A Palæolithic Skull

The Times Dec. 19, 1912

First Evidence of a New Human Type

At a meeting of the Geological Society lst night the palæolithic human skull and mandible which have been discovered in Sussex were exhibited and formed the subject of a paper by Mr. Charles Dawson, F.G.S., and Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of the Geological Department of the British Museum. Reference was made to the discoveries in The Times on November 23. The great interest which has been displayed in them was reflected by the audience, which included well-known geologists from many parts of the country. Mr. Dawson, who is a solicitor at Lewes, has taken great interest in the geology of Southern Sissex, and especially in the gigantic reptiles found in the Wealden formation of the coast.

Circumstances of the Discovery

Mr. Dawson described the circumstances of the discovery. Four years ago he was walking near Piltdown Common, in the parish of Fletching, and observed some workmen digging gravel for farm roads. One of the men gave him a fragment of a human skull which they had just discovered and had evidently broken up and thrown away. On several visits to the same spot afterwards he attempted to discover some of the pieces of the skull, which he felt sure must still be there, and last winter was fortunate enough to retrieve two of the pieces. These he brought to Dr. Woodward at the Natural History Museum, and the specimen was agreed to be of so much importance that it was decided, as soon as circumstances admitted, to attempt to discover the remaining fragments. Water filled the gravel pit until the end of May, but excavation was begun early in June, and by the end of September had resulted in the finding of sufficient fragments of the skull to restore the whole and also in the recovery of half the lower jaw. At the same time the diggings revealed fragments of two primitive elephants, a hippopotamus, the common red deer and horse, and a beaver. Numerous flint implements of a very primitive type were also found.

While the diggings were in progress he examined thoroughly the geology of the whole neighbourhood, and came to the conclusion that the position of the gravel, and its nature, proved great antiquity. Although the river Ouse, which deposited the gravel, was at present exclusively within the Weald of Sussex, it must have had access, at the time when the deposit was formed, to flints which formerly lay on the chalk–a continuation in all probability of the existing South Downs. Moreover, since the gravel was deposited the Ouse itself had cut down its channel to a depth of 80ft.

Characteristics of the Skull

Dr. Woodward continued the narrative. With the aid of Mr. Frank G. Barlow, the preparator of the Department of Geology in the Natural History Museum, a restored model of the skull was prepared, and it was now possible to study its features accurately and in detail. It proved to be very different from the skull of any class of man hitherto met with. It had the steep forehead of a modern man with scarcely any brow ridges, and the only external appearance of antiquity was found in the occiput, which showed that in this early form the neck was shaped, not like that of a modern man, but more like that of an ape. The brain capacity was only about two-thirds of that of an ordinary modern man.

So far as it was preserved, the mandible differed primarily from that of a man and agreed exactly with the mandible of a young chimpanzee. It still bore two of the molar teeth, which were human in shape; if these were removed it would be impossible to decide that the jaw was human at all.

The skull differed so much from those of the cavemen already found in Germany, Belgium, and France that it was difficult at first sight to interpret it. All the cavemen hitherto found were characterized by very low foreheads and very prominent brow ridges resembling those of the full-grown modern ape. The new specimen was proved by geological considerations to be very much older than the remains of those cavemen. It was interesting to note in this connexion that the new skull was closely similar in shape to that of a very young chimpanzee, while–as he had mentioned–the skull of the later cavemen had the brows of the full-grown chimpanzee. Therefore the changes which took place in the shape of the skull in successive races of early men were exactly similar to the changes which took place in the skull of an ape as it grew from youth to maturity. He inclined, therefore, to the theory that the caveman was a degenerate offshoot of early man and probably became extinct, while surviving modern man might have arisen directly from the primitive source of which the Piltdown skull provided the first discovered evidence.

It is understood that as soon as the paper read before the society last night had been published, which will be in the spring, Mr. Charles Dawson will present these specimens, with the other fossils, to the British Museum.