There has been widespread speculation regarding the identity of the person responsible for the scientific fraud at the village of Piltdown more than one hundred years ago. Detective work, as well as scientific tests, have now established who the fraudster is. The embarrassing episode, however, encouraged fundamentalist Christians to launch unfounded attacks on evolutionary science.
While I was travelling in England a few years ago, I accidentally came across the village of Piltdown in the county of East Sussex. Piltdown initially became famous, later notorious, for the alleged palaeoanthropological finds that were made there in 1912. Very little happens in the sleepy village nowadays. It has a golf course, a pub that was previously named Piltdown Man, after the important scientific discovery, and one can also visit the quarry where the bones that made headlines at the time were “discovered”. The site, which is now derelict, creates the impression that everyone wants to forget the incident. That wasn’t always the case. In 1938 a memorial was erected and later unveiled by Sir Arthur Smith Woodward who had been intimately involved with the find. In 1950 the quarry was fenced off with windows through which visitors could look at the excavations and in 1952 the government proclaimed it a national monument. The next year, however, the fraud was uncovered and Piltdown Man was consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. Although the status of the site as a national monument was shortly thereafter revoked, the truth took longer for the villagers to sink in. It was only in 2011 that the name of the pub was changed back to its original one: The Lamb.
Although the story of the Piltdown fraud is a well known one, several important developments recently took place which goes a long way towards solving the riddle of the identity of the person who was responsible for the fraud. It may accordingly not be a bad idea to look at the matter afresh.
My interest in Piltdown dates from the 1970s when I purchased and read Ronald Millar’s book The Piltdown Men (1972). Millar points out that several Homo Erectus fossils were found before 1912. They included Peking and Java man in Asia and Neanderthal man and Homo Heidelbergensis in Europe. Although no comparable discoveries had been made in the British Isles, the Britons were keen to have their own human fossil. A search to that end was underway but the perception of scientists also played a role in the expectation of what would be discovered. They thought that because the human brain is more highly evolved, it antedated the human body and that ancient man accordingly had a big sophisticated brain in an ape-like body. Neanderthal man was for this reason portrayed in contemporary reconstructions as more apelike than it really was. What scientists were looking for was a so-called missing link, a single transitional form between humans and apes. We know today that such a missing link does not exist; several species have both human-like and ape-like traits.
But to return to the Piltdown-saga; what set the ball rolling was a report that was made to Woodward in the second half of 1912 by Charles Dawson, an attorney and amateur archaeologist from Lewes in Sussex. He handed a partial human skull to Woodward and told him that it had been discovered by labourers in Piltdown who had handed it over to him. Excavations were thereafter conducted by the National History Museum in London to see if any further fossils could be found.
Four people were physically involved in the excavations at Piltdown. They were Charles Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, the aforementioned Arthur Smith Woodward, who was a palaeontologist from the National History Museum and Venus Hargreaves, a local labourer. Some other people also indirectly assisted in the endeavour. They were principally the staff of the Natural History Museum but also included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author and creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
During the excavations by the four persons referred to, further discoveries were made of pieces of a seemingly ancient human skull in conjunction with an apelike jaw and a tooth in situ. Ancient hippopotamus and elephant teeth were likewise found at the site. These were all examined and analysed by Woodward and in December 1912 he announced that the skull, jaw and tooth constituted a new transitional species which was named in honour of Charles Dawson Eonthropus Dawsoni (Dawson’s dawn man). The age of the fossil was said to be approximately 500,000 years. Reaction to the announcement was mixed. Although some people were delighted and particularly pleased that the “missing link” was British, some scientists were, for a variety of reasons, sceptical. The main complaint was that the jaw and cranium did not seem to belong together and that the mandible, in particular, resembled that of a chimpanzee to a large extent.
So matters stood until 5 years later when Woodward made it known in 1917 that Dawson had handed a second skull and tooth to him in 1915 that had allegedly been discovered during excavations by him in the same area. Since the skull was similar to the earlier one, many sceptics were persuaded of its authenticity. But exactly where it was found remains a mystery up until today, for Dawson passed away in 1916 and Woodward never disclosed the full facts before his death.
That was not the end of the matter. Subsequent palaeoanthropological discoveries again cast doubt on the status of Eonthropus Dawsoni. It turned out that Charles Darwin was probably correct with his prediction in his 1870 book The Descent of Man, that man’s origin was in Africa, not England. Apart from that, we know now that other human traits such as bipedalism preceded a large brain and that the man/ape split was much older than 500,000 years. (It is now estimated to be at least seven million years.) These facts were not, however, what led to the fall of Piltdown Man. Lingering doubts and other problems with the fossil persuaded the researchers Joseph Weiner, Kenneth Oakley and Wilfred le Gross Clark in 1952 to investigate its authenticity afresh. Recently invented Fluorine tests were conducted by Oakley. They demonstrated that the bones were of recent origin in so far as they had not absorbed groundwater as older bones do. The tests also revealed that the bones had been artificially stained to create the impression of being ancient while they dated in reality only to the 14th century. The investigators moreover discovered that while the two skulls were human, the jaw belonged to an orangutan whose teeth had been filed down so that they would appear to be the product of wear. The elephant and hippo teeth, they wrote, were foreign and had been planted in the quarry to give greater credence to the find. These findings were published in 1953 and, needless to say, sounded the death knell for the so-called “fossil”.
Although these facts established beyond any reasonable doubt that the crime of fraud had been committed and that Dawson, who had made a misrepresentation to Woodward (by handing the doctored bones to him on two separate occasions), should be prosecuted, most of the major players in the drama were by then deceased while the right of the authorities to institute a prosecution for the crime had by then already lapsed (as it does in the case of fraud after a period of 20 years). Despite the clear indication of guilt on the part of Dawson, many people maintained that he was a mere dupe who had been misled by the manufacturer of the fake fossils. They accordingly attempted to uncover the identity of the presumed mastermind behind the plot but, as might be expected, facts were scarce and speculation rife.
As far as I have been able to determine, at least 20 individuals have hitherto been accused by various authors over the years of having committed the crime – either alone or in conjunction with others. I do not intend analyzing the merits of every accusation but it may be profitable to discuss a few of them briefly. In The Piltdown Men Millar argues that the pre-eminent anatomist Elliot Grafton Smith is the guilty one. Why? Well, according to Millar Smith did not put Woodward and one of his assistants, one William Pycraft, right with their faulty reconstruction of the Piltdown skeleton. That, Millar opines, is “highly incriminatory” (P 230). The well-known Harvard palaeontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, also had thoughts on the subject. His allegation in one of his essays entitled “The Piltdown Conspiracy” that Teilhard de Chardin was the ringleader is based on highly ambiguous pronouncements that the latter had made in his correspondence to Oakley. Not everyone was persuaded by the evidence, but it is nevertheless instructive to note that in 1998 Millar wrote a second book on the subject called The Piltdown Mystery in which he withdrew his earlier accusation against Smith and instead fingered Teilhard as the culprit.
Another person who has been accused of the crime is the amateur fossil hunter W. J. Lewis-Abbott. Charles Blinderman based his accusation in his book The Piltdown Inquest on Lewis-Abbott’s claim that he was the person who had directed Dawson to the Piltdown gravel pit in the first place. The problem is, however, that Lewis-Abbott can hardly be regarded as credible. Millar tells us in The Piltdown Men that he was the “local fount of spurious geological information” in Hastings, the town where he lived at the time. (P. 94). What is more, Dawson himself had a completely different version of the events. In fact, he had two conflicting accounts which also raised doubts regarding his own credibility. He maintained at first that during an accidental visit to a quarry in Piltdown, he was handed a portion of a human skull by an unknown workman. He could not say when it had happened but insisted that it was during 1911 that he again visited the site and picked up a larger portion of the skull. However, in an article that he wrote three months later, Dawson said that he had been in Piltdown at the end of the nineteenth century for a dinner engagement when he saw the quarry for the first time and requested the workmen to be on the lookout for fossils. During one of his many subsequent visits, a labourer handed him a human cranium. “Several years later”, he continued, he found a larger piece and a hippopotamus tooth at the same spot. (The Piltdown Men P. 122 and 127).
It was only at the end of the twentieth century that concrete evidence came to light which may have assisted in the solution of this tantalising question. In 1996 an article appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature in which it was announced by palaeontologist Brian Gardiner that a trunk had been discovered in the attic of the Natural History Museum in London with artificially stained bones inside. The initials of the owner were on the outside of the trunk and it turned out that it belonged to Martin Hinton who was the keeper of zoology at the time of the discovery of Piltdown man but is since deceased. Gardiner speculated that Hinton had created Piltdown man to take revenge against Woodward for failing to pay his wages timeously. He subsequently planted the evidence where he knew it would be found and taken Woodward. Hinton apparently thought that Woodward would be disgraced once the fraud was uncovered. Others too were greatly impressed by the finding of the trunk and were of the view that the mystery is now permanently solved. One of them was Henry Gee, a senior editor at Nature, who also argued that Hinton was behind the fraud. (See his article at https://www.lockhaven.edu/~dsimanek/piltdown.htm ). There are, however, problems with the argument of Gardiner and Gee. Not only did Hinton not have access to the Piltdown quarry, but there were manganese and gypsum in the bones from Piltdown while these substances do not occur in the bones in the trunk. The motive put forward by Gardiner is further problematic for how would others have known where to search for the doctored fossils? There may, on the other hand, be a variety of reasons why the skeletal remains were stored in the trunk. Richard Fortey, for instance, speculates quite plausibly on page 100 -101 his book on the history of the Natural History Museum, Dry Storeroom No 1 (2008), that they may simply have been the experimental efforts of Hinton or someone else to replicate the forgery ex post facto. (Hinton died in 1961, after the announcement of the fraud.) Millar too unwittingly refutes the implication that Hinton is to blame. He quotes on page 217 of The Piltdown Men from a letter that Hinton wrote to the Times on 22 December 1912 in which he stated that he had examined the bones but was of the view that the jaw belonged to a chimpanzee. If he was really the fraudster, why would he have spilt the beans in this manner?
From the moment the fraud was discovered, suspicions centred on Charles Dawson. He was identified as such in the very first book published on the subject, written by Joseph Weiner, The Piltdown Forgery (1955). Weiner could, however, offer very little by way of proof to back up his allegations. More persuasive was John E. Walsh in his 1996 book Unraveling Piltdown who also argued for the guilt of Dawson. Others, however, begged to differ. Miller, for instance, rejects the possibility of Dawson’s involvement on the basis that he “…is too obvious a culprit.” (The Piltdown Men p 222). Moreover, he claims that Dawson lacked a motive, the requisite knowledge in various fields such as chemistry and anatomy to carry out such a specialised procedure and was too timid to attempt such a hazardous undertaking. But in 2003 a book appeared on the Piltdown fraud entitled Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson where all these objections were addressed by the author, Miles Russell. He is apparently the first person to research Dawson’s background thoroughly. This book was followed up and supplemented by a second one called The Piltdown Man Hoax (2012).
Russell points out that Dawson was desperate to be elected to the very august and prestigious body known as The Royal Society. Generally, only eminent scientists were invited to join. Dawson probably reasoned that if he could “discover” the so-called missing link he would be assured of membership. Russell also details in his second book the long list of artefacts that Dawson manufactured over the years to deceive others. They include the doctoring and filing down of a tooth belonging to the mammal named Plagiaulax, thereby artificially creating a transitional species between reptiles and mammals. He fooled the experts to such an extent that the putative species was named after him: Plagiaulax Dawsoni. Russell states that Dawson became so knowledgeable in various scientific fields that he wrote articles and gave lectures in anatomy, anthropology, palaeontology and chemistry. He further argues that Dawson in all probability acted alone for it would have been too risky to make use of an accomplice for the latter may have blackmailed Dawson or exposed him to possible prosecution. It is also important to note that the quarry where the so-called fossils were discovered was on the property of a client of Dawson’s. That, of course, gave him access to the site and enabled him to carry out his nefarious activities. In my view, the case made out by Russell against Dawson is so overwhelming and compelling that there can be little doubt regarding his guilt. That does not, however, mean that the Crown would have secured a conviction against Dawson, if he had been prosecuted for this offense based solely on his earlier criminal activities. On the contrary, according to the law of evidence, evidence of similar facts is inadmissible during criminal proceedings because it merely demonstrates an inclination on the part of the accused to commit crimes, not the commission of the crime with which he is charged.
After I had visited Piltdown and read the books by Russell, an attempt was made to establish the identity of the culprit or culprits using the latest forensic science. The report of the investigators was published in 2016 by the Royal Society, the very same scientific body whose membership Dawson had so coveted. See: http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/8/160328 The scientists could of course not identify the criminal with any certainty, but his modus operandi does furnish some clues regarding his identity. They found that putty had been used to fill the cracks in the bones. Small gravel particles sealed with the same putty were furthermore discovered inside the cranium and teeth of the skull. The investigators also point out that the skulls of two different humans but only one orangutan jawbone were used by the forger. According to them, DNA analysis shows that the tooth from the second skull came from the orangutan jawbone of the first skull. They conclude in their report that the consistency of the material makes a single person more likely as the forger and that the inexpert way in which the so-called fossil was manufactured points towards an amateur as the culprit. A professional scientist such as Woodward would have had access to a larger number of bones as those that the criminal had used.
These findings, needless to say, confirm the contention of Russell that Charles Dawson was the person responsible for the Piltdown fraud. The investigators also specifically state in their report that Dawson must be regarded as the fraudster. In my view, there is enough science and common sense in the report to put all speculation regarding the identity of the culprit to rest.
Do not think, however, that this is likely to satisfy the religious fundamentalists who are of course opposed to Evolution and would rather have us believe that Adam and Eve are the progenitors of all mankind. From the moment the fraud was discovered in the 1950s, they tried to capitalise on the fact that it took scientists 40 years to discover the deception. An attack of this nature can be found in an article written by one Monty White published on the website Answers in Genesis. See https://answersingenesis.org/human-evolution/piltdown-man/the-piltdown-man-fraud/ Needless to say, these criticisms of him would, of course, have carried far more weight if Creationists had uncovered the fraud instead of scientists.
It is not true, as White claims, that scientists did not realize that deceit had taken place until the announcement by Weiner, Oakley and Le Gros Clark. Many, like Martin Hinton, expressed doubts regarding the authenticity of Piltdown Man at the time of the find while someone like Franz Weidenreich, professor of Anthropology at the University of Heidelberg in particular, correctly surmised that the “fossil” consisted of a human skull and the jaw of an orangutan of which the tooth had been filed down to create the illusion of antiquity. Scientists later came to realize that there is something is seriously wrong with the fossil. Other hominid species like Australopithecus Africanus which was discovered by Raymond Dart in South Africa in 1925 could not be reconciled with Piltdown Man. It was older than Piltdown but more primitive with a brain less than one-third that of a modern human while it walked fully upright. These types of anomalies caused the writers of palaeoanthropological text books before 1953 to relegate Piltdown Man to cautionary footnotes where readers were warned that the fossil is at odds with what is known of human evolution.
Other mistakes also pervade White’s article. Contrary to what he claims, the peppered moth studies are still accepted by scientists as incontrovertible proof of evolution. (See for instance Menno Schilthuizen’s book Darwin Comes to Town (2018) pages 97 – 109). The other example to which White refers to make his point, namely that of Archaeoraptor, cannot be compared with Piltdown Man. In that case a farmer in China found some bones in the 1990s and, thinking that they all belonged to one animal, created his own fossil from it. This he sold to an American collector who was a layman. Before it could be examined by an expert and described in a scientific publication, National History magazine published an article about the fossil. The author named it Archaeoraptor and argued that it is a missing link between animals and birds. Scientists immediately objected. When they examined the fossil, it was found that its body belonged to Yanornis and the tail to Microraptor, both species that are a part bird, part dinosaur. The experts, however, couldn’t determine what the nature and origin of the feet are. This case differs from that of Piltdown in so far as Archaeoraptor is not a fraudulent fossil made up from the bones of existing species. And more important, scientists promptly took steps to set the record straight.
White, of course, denigrates science in an attempt to bolster an unquestioning belief in the Bible. It must, however, be clear from what I have said that Piltdown Man is a prime example of the self-correcting nature of science; something which isn’t true of the Christian religion.