries that turned up over the next few decades did not support the evolutionary theory represented by the Piltdown forgery. The discoveries of new specimens of Java man and Beijing man, as well as the Australopithecus finds in Africa, were accepted by many scientists as proving the low-browed ape-man ancestor hypothesis, the very idea the high-browed Piltdown man was meant to discredit and replace.

Time passed, and the difficulties in constructing a viable evolutionary lineage for the fossil hominids increased. At a critical moment, the remaining insiders connected with the British Museum chose to act. Perhaps enlisting unwitting colleagues, they organized a systematic exposé of the forgery they had perpetrated earlier in the century. In the course of this exposé, perhaps some of the specimens were further modified by chemical and physical means to lend credence to the idea of forgery.

The idea of a group of conspirators operating in connection with the British Museum, perpetrating a forgery and then later exposing the same, is bound to strike many as farfetched. But it is founded upon as much, or as little, evidence as the indictments made by others. Doubt has been cast on so many British scientists individually, including some from the British Museum, that this conspiracy theory does not really enlarge the circle of possible wrongdoers.

Perhaps there were no conspirators at the British Museum. But according to many scientists, someone with scientific training, acting alone or with others, did carry out a very successful forgery.

Gavin De Beer, a director of the British Museum of Natural History, believed the methods employed in uncovering of the Piltdown hoax would "make a successful repetition of a similar type of forgery virtually impossible in the future." But a forger with knowledge of modern chemical and radiometric dating methods could manufacture a fake that would not be easily detectable. Indeed, we can hardly be certain that there is not another Piltdown-like forgery in one of the world's great museums, just waiting to be uncovered.

The impact of Piltdown remains, therefore, damaging. But incidents of this sort appear to be rare, given our present knowledge. There is, however, another more insidious and pervasive kind of cheating—the routine editing and reclassifying of data according to rigid theoretical preconceptions.

Vayson de Pradenne, of the Ecole d'Anthropologie in Paris, wrote in his book Fraudes Archeologiques (1925):

"One often finds men of science possessed by a pre-conceived idea, who, without committing real frauds, do not hesitate to give observed facts a twist in the direction which agrees with their theories. A man may imagine, for example, that the law of progress in prehistoric industries must show itself everywhere and always in the smallest details.


Seeing the simultaneous presence in a deposit of carefully finished artifacts and others of a coarser type, he decides that there must be two levels: the lower one yielding the coarser specimens. He will class his finds according to their type, not according to the stratum in which he found them.


If at the base he finds a finely worked implement he will declare there has been accidental penetration and that the specimen must be re-integrated with the site of its origin by placing it with the items from the higher levels. He will end with real trickery in the stratigraphic presentation of his specimens; trickery in aid of a preconceived idea, but more or less unconsciously done by a man of good faith whom no one would call fraudulent.


The case is often seen, and if I mention no names it is not because I do not know any."

This sort of thing goes on not just in the British Museum, but in all museums, universities, and other centers of paleoanthropological research the world over. Although each separate incident of knowledge filtration seems minor, the cumulative effect is overwhelming, serving to radically distort and obscure our picture of human origins and antiquity.

An abundance of facts suggests that beings quite like ourselves have been around as far back as we care to look—in the Pliocene, Miocene, Oligocene, Eocene, and beyond. Remains of apes and apelike men are also found throughout the same expanse of time. So perhaps all kinds of hominids have coexisted throughout history. If one considers all the available evidence, that is the clearest picture that emerges. It is only by eliminating a great quantity of evidence—keeping only the fossils and artifacts that conform to preconceived notions—that one can construct an evolutionary sequence.


Such unwarranted elimination of evidence, evidence as solidly researched as anything now accepted, represents a kind of deception carried out by scientists desiring to maintain a certain theoretical point of view.


This deception is apparently not the result of a deliberately organized plot, as with the Piltdown man forgery (if that is what Piltdown man was). It is instead the inevitable outcome of social processes of knowledge filtration operating within the scientific community.


But although there may be a lot of unconscious fraud in paleoanthropology, the case of Piltdown demonstrates that the field also has instances of deception of the most deliberate and calculating sort.


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