The Oldest Human Fossil

Dublin Daily Express August 1913

The famous skull found last year at Piltdown, in Sussex, in which, it will be remembered, we did our best to direct public attention from the moment when the first announcement of its discovery was made–formed the exciting subject of a particularly warm discussion on Monday at a meeting–or, more strictly, at two meetings–of the Anatomical Section of the International Congress of Medicine. It seems that the more the skull is studied, the more paradoxical and startling become the conclusions to which its formation points. When it was exhibited in Dublin last winter by Dr. Smith Woodward, there was something like a consensus of opinion among anthropologists to the effect that the original owner was a being sufficiently primitive to be placed not merely in a species, but in a genus apart form man. The restored skull was therefore figured in this journal under the name given to it by its earliest describers, as Eoanthropus Dawsoni. The figure, it will be remembered, showed extraordinary contrast between the apparently modern and man-like type of the upper part of the head, and the massive brutal jaw, which resembled nothing else so much as that of a young chimpanzee. The temptation was irresistible to hail the new-found Eoanthropus as the long-sought "missing link" between man and the ape-ancestor to whom evolutionists aspire to trace him. Unfortunately, a rival "missing link" had been claimed in the Java find of Professor Dubois; the celebrated Pithecanthropus erectus. Both creatures present curious combinations of ape-like and man-like features; but as the points that are man-like in the one are ape-like in the other, and vice versa, it follows that their claims to stand in the line of human ancestry would be mutually destructive. If man were descended from Pithecanthropus, his ancestors walked erect long before they had human brains. If he were descended from Eoanthropus, his progenitors were still crouching creatures while they had skulls of quite moderate brain capacity. In such contradictions there were all the grounds of a pretty quarrel. But medical science now steps in to tell us that other problems must first be solved. The importance of the Piltdown skull is not denied; but its features have been quite wrongly diagnosed. It is not, in fact, generically distinct from man at all. To call the creature Eoanthropus is a grave biological heresy, and we are expected to call it in future Homo Piltdownensis, implying that the owner of the Sussex skull was, after all, of the same genus as ourselves.

Professor Keith, who leads the opposition to Dr. Smith Woodward's conclusions about this earliest known fossil of the human type, starts by asserting that the brain capacity of the Sussex skull must [have been equal to that of modern humans; he–or she–had a more advanced intellectual development than that ascribed to the speechless monster supposed on the strength of the extraordinary ape-like formations of the jaw - CB. note] The anatomists are, in fact, disposed to make rather light of the primitive character of the Piltdown jaw. Perhaps they are as open to criticism on this point as–on their showing–the geologists were in accepting too low an estimate of the brain capacity. The tendency of Professor Keith's argument is to take the upper part of the skull as his groundwork, and to insist that the lower part must have been such as to suit it. But at any rate, if the Piltdown skull represents a being so far advanced towards human civilisation as the anatomists of the Internal Congress of Medicine suppose, one naturally inquires how long ago did that being live. Professor Keith does not shirk the magnitude of the conclusion that his arguments require. "If," he says, "Dr. Smith Woodward is right"–and he had done his best, of course, to prove that Dr. Smith Woodward was altogether wrong–"then we are dealing with a civilisation which began thousands of years ago; and if I am right, we have to deal with a civilisation which began a million or a million and a half years ago." A big difference, truly, and one that will hardly tend to prepossess us with perfect faith in the soundness of all Professor Keith's teaching.

The anthropological investigators who have been searching Europe for missing links during the past half-century are now in effect told that the oldest human skull yet discovered is in many respects far nearer to modern man than the skulls of much more recent origin which they have been holding up for reverential attention as those of our earliest precursors. The so-called early men of the Neanderthal and Heidelberg types were, on that showing, not in the true line of human ancestry at all , but belonged to an independent race, inferior to, though later than, the people who lived in Sussex in the early period, whose vestiges have been brought to light at Piltdown. What was supposed to be evidence of progress in evolution has apparently been destroyed–as regards man–or turned, one might say, into evidence of something like retrogression. Continental anthropologists will probably escape this paradox by denying that the Piltdown skull can be of so great an antiquity as Professor Keith is willing to claim for it; and the geologists will again take possession of the field of controversy, from which the anatomists have, for the moment, rather unfeelingly driven them. It is certainly strange that if the Sussex skull belongs to a race that had inhabited Western Europe for a million or a million and a half years down to the birth of modern man, we have no other skull of the type it represents to match the Piltdown specimen.