by Greg Mayer
The Geological Society (London) is having a special meeting today to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Piltdown hoax. There will also be a tour of a new special exhibit at the Natural History Museum (which also has a nice Piltdown website). It was exactly 100 years ago today that Charles Dawson, a Sussex antiquarian, along with Arthur Smith Woodward and Grafton Elliott Smith, both accomplished biologists, announced the discovery of the remains of a heretofore unknown hominid in a gravel pit in Piltdown, East Sussex.
Dawson claimed that the right mandible (broken anteriorly) and the braincase pieces had been recovered from the gravel pit. It appeared to show that in the Pleistocene of Britain there occurred a large-brained but ape-jawed ancestor of man. Many of Britain’s most prominent paleontologists, anatomists, and zoologists concurred with this analysis.
From the start, however, there was controversy as to whether the man-like cranium and ape-like jaw were from the same species. The fact that the intervening parts of the skull were missing made it impossible to demonstrate the case morphologically. Regardless, the general conclusion was to accept the association of the jaw and cranium. When Australopithecus was discovered in Africa by Raymond Dart in the 20’s, the significance of his find was underestimated since the African form had a man-like jaw and an ape-like cranium– the opposite of Piltdown. As further discoveries showed that Piltdown man was aberrant, it came to figure less prominently in accounts of human evolution.
Beginning in the late 1940’s a series of investigations were begun that explained the source of the anomaly– the Piltdown remains were not only not associated, they were relatively recent, had been stained to look old, and filed down to change their appearance– they were a deliberate forgery! In 1953, J.S. Weiner, K.P. Oakley, and W. Le Gros Clark published their results in a Natural History Museum monograph (reference below), and, appropriately, presented their results a few days later at a meeting of the Geological Society. A longer monograph appeared two years later.
There had, in fact, long been doubts about the provenance of the Piltdown specimens. In 1914, W.K. Gregory (1914: 190-191) expressed it pretty directly:
It has been suspected by some that geologically they are not old at all; that they may even represent a deliberate hoax, a negro or Australian skull and a broken ape-jaw, artificially fossilized and “planted” in the gravel-bed, to fool the scientists. Against this suggestion tell the whole circumstances of the discovery as above related.
At the time, Gregory accepted the story of discovery. The following year, G.S. Miller strongly stated that the specimens were not associated, declaring unequivocally that the jaw was simian, the cranium human. More elliptically, he wrote (1915: 1):
Deliberate malice could hardly have been more successful than the hazards of deposition in so breaking the fossils as to give free scope to individual judgment in fitting the parts together.
Colin Groves was told that Miller actually thought it was a hoax, but that decorum prevented him from saying so without proof, and so he contested the find on scientific grounds; it would be interesting to see what is written in Miller’s papers about the matter (perhaps someone has already looked). Another American zoologist, W.D. Matthew, readily accepted Miller’s conclusions (Matthew in Eastman et al., 1916: 107):
In the present reviewer’s opinion [W. D. M.] Dr. Miller’s argument is convincing and irrefutable; the jaw belonged to a chimpanzee and the skull to a species of man comparable with that represented by the Heidelberg jaw. It is hardly to be expected, however, that this conclusion will be readily accepted by the European writers, who have with but few exceptions committed themselves more or less deeply to the opposite view.
And, changing his previous view, so did Gregory (1916: 313):
In an earlier paper (1914) I have reviewed the controversy over the Piltdown remains (Eoanthropus dawsoni), emphasizing the entirely human character of the brain-case, the essentially ape-like character of the lower jaw and teeth and the doubts as to their association already expressed by several authors.
While I take no delight in the predicament of those taken in by the hoax, I do delight in the fact that Miller, Gregory, and Matthew were among those to see the true nature of the material: I have had occasion to refer and use their work in my own researches and teaching, and Gregory is one of my academic grandfathers.
After the exposure of the hoax, the incident became chiefly of historical rather than scientific interest, and the question of who perpetrated the hoax has been of recurring interest. Suspicion first fell on Dawson, but has included Smith Woodward, Arthur Keith, Teilhard de Chardin, and even Arthur Conan Doyle! Miles Russell of Bournemouth University has discovered that Dawson was involved in a number of frauds and fakeries, and an extensive summary of his case against Dawson is online. He is speaking today at the Geological Society, and has just published a new book on the subject (reference below).
In addition to the new exhibit and the conference, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum is leading a team that will conduct further tests on the bones that they hope will allow them to produce more definitive evidence of who was involved in perpetrating the hoax. Both the conference and the further testing have drawn considerable media interest in the UK (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC, Daily Mail). Further online information on the Piltdown story can be found at the late Richard Harter’s website, a Clark University site with transcripts of many original papers, and at the Talk Origins archive.
Dawson, C., A. Smith Woodward, and G.E. Smith. 1913. On the discovery of a palæolithic human skull and mandible in flint-bearing gravel overlying the Wealden (Hastings Beds) at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex). Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 69:117-147. (transcription)
Eastman, C.R., W.K. Gregory, and W.D. Matthew. 1916. Recent progress in vertebrate paleontology. Science New Series 43:103-110.
Gregory, W. K. 1914. The Dawn Man of Piltdown, England. American Museum Journal 14:189-200. (pdf)
Gregory, W.K. 1916. Studies on the evolution of the Primates. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 35:239-355. (pdf)
Matthew, W.D. 1916. Note on the association of the Piltdown skull and jaw. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 35:348-350. (in Gregory, 1916)
Miller, G.S. 1915. The Jaw of the Piltdown Man. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 65(12):1-31. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Russell, M. 2003. Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson. Tempus Books, Stroud, UK. (Amazon)
Russell, M. 2012. The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed. History Press, Stroud, UK. (publisher)
Weiner, J.S., K.P. Oakley, and W.E. Le Gros Clark. 1953. The solution of the Piltdown problem. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Geology 2:139-146. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)