The Strange Case of the Piltdown Man
Readers Corner - Internet
"Life is commonplace, the papers are sterile; audacity and romance seem to have passed for ever..."(iii)
Piltdown man is one of the classic cases of fraud in the annals of modern science . Or was it merely a hoax perpetrated by one of the most distinguished mystery writers of all time who left a string of clues in a book published shortly before the discovery of Piltdown man? These clues could have led to the unmasking of Piltdown man as a hoax shortly after its discovery and before it became well known. In this edition of Storybytes, we review the Strange Case of the Piltdown Man and some of the evidence and clues that might point to this author as the source of the fossils of Piltdown man. Most of the source material for this article comes from the Piltdown man home page and from a recent article in Pacific Discovery magazine (1).
What was Piltdown Man and why was he important?
I had listened with the greatest interest to the statement which Holmes, with characteristic clearness, had laid before me. Though most of the facts were familiar to me, I had not sufficiently appreciated their relative importance, nor their connection with each other.(v)
Fossils of Neanderthal man were first found in 1856, and the race was on to find the fossil remains of human ancestors. During the next half century, more fossil remains were found in continental Europe and in Asia but not in England. By the early 20th century, evolutionary theory predicted that a "missing link", an ape-man older than Neanderthal man who would directly connect modern man with primitive beast, existed in the fossil record and would be discovered imminently. As noted on the cover of "The Piltdown Forgery" by J. S. Weiner , "If Piltdown Man did not exist (a Darwinian might have said), 'we'd have to invent him'." If a missing link was found, it would definitely prove that man had evolved from the same ancestors as modern apes, and if the missing link was found in Britain, so much the better.
In 1912, Charles Dawson, a lawyer and an amateur archeologist, geologist, and a collector of fossils for the British Museum, brought several skull fragments to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of Geology at the British Museum. Dawson had found these fossils in a gravel quarry at Barkham Manor in Sussex, England (the first two skull fragments had actually been found in 1908 by a workman and given to Dawson). Smith Woodward soon accompanied Dawson to the quarry, and they found a mandible (lower jaw) containing 2 worn molars, as well as stone tools and various mammal bones that indicated the gravels were ancient. These fossils were exactly what anthropologists were hoping to find, and moreover, they were found in England, not in some far away land such as Africa or Asia. The skull bone resembled that of a human, whereas the jawbone was extremely light and bore a perfect resemblance to the jaw of an ape. The only similarity to humans in the jaw were the molars. In December 1912, the fossils were presented to the scientific community by Dawson and Woodward, and they proposed that a new genus, Eoanthropus dawsoni, be added to the hominid family. Soon thereafter, scientists such as Smith Woodward began to visualize what the rest of the individual might look like, and in 1913, Father Theiland de Chardin discovered a canine tooth that closely matched Woodward's predictions. The tooth was made to order for the "missing link".
Reaction to Dawson's presentation of Piltdown man (which his new genus quickly became know as) was mixed. Skeptics pointed out that enough fragments of the skull and jawbone were missing that it was impossible to determine if they really fit together. Moreover, many specific details about the fossils, their age, and how they were found that are normally reported were omitted or unclear. However, the announcement of the discovery of a second skull by Smith Woodward in 1917 converted many skeptics.
How and when was Piltdown Man exposed as a fake?
"Have you heard anything of the case? " he asked.
"Not a word. I have not seen a paper for some days."
"The London press has not had very full accounts. I have just been looking through all the recent
papers in order to master the particulars. It seems, from what I gather, to be one of those simple cases which are so extremely difficult." (ii)
In the early 20th Century, there were relatively few fossil hominids, and no one really knew what a
"missing link" between ape and man would look like. Piltdown man contained an appropriate mix of features to be a plausible missing link. This plausibility did not hold up during the next few decades, however, when new discoveries of Peking man, australopithecine, and other types of other early hominids or near hominids were made. Piltdown man did not fit in with these new discoveries, and during the period of 1930 to 1950, the importance of Piltdown man was significantly reduced. By 1950, Piltdown man was largely ignored, and in 1953, it was finally determined that Piltdown man was a forgery.
Serious questioning of Piltdown man didn't come until near the end when new methods of dating became available and were utilized on the fossils. In 1949 fluoride dating showed that the fossils were quite young. Further study of the fossils in 1953 by Kenneth Oakley, a paleontologist at the British Museum, and Joseph S. Weiner and Wilfred Le Gros Clark, both anatomists at Oxford, found obvious signs of forgery. The jaw was from a modern orangutan. The molars and the stray canine had been filed flat to make them appear more human. The skull bones were from a modern human. All the bones had been soaked in a solution that had hardened them and imparted a stain that made them appear extremely old. The detective story of unravelling the forgery is told in .a book by Weiner.
There are several theories about why Piltdown man wasn't exposed as a fake much sooner than it was (2). As summarized on the Piltdown man home page , there was a combination of circumstances that probably led to Piltdown man's relatively long life. "Why then was the fraud so successful? Briefly, (a) the team finding the specimens (Dawson, Woodward, Teilhard) had excellent credentials, (b) incompetence on the part of the British Paleontological community, (c) the relatively primitive analytical tools available circa 1920, (d) skill of the forgery, and (e) as Millar remarks, the hoax led a charmed life."
Who might have perpetrated the hoax and why?
Holmes sprang in his chair as if he had been stung when I read the head-lines.
"By Jove!" he cried." (iv)
Many individuals have been suggested as possible culprits behind Piltdown man, but who you think might be responsible largely depends on what is inferred to be the motive. The Piltdown fraud is quite unusual, because it doesn't obviously fall into the usual categories of scientific fraud. Most scientific frauds and hoaxes fall into a few categories, including students concocting evidence to fit their teacher's theories; researchers that fabricate evidence to fit theories that they believe are true; frauds that are done for money where fossils are fabricated for unknowing collectors; frauds in which evidence is fabricated for the reputation of the perpetrator and done with the knowledge that the results won't be checked; and finally frauds that are simply done as jokes. The Piltdown hoax is unusual because it doesn't obviously fit into any of these categories, and in addition, it required a systematic effort of planting evidence over a period of years, it required that the perpetrator was reasonably sure that the evidence would be found, and it required detailed knowledge of geology, paleontology, and anatomy.
The list of suspects that have been suggested includes Dawson, Teilhard, and Woodward, who were the most obvious suspects, because they discovered the fossils; Grafton Elliot Smith and Sir Arthur Keith, prominent scientists that also played key roles in the discoveries; the famous mystery writer who is discussed below; W. J. Sollas, a geologist; and Martin Hinton, a paleontologist who worked in the area at the time of the discoveries and was curator of Zoology at the British Museum at the time of the fraud. The Piltdown Man Home Page provides an extensive discussion of many of the possible suspects and groups of suspects.
The case against Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
"You know my methods. Apply them!" (i)
In September 1983, John Winslow, an American anthropologist, and Alfred Meyer published "The
Perpetrator of Piltdown" in Science 83 and identified Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the perpetrator of the hoax. Winslow's case was built on circumstantial evidence, and he noted as a caveat "That Doyle has not been implicated in the hoax before now not only is a testament to the skill with which he appears to have perpetrated it, but it also explains why the case against him is circumstantial, intricate, even convoluted.
For to be on Doyle's trail is, in a sense, to be on the trail of the world's greatest fictional detective
himself, Sherlock Holmes." In another article recently published in "Pacific Discovery", Robert B.
Anderson of the American Museum of Natural History also makes a strong case that Doyle was
responsible for the hoax and left us numerous clues in his book, The Lost World, a young person's adventure novel published in 1912. . Anderson suggests that, because the clues hadn't been properly deciphered, when Doyle "passed on in 1930, he died laughing." Some of the circumstantial "evidence" that Winslow cited included:
Doyle was an alumnus of Stonyhurst College, the same college attended by Charles Waterton, a notorious natural history faker, and undoubtedly Doyle was familiar with some of Waterton's
Doyle lived 7 miles away from Barkham Manor where the fossils were found and he knew both Dawson and Woodward. This afforded Doyle ample opportunity to plant the fake fossils over a period of years.
Doyle was a doctor and had sufficient knowledge to fake the bones, and he was well acquainted with people from whom he could have obtained the orangutan jaw and the cranium.
Doyle had an interest in early man as shown by his adventure novel, "The Lost World", published in 1912 and an unpublished manuscript entitled "Human Origins". In "The Lost World" four explorers make their way through the Amazon jungle to a plateau where dinosaurs and cave men are still alive. Winslow points out a number of allusions to the Piltdown crime in this book
including a description of ape-men that are closely allied with orangutans and with the jaw of
Piltdown man. Winslow also found that Doyle mentioned missing links several times and that the
area around the plateau was similar to the part of Sussex where Piltdown is located.
Winslow speculated that the motive behind the fraud was Doyle's long-standing animosity towards
scientists who attacked spiritualism, a belief that departed souls could be contacted through mediums such as seances. During his latter years Doyle spent much time and money promoting spiritualism and believed that he and his wife had communicated with the dead.
The reaction to Winslow's accusation of Doyle was generally one of disbelief. The "evidence" was
circumstantial and subject to multiple interpretations. As Anderson notes: "And even though Winslow's suggested motive is intriguing, the problem remains: he failed to find a smoking gun."(1)
In an article published last spring (1), Robert Anderson claims to have found a smoking gun by solving a puzzle contained in "The Lost World", as well as deciphering lots of additional items in the story that may relate to Piltdown man. As related by Anderson, a cryptic drawing in Chapter 15 turns out to be the key to solving the puzzle. In the story, the four explorers have survived several harrowing encounters with dinosaurs and primitive men and are trying to escape off the plateau and return to London. They are handed a drawing that turns out to be a charcoal map on bark that shows a cave leading off the plateau and back to London. There are 18 caves on the map with a X at the end of one cave that is longer and more complex than the others. This caves leads off the plateau. The story follows the map and the explorers trip through the cave. Anderson notes that torches used to light the way through the caves are made from araucaria wood, the Latin name for monkey puzzle tree. Monkey puzzle trees lined the driveway to Barkham Manor at the time that the Piltdown fossils were found.
As interpreted by Anderson, the key section of text is:
They were neatly done in charcoal upon the white surface, and looked to me at first sight like some sort of rough musical score.
"Whatever it is, I can swear that it is of importance to us," said I. "I could read that on his face as he gave it."
"Unless we have come upon a primitive practical joker," Summerlee suggested, "which I should think would be one of the most elementary developments of man."
"It is clearly some sort of script," said Challenger.
"Looks like a guinea puzzle competition," remarked Lord John, craning his neck to have a look at it.
Then suddenly he stretched out his hand and seized the puzzle.
"By George!" he cried, "I believe I've got it. The boy guessed right the very first time. See here! How many marks are on that paper? Eighteen. Well, if you come to think of it there are eighteen cave openings on the hill-side above us."
"He pointed up to the caves when he gave it to me," said I.
"Well, that settles it. This is a chart of the caves. What! Eighteen of them all in a row, some short, some deep, some branching, same as we saw them. It's a map, and here's a cross on it. What's the cross for? It is placed to mark one that is much deeper than the others."
"One that goes through," I cried.
"I believe our young friend has read the riddle," said Challenger. "If the cave does not go through I do not understand why this person, who has every reason to mean us well, should have drawn our attention to it. But if it does go through and comes out at he corresponding point on the other side, we should not have more than a hundred feet to descend."
"A hundred feet!" grumbled Summerlee.
"Well, our rope is still more than a hundred feet long," I cried. "Surely we could get down."
"How about the Indians in the cave?" Summerlee objected.
"There are no Indians in any of the caves above our heads," said I. "They are all used as barns and
store-houses. Why should we not go up now at once and spy out the land?"
There is a dry bituminous wood upon the plateau--a species of araucaria, according to our
botanist--which is always used by the Indians for torches. Each of us picked up a faggot of this, and we made our way up weed-covered steps to the particular cave which was marked in the drawing. It was, as I had said, empty, save for a great number of enormous bats, which flapped round our heads as we advanced into it. As we had no desire to draw the attention of the Indians to our proceedings, we stumbled along in the dark until we had gone round several curves and penetrated a considerable distance into the cavern. Then, at last, we lit our torches. It was a beautiful dry tunnel with smooth gray walls covered with native symbols, a curved roof which arched over our heads, and white glistening sand beneath our feet. We hurried eagerly along it until, with a deep groan of bitter disappointment, we were brought to a halt. A sheer wall of rock had appeared before us, with no chink through which a mouse could have slipped. There was no escape for us there.
We stood with bitter hearts staring at this unexpected obstacle. It was not the result of any convulsion, as in the case of the ascending tunnel. The end wall was exactly like the side ones. It was, and had always been, a cul-de-sac.
"Never mind, my friends," said the indomitable Challenger. "You have still my firm promise of a
"Can we be in the wrong cave?" I suggested.
"No use, young fellah," said Lord John, with his finger on the chart. "Seventeen from the right and second from the left. This is the cave sure enough."
I looked at the mark to which his finger pointed, and I gave a sudden cry of joy.
"I believe I have it! Follow me! Follow me!"
I hurried back along the way we had come, my torch in my hand. "Here," said I, pointing to some
matches upon the ground, "is where we lit up."
"Well, it is marked as a forked cave, and in the darkness we passed the fork before the torches were lit. On the right side as we go out we should find the longer arm."
It was as I had said. We had not gone thirty yards before a great black opening loomed in the wall. We turned into it to find that we were in a much larger passage than before. Along it we hurried in
breathless impatience for many hundreds of yards. Then, suddenly, in the black darkness of the arch in front of us we saw a gleam of dark red light. We stared in amazement. A sheet of steady flame seemed to cross the passage and to bar our way. We hastened towards it. No sound, no heat, no movement came from it, but still the great luminous curtain glowed before us, silvering all the cave and turning the sand to powdered jewels, until as we drew closer it discovered a circular edge.
"The moon, by George!" cried Lord John. "We are through, boys!
We are through!"
It was indeed the full moon which shone straight down the aperture which opened upon the cliffs. It was a small rift, not larger than a window, but it was enough for all our purposes. As we craned our necks through it we could see that the descent was not a very difficult one, and that the level ground was no very great way below us. It was no wonder that from below we had not observed the place, as the cliffs curved overhead and an ascent at the spot would have seemed so impossible as to discourage close inspection.