Palæolithic Man

Nature December 19, 1912

[438] The fossil human skull and mandible to be described by Mr. Charles Dawson and Dr. Smith Woodward at the Geological Society as we go to press is the most important discovery of its kind hitherto made in England. The specimen was found in circumstances which seem to leave no doubt as to its geological age, and the characters it shows are themselves sufficient to denote its extreme antiquity. It was met with in a gravel which was deposited by the river Ouse near Piltdown Common, Fletching, Sussex, at a time when that river flowed at a level eighty feet above its present course.

Although the basin of the stream is now well within the Weald and far removed from the chalk, the gravel consists largely of iron-stained flints closely resembling those well known in gravel deposits on the downs, and among these there are many waterworn "eoliths" identical with those found on the chalk plateau near Ightham, Kent.

With the flints were discovered two fragments of the molar tooth of a Pliocene elephant, and a waterworn cusp of the molar of a Mastodon. The gravel is therefore partly made up of the remains of a Pliocene land-deposit. Teeth of hippopotamus, beaver, and horse, and part of the antler of a red deer were also found, with several unabraded typical early Palæolithic (Chellean) implements. The latter seem to determine the age of the gravel as Lower Pleistocene.

The human remains, which are in the same mineralised condition as the associated fragments of other mammals, comprise the greater part of the brain-case and one mandibular ramus which lacks the upper portion of the symphysis. The skull measures 190 mm. in length by 150 mm. in width at its widest part, and the bones are of nearly twice the normal thickness. Its brain capacity is about 1070 c.c. The forehead is much steeper than in the Neanderthal type, with only a feeble brow-ridge; and the back of the skull is remarkably low and broad, indicating an ape-shaped neck. The mandible, so far as preserved, is identical in form with that of a young chimpanzee, showing even the characteristically simian inwardly curved flange of bone at the lower border of the retreating symphysis. The two molars preserved are of the human pattern, but comparatively long and narrow.

At least one very low type of man with a high forehead was therefore in existence in western Europe long before the low-browed Neanderthal man became widely spread in this region. Dr. Smith Woodward accordingly inclines to the theory that the Neanderthal race was a degenerate offshoot of early man and probably became extinct, while surviving modern man may have arisen directly from the primitive source of which the Piltdown skull provides the first discovered evidence.