Return to the Pit
The Real Piltdown Man Stands Up
New York Times Book Review 1996
The jawbone connected to the skull bone connected to the funny bone.
With this scientific detective story, John Evangelist Walsh claims to solve once and for all the mystery of the Piltdown fraud, deducing from the evidence the identity of the man who perpetrated it and explaining how he managed to keep some of the best minds in England fooled for 40 years.
For those who need to brush up on their paleontology, Piltdown refers to Piltdown man, the half-human, half-ape creature whose fossilized skull fragments and jawbone were found in a gravel pit in Sussex, England, in 1911 and 1912, revolutionizing the study of human evolution. Until 1953, when the Oxford University anthropologist Joseph Weiner showed that Piltdown man never existed, it was proclaimed to be the famous missing link, the transitional hominid who stood midway between man and ape.
In fact, Mr. Walsh, the author of a dozen books on history, science and biography, doesn't so much solve the mystery as confirm what has for some time been the main though not the only suspicion: that the fraud was perpetrated by Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur paleontologist who "discovered" the Piltdown fossils. But Mr. Walsh gives to what had been informed speculation the solidity of a Euclidean proof. By the time you have finished his meticulous, rigorous, exciting reconstruction of the Piltdown affair, it seems impossible that anybody other than Dawson could have been responsible for it.
But "Unraveling Piltdown" is more than a definitive treatment of a leftover historical oddity.
It is also a morality tale whose Victorian characters represent ambition, gullibility and hubris. Mr. Walsh makes it so easy to see through the fraud - and some people did see through it even at the time - that it almost seems astonishing that so many scientists were taken in. The lesson is that history eventually catches up with men who will themselves into credulity, in this instance because of their passion for the new field of the study of human origins but also because of the fabulous honor they felt at being associated with what seemed to be a sensational scientific advance, one that would bring them and England great glory.
"The Piltdown fraud was nothing short of despicable, an ugly trick played by a warped and unscrupulous mind on unsuspecting scholars," Mr. Walsh declares early on, and he is right. What Dawson did essentially, in Mr. Walsh's detailed reconstruction of his acts, was plant some shards from a 600-year old human skull along with an ape's jawbone with two molars still attached, skillfully filed down to make them look like they came from a human's mouth. This had the practical effect of sowing confusion in the study of human evolution for decades, since Piltdown man with his big brain but ape face was entirely inconsistent with all other fossil evidence.
Mr. Walsh's technique is to lay out "a full exposition, step by specific step, of how the deception was actually done, in this instance a factor inseparable from the question of who did it." The story begins in this sense when Dawson got in touch with Arthur Smith Woodward, the chief curator of the geology department at London's Natural History Museum, and showed him skull fragments that had supposedly been found by workers digging at a gravel pit on a Sussex estate.
Over the next three years, Dawson and Woodward, accompanied at times by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the young French seminarian who later gained fame as a philosopher, worked at the pit. Eventually they came up with additional skull pieces, the partial jawbone, the vital teeth, a few remnants of prehistoric animals and an ancient tool fashioned from bone.
As Mr. Walsh recapitulates events, including the stormy meetings of scholarly societies that the discoveries inspired, a pattern becomes clear. Every time some doubt arose about the authenticity of the bones and every time there was a challenge to the idea that they came from the same animal, an astonishingly well-timed new discovery would put these doubts and challenges to rest. Dawson was always responsible for these new finds. Most important, he told Woodward about the discovery of the fossilized remains of a second individual in which a large humanlike skull had an apelike jaw. The location of the discovery was suspiciously undisclosed. "If there is a providence hanging over the affairs of prehistoric men, it certainly manifested itself in this case," said Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, whose previous skepticism was swept away by this second discovery.
Mr. Walsh's unmasking of Dawson goes well beyond these elements of circumstantial evidence, however. He examines in great detail the proofs that have been presented over the years by writers who believed that some actor in the drama other than Dawson was the culprit. These suspects include Woodward, Teilhard de Chardin and the mystery writer and spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a friend of Dawson. Mr. Walsh also doggedly pursues what he calls the "arrestingly bold, infinitely strange career of deception pursued during 35 years by the affable Mr. Dawson," who, it turns out, committed half a dozen acts of fakery or plagiarism before Piltdown. And he engages in an exercise of pure logic, showing, for example, that if Dawson were blameless, his accounts of how the various objects were found would be true, but in some instances they could not have been true.
Perhaps new evidence will come to light to disprove Mr. Walsh's conclusions. In the meantime, Mr. Walsh's fine book is an occasion for reflection on the human propensity for deceit and self-deception, of which Piltdown man is far from the only example.