THE PILTDOWN SHOWDOWN
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.
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
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.
around the year 1908, Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur anthropologist,
noticed that a country road near Piltdown, in
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.
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 apeared.
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.
everyone agreed with the idea that the Piltdown jaw and skull belonged to the
same creature. Sir Ray Lankester of the
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.
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.
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.
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
World War II, new finds by Robert Broom in
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 Piltdown fossils.
Marston convinced Kenneth P. Oakley of the
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
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
ongoing campaign about the Piltdown fossils eventually drew the attention of J.
S. Weiner, an
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.
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
the evidence presented in 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
option is that the gypsum accumulated while the skull was still in , the
Piltdown gravels. The
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.
was present in the five skull fragments found by
The jaw did have chromium, apparently resulting from an iron-staining technique involving the use of an iron compound and potassium dichromate.
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
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
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.
Essex, a science teacher personally acquainted with
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.
tried to make a case against Teilhard de Chardin, who studied at a Jesuit
college near Piltdown and became acquainted with
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
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
Spencer, a professor of anthropology at
suspect was William Sollas, a professor of geology at
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."
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.
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, 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.
who played a big role in the Piltdown expose himself wrote: "The Trinil
[Java man] material was tantalizingly incomplete, and for many scientists it
was inadequate as confirmation of
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."
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
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
of a group of conspirators operating in connection with the
there were no conspirators at the
Beer, a director of the
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."
of thing goes on not just in the
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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