The Piltdown Skull

J. Reid Moir

The Times December 25, 1912

Sir.–From the various reports in the press regarding the wonderful discovery of a human skull and ape-like jaw by Mr. Charles Dawson, F.S.A., in an implementiferous gravel at Piltdown, in Sussex, it appears to me that the real significance of this find is not being sufficiently realized.

Owing to the kindness of Dr. Smith Woodward, F.R.S., I was able some weeks ago to examine and handle the human bones and associated flint implements at the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, and last Wednesday I had the pleasure of being present at the meeting of the Geological Society of London, held at Burlington House, when Piltdown specimens were described. The thin seam of gravel in which these occurred contained, amongst other fragmentary mammalian remains:–

(1) Portions of teeth of two Pliocene elephants.

(2) A series of humanly-flaked eolithic flints, such as are found in the high plateau drift of Kent, and which are of a vast and unknown antiquity.

(3) One humanly-struck flint very similar in appearance to those which are found beneath the Pliocene red crag of Suffolk.

(4) Three Chellean (palæolithic) implements.

The present of these latter specimens–one of which was found on the surface in an adjoining field–has prompted some to assume that the human bones are contemporary with them, and that therefore we are simply dealing with a being of the early palæolithic period. An examination, however, of the whole of the relics shows that while the human bones, the early eolithic flints, and the portions of the teeth of the Pliocene elephants are all stained a dark red, the Chellean implements, on the other hand, are stained a lightish yellow, and must, therefore, be referred to a different period.

Thus, apart from any anatomical evidence, I would be disinclined to accept the view that this Sussex being is of the same age as the Chellean implements. But when this evidence is examined, it seems to entirely support me in my opinion as to the non-Chellean age of the human remains. This being which has been found is without doubt of a most primitive and almost ape-like type, and as such I submit would not be at all likely to make dexterously-flaked palæolithic implements. To those who have never attempted to make a Chellean implement it may appear a most easy thing to produce; but having many times attempted this task I know that it requires an immense amount of practice and much thought and care in flaking; and as this is so I am quite unable to believe that this extremely primitive Sussex creature was ever capable of it.

On the other hand, I find it quite easy to believe that the rough edge-flaked eolithic flints could be made by such a being, and I find it reasonable to suppose that these are the work of its hands. It has been stated that, as the human bones do not show much signs of water-rolling, they cannot have traveled far, and are therefore probably of the same age as the Chellean implements, which also are not rolled. But some of the eolithic flints which I examined from the Piltdown gravel did not show signs of much, if any, rolling.

Also I have myself removed a mammalian bone from the base of the Sussex Coralline Crag–a marine deposit and one which must have been subjected to much movement by water–which showed hardly any signs of attrition, and I therefore do not consider that the unrolled condition of the portions of skull and jaw from Sussex can be put forward as an argument against their greater antiquity.

In my opinion, then, Mr. Dawson is to be congratulated on having made the immensely important discovery of the remains of one of the beings who made the eolithic flint implements, and that we are at last able to form some idea of what these immensely ancient people were like.

As is well known, the "humanity" of the eolithic flints has for many years been disputed–one of the chief objections to their acceptance having been that they had never been found in intimate association with human bones. With this discovery that objection finally disappears.

I am, Sir, yours faithfully,

J. Reid Moir

13 St. Edmund's Road, Ipswich, Dec. 29.