The Earliest Man?


A Skull "Millions of Years" Old

Manchester Guardian November 21, 1912

London, Wednesday

One of the most important prehistoric finds of our time has been made in Sussex. In spite of the extreme secrecy of the authorities who are in possession of the relic the news is leaking out and is causing great excitement among scientists, although there are very few even among geologists and anthropologists who have any first-hand information. The facts are that a few weeks ago men quarrying in a deep gravel pit turned up a human skull. It was in fragments, but there was enough of it for the experts to form a conclusive judgment. It turns out to be the skull of a palæolithic man, and is by far the earliest trace of mankind that has yet been found in England. It dates certainly from the beginning of the Pleistocene period. It was found in association with the bones of one of the most ancient types of elephant. The stratum in which it lay was the beach of a very old river bed. There is no doubt at all of it authenticity. The skull belongs, roughly, to the same age as the famous Heidelberg skull, and is quite as early as anything which has been found in Europe. The skull resembles the Neanderthal specimen, but belongs to a much lower and more primitive type of mankind even than that. The experts have been able to come to a definite judgment as to the kind of brain once housed in these amazing bones. It was certainly a very different brain to that possessed by any living race. Before this discovery the earliest skull found in England was the one dug up near Ipswich last year, but the conditions of the Ipswich find leave a loophole for doubt. It lay under 4 ft. 3 in. of superficial earth. There is no doubt about the geological age of the Sussex skull. The Galley Hill Skeleton was of a later period than the Ipswich find, and was therefore not nearly so remote in time as the Sussex man. The experts will not venture an opinion as to his date, but most probably he lived millions of years ago. The skull will be exhibited at the meeting of one of the learned societies next month.

The tools that man has used in the different ages mapped out by geologists are a good guide to his stages of development. In the palæolithic age his flint implements were of the crudest description and were never polished. It was the age when the cave bear, the woolly-haired rhinoceros, and the mammoth roamed over Europe and man maintained a strenuous struggle for existence. Fully authenticated remains of palæolithic man are few, for the reason, apparently, that burial was no practised, and only the accidental circumstances that have preserved for us the bones of the mammoth have left us widely separated records of our remote prehistoric ancestry. The bones most likely to be found are those preserved in caves or rock shelters. Palæolithic man was a river-? hunter, and the Sussex skull was found in an old river bed. It is open to surmise that he met with his death while following his prey .

The theory of evolution applied to man suggest that he had a common origin with the apes, and since Darwin's theory gained acceptance the need has been felt for discovering "the missing link" between the highest apes and the lowest men. The gulf between the two has not yet been bridged, though we must wait for the judgment of the experts to know how much it has been narrowed by the discovery in Sussex. Twenty years ago "the missing link" was supposed to have been discovered in Java. Java is a likely place for such a discovery, but the remains found by Dr. Eugene Dubois added but one link to an incomplete chain. Other links are still missing. Dr. Dubois found a thigh-bone, two teeth, and the upper part of a skull. The teeth and skull were lying together, and the thigh bone a few yards away. Dr. Dubois believed them to be portions of the same skeleton, and he sketched an imaginary creature, of a type midway between the anthropoids and man, which he called the pithecanthropus erectus (erect ape-man). Some of the experts have differed from his conclusions, but most of them have decided that the bones were human, and that they were the remains of a type of man more nearly approaching the apes than any previously known.

The Earliest Known Man.

Manchester Guardian November 21, 1912

The palæolithic human skull which has been dug up from a Sussex gravel pit is evidently one of the most important archæological "finds" ever made. There seems to be no doubt whatever of its genuineness, and more than a possibility of its being the oldest remnant of a human frame yet discover on this planet. We shall probably have to wait for a little while longer before the full details of the discovery and the considered verdict upon it of our highest geological and anthropological authorities are formally laid before the scientific world, but enough is already known to warrant the announcement which we make to-day. There is ample warrant for saying that the Sussex skull belongs to at least as early a period as the famous Neanderthal skull, whilst it would appear from its shape to represent a still more primitive human type. It will be extremely interesting to learn how far it bridges the gap between the skulls of the most man-like age and the ape-like man so far known to science, but the fact that it has been unhesitatingly recognised as human and not simian would appear to indicate that more than half of the difference must still remain.


The Earliest Skull



Manchester Guardian December 10, 1912

To-night at the Geological Society, Burlington Gardens, the discoverer of the prehistoric skull believed to be the earliest evidence yet known of human life told his story to a crowded room of scientists. The first announcement of the find was made exclusively in the "Manchester Guardian" on the 21st November. To-night Dr. Woodward said that "the skull may be regarded as presenting a hitherto unknown species of homo, for which a new name is proposed." The lecture was eagerly awaited and is expected to produce the keenest controversy and discussion. The discoverer, Mr. Charles Dawson, F.S.A., F.G.S., a Sussex solicitor, who exhibited the skull, told the story of his find, and Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward, F.R.S., of the Geological Society, read a paper on the result of his examination of the relic and his conclusions. The joint papers were entitled "On the discovery of a Palæolithic human skull and mandible in a flint paving gravel overlying the wealden (Hastings beds) at Pilt Down, Fletching (Sussex)." Dr. Strahan, the president of the Society, occupied the chair, and the members were much interested in the relics which were exhibited.

Mr. Charles Dawson said that the gravel in which the discovery was made occurs in a field near Pilt Down Common, in the parish of Fletching (Sussex). In the section exposed, he said, it was about four feet thick. It consisted for the greater part of water-worn fragments of wealden ironstone and sandstone, with occasional pebbles and chert, probably from the greensand, and a considerable proportion of chalk-flints, which were also water-worn, all deeply stained with oxide of iron and most of them tabular in shape. The human skull was originally found by workmen, broken up by them, and most of the pieces thrown away on the spot. As many fragments as possible were recovered by the authors, and half of a human mandible was also obtained by Mr. Dawson from a patch of undisturbed gravel close to the place where the skull occurred. Two broken pieces of the molar of a Pliocene type of elephant and a much-rolled cusp of a molar of mastodon were also found, besides teeth of hippopotamus, castor, and equus, and a fragment of an antler of cervus elaphus. Mr. Dawson explained that, like the human skull and mandible, all these fossils are well mineralised with oxide of iron. Many of the water-worn, iron-stained flints closely resemble the "eoliths" from the North Downs, near Ightham. Mingled with them are found a few paleolithic implements of the characteristic Chellean type. The gravel at Pilt Down rests upon a plateau 80 ft. above the river Ouse and at a distance of less than a mile to the north of the existing stream. It appears to cover several acres, but at the same level on the opposite (south) side of the river it is represented only by scattered flints. Numerous iron-stained tabular flints, like those of the Pilt Down gravel, have been found in the basin of the Ouse between the chalk escarpment and Sheffield Park and between this escarpment and Uckfield. As they are identical with the flints well known in the plateau deposits of the North and South Downs, it may be assumed that they have been derived from a plane formerly existing between those two points.

Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward, F.R.S., Secretary of the Geological Society, then described the human skull and mandible and the associated fossils. He said that the skull (which unfortunately lacks the bone of the face) exhibits all the essential features of the genus Homo, with a brain capacity of not less than 1,070 cc., but possibly a little more. It measures about 190 mm. in length from the glabella to the inion by 150 mm. in width at the widest part of the parietal region, and the bones are remarkably thick, the average thickness of the frontals and parietals being 10 mm., while an exceptional thickness of 12 mm. is reached at one corner. The forehead is steeper than that of the Neanderthal type, with only a feeble brow ridge, and the conformation of the occipital bone shows that the tentorium over the cerebellum is on the level of the external occipital protuberance as in modern man. Seen from behind the skull is remarkably low and broad, and the mastoid processes are relatively small. The right mandibular ramus is nearly complete to the middle of the symphysis, lacking only the articular condyle and the upper part of the bone in advance of the molars. The horizontal ramus is slender, and so far as preserved resembles in shape that of a young chimpanzee (anthropopithecus niger). The lower symphyseal border is not thickened and round as in man, but produced into a thin inwardly-curved flange, as in the apes. The ascending ramus is comparatively wide, with extensive insertions for the temporal and masseter muscles and a very slight sigmoid notch above. Molars one and two, which occur in their sockets, are typically human, thought they are comparatively large and narrow, each bearing a fifth cusp. The socket of molar 3 indicates an equally large tooth placed well within the ascending ramus of the jaw. The two molars have been worn perfectly flat by mastication, a circumstance suggesting that the canines resembled those of man in not projecting sensibly above the level of the other teeth. The weakness of the mandible, the slight prominence of the brow-ridges, the small backward extent of the origin of the temporal muscles and the reduction of the mastoid processes suggest that the specimen belongs to a female individual, and it may be regarded as representing a hitherto unknown species of homo for which a new name is proposed.

In expressing the conclusion at which the authors arrived he added that the Pilt Down gravel-bed is of the same age as the contained Chellean implements, which are not so much water-worn as most of the associated flints. The rolled fragments of molars of the pliocene elephant and mastodon are considered to have been derived with the flints from older gravels, while the other mammalian remains and the human skull and mandible, which cannot have been transported far by water, must be assigned to the period of the deposition of the gravel-bed itself. The remoteness of that period is indicated by the subsequent deepening of the valley of the Ouse to the amount of 80 feet.

The lecture was fully illustrated by lantern slides and diagrams.

In the course of the debate several points of interest emerged. The chief point is, naturally, the size of the brain cavity, estimated by Dr. Smith Woodward at 1,070 cubic centimetres. This compares with from 1,000 to 1,200 in aboriginal Australian women, and 1,080 for the Gibraltar skull belonging to the Pleistocene period. in form the brain is flattened, and, as in modern man, the left forepart of the brain is larger than the right. Another feature to which attention was drawn was the enormous thickness of the skull, both points of resemblance with the skull of Neanderthal man. Attention was drawn to the fact that in a host of details, such as the formation of the ear and the joints of the lower jaw, the skull, unlike that of the Neanderthal man, is of the human as opposed to the anthropoid type. The neck, on the other hand, must have been squat and ape-like, and the formation of the chin retreating, like that of a dog.

Dr. Smith Woodward proposed the name "Eoanthropus Dawsoni" for the type. The chief speakers in the discussion were Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, Professor Arthur Keith, and Professor Boyd Dawkins. Sir Edwin Ray Lankester argued that the age could not be considered as satisfactorily established, and that the Geological Society should take the necessary steps to determine exactly the age of the deposit. Professor Keith emphasised the extreme importance of the discovery, claiming that the find supported the view that man was derived not from a single genus or species, but from several different genera. He disputed the age which had been determined by the authors of the paper. Professor Boyd Dawkins, on the other hand, saw no reason to doubt that the period was that which had been assigned to it.

A long discussion followed, one of the more interesting points made being that the evidence bore out the contention advanced elsewhere that the brain was the determining factor in development, and not the brain which was developed as a result of exercise of function–in other words, that man owed his power of speech, his agility, and so forth to his brain rather than owing the development of his brain to the exercise of these functions. Further, from the discussion the view emerged that the Sussex woman was an ancestress of modern man rather than of Neanderthal man, Neanderthal man being in several respects more similar to the ape.

The skull, it is understood, is to be presented to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington.