Teilhard and the Piltdown "Hoax"

Mary Lukas

America May 1981


[424] A playful prank gone too far? Or a deliberate scientific forgery? Or, as it now appears, nothing at all?


"Death and scandal," goes a 19th century French saying, "love a shining target." Because Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stands so provocatively tall among the important thinkers and heroes of our century, he has attracted, along with much admiration and study, more than his share of detraction and gossip. The most recent and perhaps most fantastic accusation to be raised against him was leveled last summer by Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard biologist and science writer, who in an article in Natural History magazine accused him of complicity with Charles Dawson in the manufacture of the phoney Piltdown fossil man of Sussex in the early part of this century.

Within days of the announcement of Mr. Gould's charge against Teilhard, newspapers across the United States and Britain echoed it. From a discreet science-scope note in The New York Times, the story moved overnight to an illustrated two-column spread on the front page of The Washington Post ("Piltdown Hoax Said to involve Jesuit Scholar") t o The Boston Globe ("Did this Joke Work Too Well?"), to smaller papers through the Associated Press ("Priest-Scientist Implicated in Piltdown Hoax") and finally to Time magazine's science section, which regretted that "the saintly Teilhard stands accused of a little playful tampering with evolution."

In associating Teilhard with Piltdown, Mr. Gould was linking him not only with one of the most fascinating, but also one of the hoariest and most hurtful whodunits in paleontological history. From the December evening of 1913 when the lawyer and amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson and his friend, the paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward, brought to a meeting of the Geological Society in London their "missing link" specimens-a jaw and some cranial parts that they claimed had been found in a pit full of stones from Ouse [425] River gravels at Piltdown Common in Barkham Manor near Uckfield, Sussex--their "fossils" were bones of contention. At' first glimpse of Dawson's "discovery," British scientists argued that the modern-looking cranium pieces and heavy, ape-like jaw could never have come from the same creature. In the absence of a canine so worn as to demonstrate a relationship between jaw and cranium, there was no way of proving that Dawson's bones came from a single creature.

The following August, Teilhard de Chardin, then a young priest just beginning his paleontological studies in France and visiting England, where he had studied theology, to make a religious retreat, stopped off to dig with Dawson and Smith Woodward in Sussex. Directed by them to a small pile of stones spread in one corner of the Barkham Manor pit, where the first Piltdown fossils had been found, he noticed a loose canine that exactly fitted Smith Woodward's specifications for the interlocking tooth. From the time the canine appeared, in Britain at least, the case for the "Man" of Piltdown was made.

But scientists outside the country continued to argue. Then in 1915, Dawson and Smith Woodward produced a new set of bones (Piltdown 2), a molar tooth, part of a brain case of a type similar to the first set of fossils (Piltdown 1), but found, they said, in a new site-"a plough field" in Sheffield Park. two miles away from the Barkham Manor gravel pit. Skeletal parts of an ape and a man might have been found accidentally buried near each other in one place, but hardly in two. The second "discovery," Dawson contended, "proved" that the Piltdown Man represented a race. So, for the moment at least, and despite his peculiarities, the possible existence of "Eoanthropus Dawsoni' began to be admitted by non-British scholars as well.

Dawson died in 1916, a year after the Site 2 "discovery" at Sheffield Park was announced. Smith Woodward lived on as Keeper of Bones at the British Museum until 1924, then as their backstage guardian while the "fossils" reminded locked up in the museum and students worked with clumsy plaster casts. Not until 1953, seven years after Smith Woodward's death, when the specimens were finally made available for testing, were Kenneth P. Oakley, J. S. Weiner and W.E. Le Gros Clark, using modem dating methods, able to prove them a fraud.

In his 195 5 book, The Piltdown Forgery, Dr. Weiner summed up his colleagues' conclusions. The culprit, he argued, who planted the bones had been Dawson. He alone had been present during the long train of events leading up to Piltdown; he alone seemed to have had the right combination of expertise, motive and (judging from the testimony of some witnesses) character to commit such a crime. He freely admitted to having kept the bones of Piltdown 1 in his possession long before presenting them to the British Museum; neighbors caught him staining bones and flints in s Uckfield office; and after his death in 1916, there were found in the basement of home more skulls, these embedded in a matrix that could only have come from Barcombe Mills, a third site where he claimed to be digging. Dr. Weiner's case against Dawson was convincing, but at this distance in time, neither he nor anyone else could prove Dawson acted alone.

So the sleuthing continued. In the last decade alone, the great English anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith and the Oxford geologist W. J. Sollas both were accused and acquitted of complicity in Piltdown. In addition to these two, a whole raft of possible co-conspirators, ranging from Arthur Smith Woodward himself to Dawson's acquaintance and sometime visitor at Piltdown, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, have stood as possible suspects. And over the years, pointing the finger at Piltdown conspirators has as often served as a vehicle for envy and ill-will as it has delighted players of scientific parlor games.

From a simple self-publicizing point of view, however, Mr. Gould's idea of casting Teilhard as co-hoaxer was an inspiration. He was beyond doubt the most famous of the supporting players of Piltdown, the one who could gather headlines most easily, an ethical hero to his admirers and a philosopher whose scientific speculation could draw angry criticism from no less a public curmudgeon than Sir Peter Medawar. The shock value of the suggestion that the philosopher-hero was also a criminal was stunning. The charge gained Mr. Gould two weeks of useful publicity and prepared reviewers to give a friendly reception to the collection of essays, including the article about Teilhard, which he published the following month.

As early as 1979, Mr. Gould had already written another essay in which he tentatively tried but faded to interest the media in the theory that Teilhard was co-hoaxer at Piltdown. But it was not until his second essay, in August 1980, that he finally caught their attention.

The evidence on which he built his case was admittedly circumstantial. He mentioned three eminent paleontologists, all conveniently dead, who were uneasy about Teilhard's role at Piltdown. He noted that Teilhard was a theology student when the first Piltdown bones surfaced in 1912 and had just begun his paleontology studies in France at the time the canine was found. He mentioned Teilhard's admission that he had corresponded for three years with Dawson (as indeed he had done with other local naturalists) before the Piltdown adventure began and that, after Dawson had advised him of his find, he had dug with Dawson and Smith Woodward several times in the Barkham Manor pit. Since some of the Piltdown bones seemed to be North African and since Teilhard had practice-taught science in a Jesuit high school in Cairo for three years before meeting Dawson in England, Mr. Gould speculated that Teilhard himself might well have supplied Dawson's bones.

In one of his wilder flights of fancy Mr. Gould even suggested a possible motive for Teilhard's involvement. Despite outward appearances, he said, Teilhard could well [425] have been at heart an English public-school boy type of prankster, who first joined in the hoax for the fun of it with the idea of revealing it later but who, after Charles Dawsoi died in 1916, found himself alone with the problem, and thus kept up an anguished silence for the rest of his life.

Thus far, these charges from Mr Gould's 1980 essay were the same as the ones from his unnoticed essay of 1979. But in his second attempt to involve Teilhard in the Piltdown affair, he did bring one new piece of "evidence" to support his case and a very vexing piece of evidence it was. In 1953, Mr. Gould pointed out, Kenneth Oakley, then in the first flush of exhilaration over. having unmasked the Piltdown hoax, wrote Teilhard requesting information about his own experience at Piltdown. Teilhard, after expressing reluctance to consider Dawson guilty, quite unexpectedly volunteered, in his very first letter, that he had seen the second Piltdown location as early as 1913. In what Mr. Gould called his "fatal slip." Teilhard declared that in 1913 Dawson had taken him in person to the Sheffield Park plough field (Site 2) where he explained he had made a new find. Pressed by Kenneth Oakley to confirm the date of that visit, Teilhard adamantly held to it. It had been, he was as sure as he could be, in the summer of 1913.

"But this cannot be," Mr. Gould explained. "Dawson discovered the [second skull at Piltdown] in January 1915 and [the second] tooth not until July 1915. And now the key point: Teilhard was mustered into the French Army in December 1914 and shipped immediately to the front, where he remained until the war ended." Since in his letter to Oakley Teilhard seemed to demonstrate that he had prior knowledge of Dawson's plans by admitting he had seen the second Piltdown site before anyone else claimed to have seen it, Teilhard, Mr. Gould continued, must have been guilty with Dawson at Piltdown.

For anyone who had seriously studied Teilhard's fife and work this "second site" accusation was the only charge raised by Mr. Gould that was worth examining. It was easy enough to demolish his totally fanciful picture of Teilhard's character in the first decade of the century and thereafter. Few modern thinkers have left so large a body of confessional material behind them: some 9,000 letters going back to his boarding school days, some 200 self-explanatory essays, eight volumes of diaries, two major books on his personal philosophy. If the Teilhard of the letters and essays is not indeed the real Teilhard, then he was from age 12 a genius at fiction, whose skill at creating a highly detailed mirror image of himself would have baffled Dostoevski.

And even if Mr. Gould were right and Teilhard had been another kind of man entirely, the records of the Hastings Theologate preserved at Chantilly with their descriptions of the old-fashioned routine of the place-its daily examination of conscience, weekly private confession, regular "manifestations of conscience" to superiors, nightly "grand silences," public worship and private devotion, heavy class loads and closely supervised Tuesday and Thursday afternoon walks prescribed by the rule "for the health of the body" and always in the company of an older confrere-were enough to rule out any opportunity for involvement in the hoax.

Further, according to his letters, both published and unpublished, to friends, Teilhard's relationship to Dawson was anything but close. If, in a phrase Mr. Gould seized upon, Teilhard in his published letters once referred to Dawson as his "correspondent in geology," he meant precisely that: He wrote Dawson brief letters about his work in natural history and occasionally sent him specimens from his walks on the Sussex weald. A group of still unpublished letters that he wrote to Dawson-all always distant, deferential, boyishly pious, volunteering "prayers for all at the Castle Lodge [Dawson's home in Lewes, Sussex]"-clearly demonstrate that the connection between the two of them was that of an aspiring student to a respected and admired senior.

In all those years the meetings between Teilhard and Dawson were few. Before the Piltdown adventure began Teilhard and Dawson seem to have met only four times, twice in the seminary parlor. After Dawson involved Teilhard in Piltdown, he visited there only three times in Dawson's lifetime: the first occasion was May 21, 1912, the month before Teilhard left England to begin his professional studies in paleontology; the next two visits both took place in the sunnier of 1913 when, returning to Hastings to make his retreat, Teilhard stopped to dig with Dawson and Smith Woodward through the weekend of Aug. 8-10 and again on Aug. 30, when he stopped off on his trip back to France and noticed in a pile of rubble of the gravel pit of Site 1 the famous interlocking canine.

The question of the African bones found at Piltdown that so interested the newspapers was the easiest of all to dispose of. Piltdown scholars had always concluded that Dawson had no need of anyone's help in procuring such parts, since they were so readily available to him in the many curio auctions popular in England before World War 1. I would add here that Dawson did not even need access to the auctions, since he had in his home a possibly even more convenient source of supply in the person of his stepson F.J.M. Prostlethwaite, an officer in the British Camel Corps of the Sudan, that "very nice boy" mentioned in two of Teilhard's letters to his parents. He had been in Lewes on two of the three occasions Teilhard had visited Dawson and had "cluttered up the house with antelope heads" and other souvenirs of his desert campaign.

That left only the problem of Teilhard's "slip" (if indeed it was one) in the letters to Oakley written 40 years after Piltdown. In none of Teilhard's letters to family or friends in 1913 had he mentioned a visit to Site 2, Sheffield Park. And since, as Mr. Gould implied, the discovery of a second Piltdown site a long way from the first one had been so crucial to establishing the authenticity of the "find" before non-British scientists, it seemed more than strange that Teilhard did not mention that site to anyone else at the time. And he really did not. In none of his letters to his parents, to his friends, to his scientific colleagues including his teacher in Paris, the great Marcellin Boule, who considered the Piltdown find "monstreux" but who began to tilt (albeit slightly) in favor of Piltdown after the second find, did Teilhard say a word about the plough field Site 2 in 1913.

It was not for me, in fact, until a visit to England put me in touch with Dr. J.S> Weiner, and through him with the un[427]published material relevant to Piltdown in the archives of the British Museum in Kensington, that the matter began to clear at all. in the archives were maps, photos, records of interviews by the museum staff, personal letters from Dawson to Smith Woodward over nearly five years, all one would need to call up as witnesses the other long-dead, but still-articulate actors at Piltdown, who knew more about Piltdown than Teilhard did.

A map drawn by Dawson, for instance, dated January 1913 and scaled at four miles to the inch, marked the whole 16-square-mile area of what Teilhard always called "the Uckfield alluvials" and made plain the close proximity of the digging sites to one another. There was an "X" at the location of Site 1, the gravel pit of Piltdown Common near Barkham Manor where the first bones were found and after which the whole Piltdown series of "finds" was named.

There was another "X" at Sheffield Park where the second set of "specimens" was supposedly found still later in 1915. There was a third at Barcombe Mills, the presumptive site where a third Piltdown Man would have been planted had Dawson not died in 1916. According to the sometimes bimonthly letters that Dawson wrote to Smith Woodward, he drove out with a group of friends each weekend when the weather was fine in a primitive auto from Lewes to Barkham Manor (Site 1), from where he moved on to a site in the north (presumably Sheffield Park) and the south (presumably Barcombe Mills) as early as 1911.


According to his letters to his family, each of the three times that Teilhard visited Dawson in Lewes, he and Dawson drove to Uckfield where Smith Woodward was staying, then out to the "Uckfield alluvials." They regularly first set out on a tour of the neighborhood, passing through Sheffield Park, and ending at Barkham Manor (Site 1). When Teilhard and Dawson were alone in the car, or even when Smith Woodward was present, there could have been no particular problem in Dawson's pointing out, or even stopping the car and taking Teilhard to the Sheffield Park plough field (Site 2) during any of his three visits to Piltdown.

But as Oakley himself had asked Teilhard in 1953: just when had Dawson taken him there? Teilhard had said probably in the summer of 1913. More specifically, if Teilhard was correct, Aug. 8-10 or Aug. 30. The second visit he described in great detail as having taken place at the pit at Site 1. But what of the week end of Aug. 8-10. The longer, more leisurely visit was only sketched out in Teilhard's rambling letter to his family. The work of the weekend was broadly outlined, and much of the letter was devoted to descriptions of the pleasanter aspects of the whole area visited: "Our principal occupation was digging at the Piltdown gravels at Uckfield. I was there Friday in the afternoon from the time I arrived, and all Saturday and Sunday in the afternoon.

The research is very exciting, but unhappily, this time we found nothing except a tiny piece of nose?

[sic]. It was a nice day, though. Piltdown is a very pretty corner of Sussex, full of trees, near a golf

links, and a beautiful park [Sheffield. Author's Note], which one must cross to reach Uckfield. For

three days Dr. Woodward of the British Museum worked with us. Right now, Mr. Dawson has with

him his son, an officer in the Camel Corps. Such a very nice boy. . . ."

Three days moving about in a touring car, through Sheffield Park, and there was not even a mention of the Barkham Manor gravel pit. But if there was no reason against Dawson's having shown Teilhard the Sheffield Park ploughfield that weekend of Aug. 8-10, 1913, there was one strong reason for it.

In the British Museum's collection of letters from Dawson to Smith Woodward that summer there was one very odd one. He spoke of a find he had made not at the Barkham Manor gravel pit (Site 1), the focus of their mutual attention, but at a site somewhere else: "I have picked up a frontal part of a human skull this evening covered with flint gravel. It is in a new place, a plough field a long way from Piltdown. It is not a thick skull. But it may have been a descendant of Eoanthropus. . . . It was coming on dark and was raining when I left the place, but I marked the spot."

The date was July 3, 1913, a month before Teilhard came back from France for his English retreat, a month before the second visit to Piltdown, which Teilhard described in such broad outline to his parents in his published Lettres d'Hastings. Given all the free time that weekend provided and the freedom of movement it offered, it would indeed be strange if Dawson had not pointed out the Sheffield Park site to Teilhard at that time.

Why then had Teilhard not discussed Dawson's find in his letters? Quite simply because it had no importance in the Piltdown sequence at the time he saw it. The main focus of interest of the party of diggers that summer was the gravel pit (Site 1) at Barkham Manor, which had yielded the skull parts and jaw that were presented to the Royal Geological Society in December 1912, and which still remained suspect until a properly shaped canine could be found near the spot that would link the jawbone to the braincase. When Teilhard saw the Sheffield park plough field in early August 1913, no one called it "Site 2," since the finds at Site 1 were not complete enough to convince the British scientific community of their authenticity. Not until two weeks later, Aug. 30, 1913, when Teilhard found the canine, was there really compelling evidence for a Piltdown individual, much less a whole Piltdown race.

Teilhard could well have seen Site 2, the plough field of Sheffield Park, just at the time he would later tell Oakley he thought he had: in the summer of 1913.

It is 10 months now since Professor Gould threw down the gauntlet and said out of what body of law, I cannot imagine. that "the burden of proof now rests with those who believe Teilhard innocent." It is perhaps precisely because Mr. Gould's charge was so patently ridiculous to begin with that it has taken all of us so long to answer him within the parameters which he himself set.

We can only be glad that the matter has come to an end.


Mary Lukas, formerly with the editorial staff of Time, wrote with Ellen Lukas Teilhard (1977), recently reissued in paperback by McGraw-Hill.


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