9 - THE
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
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
As we trace the detailed history of the Piltdown
controversy it becomes clear that the line between fact and forgery
is often indistinct.
DAWSON FINDS A SKULL
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."
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.
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
A total of nine fossil skull pieces were found, five by
Dawson alone and an additional four after Woodward joined the
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
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
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
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,
"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?
A FORGERY EXPOSED?
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
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
(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
(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
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:
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
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
Essex then gave more details. At the time, he had been science
master at a local grammar school, located near Dawson's office.
"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.
IDENTIFYING THE CULPRIT
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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