The Piltdown Skull

T. E. Nuttall

Man May 1917

[80] Having read in Man the two recent communications dealing with the Piltdown Skull, and having interested myself in the already bulky mass of literature dealing with this skull, I should like to offer a few personal impressions anent its size and type.

Being a medical man, and also a student of Anthropology, I can perhaps claim that my interest is somewhat more enlightened thus that of the ordinary layman. Moreover, I happened to be present at the Geological Society meeting (December 12) at which the reconstructed skull and mandible were exhibited and described. I was present also at another meeting of the afore-mentioned society (December 1913) at which the skull and mandible, together with the then newly-discovered tooth, were exhibited and discussed.

Speaking of the size of this brain-case, I am persuaded that the truth, in this, as in so many other, instances, lies between the widely-divergent estimates of the [81] two conflicting schools of thought which are represented in the learned and distinguished gentlemen who effected the reconstructions. Dr. Smith Woodward's first estimate of the cranial capacity of the Piltdown skull (1,070 cc.) is undoubtedly much too low. Probably his amended estimate, though higher than the earlier, errs considerably on the small side. On the other hand, Professor Keith's early estimate of 1,500 cc. was certainly too high, and not improbably his present estimate of 1,397 cc. errs somewhat in the same direction, for it must be remembered that he classes this as a female skull, and regards it as corresponding to a male skull of 1,550 cc. Professor Keith's estimate is, I feel certain, much nearer the truth than either of Dr. Smith Woodward's.

It may seem presumptuous to attempt to adjudge where such eminent doctors disagree, but I can at least claim to have been a very interested onlooker in this matter, and it will readily be admitted that an onlooker sometimes obtains a more comprehensive view of a "game" than those who are engaged in it. Certainly the onlooker is more likely to take a dispassionate view of events than the persons directly concerned in them.

In the first reconstruction of the Piltdown skull from its all too scanty fragments, Dr. Smith Woodward was in error in the placement of at least one fragment. There is little, if any, room for doubting that the left parietal bone was wrongly placed, and almost certainly the right parietal was somewhat out of position, as were also the two occipital fragments–large and small. In his reconstruction Professor Keith no doubt corrected one or more misplacements present in Dr. Smith Woodward's reconstructions, but did Professor Keith himself escape error in the placement of the bony fragments? One wonders. Probably he did not. It would be a marvel if he did.

Clearly there is room for differences of opinion, even between experts, regarding the true position of the occipital and left parietal fragments; for, after having had time to reconsider the whole matter, and after a second reconstruction of the skull by Dr. Smith Woodward and Professor G. Elliot Smith, there exists a considerable difference between the size of the brain case as reconstructed by them and its size as reconstructed by Professor Keith. Has Professor Keith made the brain case rather too large? I more than suspect that he has. For, in a test reconstruction of a skull which was to be built up from many fragments similar to those comprised in the Piltdown "find," Professor Keith did actually produce a slightly larger brain case, than that of which the fragments had previously formed a part. True, the reconstructed skull was not much larger than the original, but it was larger, a fact which possibly enough points the direction in which Professor Keith's method of reconstruction is liable to err. The actual figures of this test case are, 1,415 cc. for the reconstructed skull as against 1,395 cc. for the original one. The slightness of this error must have been distinctly "reassuring" to Professor Keith. Further, Professor Keith believes in the very high antiquity of man. He holds that man originated in pre-Pleistocene time, and, could it be proved that at the early period to which Piltdown man is assigned, a human being possessed of a comparatively large skull was already in existence, Professor Keith's views regarding the great antiquity of man would receive very strong support. Of a certainty, Professor Keith would not consciously allow his well-known views anent the high antiquity of man to influence him in reconstructing the Piltdown or any other skull; still, we are liable –all of us, and quite unconsciously–to find that which we desire or expect to find.

Precisely similar remarks apply to Dr. Smith Woodward and his reconstructions, except that his tendency to err lay in the opposite direction. Dr. Smith Woodward believes that man in origin, as also in development, is a creature of Pleistocene [82] time. Therefore, if he could prove that human beings possessed of but meagre cranial capacity, say 1,070 cc. or a little more, were in existence at or about the end of the first half of the Pleistocene period, his views regarding the period of origin of man would be upheld, or, at least, would not be overthrown.

Moreover, it should be observed that, while Professor Keith's earlier estimate of the capacity of the Piltdown skull was larger than his more recent estimate (the figures being 1,500 cc. as against 1,397 cc.), Dr. Smith Woodward's earlier estimate was smaller than his more recent one. It is remarkable, and probably not without significance, that the errors in the earlier estimates of these two eminent scientists vary in consonance with their respective views regarding the period of man's origin.

How anyone can hold that only a slight error was made in the first reconstruction of the Piltdown skull I do not understand, nor can I concur when Professor G. Elliot Smith defends, as accurate, his preliminary report dealing with the endocranial cast. Professor G. Elliot Smith seems to assume that the errors of the first reconstruction affected the right side of the brain case only; the left, which is the side he described, being regarded as free from error. It seems clear, however, that a reconstruction carried out in accordance with Professor G. Elliot Smith's suggestions would so alter Dr. Smith Woodward's reconstruction as to produce a considerable change in the position of the left parietal fragment, and incidentally a material change in the left side of the endocranial cast.

All told, I feel bound to agree with Professor Keith when be argues that the difference between his and Dr. Smith Woodward's reconstruction is not trifling and immaterial, but great and important–important because the difference between the two reconstructions applies not at all to the width of the brain case, only very slightly to its length, but almost entirely to its height. If Dr. Smith Woodward's early reconstruction be even approximately correct, then the Piltdown skull was comparatively small, and was flattened from above downward after the manner of the Neanderthal skull, although in other respects it is most unlike any Neanderthal skull at present known. Per contra, if Professor Keith's reconstruction be as near the truth as I believe it to be, then Piltdown man was possessed of a fairly large skull, a skull not only wide and long, but high also; a skull enclosing a brain possessed of a cerebrum of goodly size, in short, a brain case comparable in many respects with that of modern man.

Should Professor Keith succeed in establishing his views regarding the size and general form of this skull, and should it be finally decided, as seems likely, that Piltdown man lived in early Pleistocene times, then we must perforce believe in the existence of man in Pliocene, if not in earlier, times.