The Missing Link:

Archaeological Forgery and Fictions of the First Human

Faking it

Ian Haywood 1987

[90] If we are convinced that evolution is the true method of creation and that man and anthropoid ape have been evolved from a common ancestry, what is more probable than that we should find early human forms in which anthropoid and human features are combines?

Sir Arthur Keith, A New Theory of Human Evolution (1948)


[91] Archaeology is the study of remnants and artefacts of the past. The discipline emerged in the eighteenth century as part of the historiographical revolution seeking truly authentic modes of access into history. The word 'monument' covered literary as well as concrete relics: ancient manuscripts as well as time-encrusted artefacts and human remains. Most of the literary forgers of the eighteenth century were producers of historical fiction which evolved from and satisfied many of the needs of contemporary literary-historical inquiry. In doing so the forgeries laid bare the processes of evaluation and judgement concerning 'genuine' art that might not otherwise have been subjected to scrutiny.

Archaeological forgery is a tangible form of historical fiction. There were no archaeological fakes in the eighteenth century because the discipline had not become a central cultural activity. This happened in the nineteenth century. There were major discoveries, the most famous being Heinrich Schliemann's supposed discovery of Homer's Troy in 1873. This incident is particularly ironic for our purposes. Not only had Schliemann not uncovered Priam's fabled city (but a much earlier one)–but it has recently been revealed that Schliemann's discovery of the fabulous treasure which became world famous was a hoax.

The complexion of this forgery is very interesting. Most of the treasure was genuine in the sense of being genuinely old. The relics were not modern fabrications. Some of them probably came from the site of excavation, others were from other sites or even bought from dealers. The treasure was a forgery because its provenance was false. Schliemann even inserted the fictitious tale of discovery into his own diary. This revelation opens up the [92] whole question of unreliable memoirs, and of the complicity of biographers who fail to check information in the proper way. Schliemann's treasure of Troy was not what it appeared to be. The parts were genuine but the whole was fictional. Schliemann forged authentication and invented a context. His activity shows how significant external factors are in producing the authenticity of a relic. One of these factors is of course the market. The value of relics like works of art is estimated in financial as well as cultural terms. Also a great deal of national prestige is attached to archaeological discoveries. Schliemann was lionised by the civilised world. He had abused his authority to achieve greater recognition. He made 'a dream discovery ... what every archaeologist wants to find' (David Trail speaking on 'Chronicle', BBC 2, 31 July 1984). That is the feeling behind the quest that occupied many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century archaeologists in a different area: the search for the first human being. People thought Schliemann had transformed Homer's fiction into fact. The same incarnation awaited our evolutionary parent–a figure who, ironically, had only recently been invented.

The archaeological equivalent of a Shakespeare manuscript in the nineteenth century was a fossilised relic of an early human. Advances in geology and zoology had produced the idea of evolution: natural and human life had begun in a simpler, common form, and had become gradually diversified and sophisticated over an immense amount of time. The theory was very controversial, contradicting orthodox religious accounts of creation. Moreover, evolutionary theory posited that humans were once a much more primitive form of animal, something resembling a modern primate such as an ape.

In 1856 in Germany a skull was discovered near the river Neander which had a human-like jaw and overhanging, simian brows. This 'Neanderthal Man' seemed to confirm the existence of an ape-like ancestor for humankind, living on the earth several hundred thousand years ago. In 1859 Charles Darwin finally published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The book was the most authoritative statement so far of evolutionary change in history. Though Darwin did not include humanity in the picture until The Descent of Man (1871), he was popularly credited with the 'monkey theory' of [93] our ancestry. The primitive human, monkey-like or not, was a burning issue among scientists after The Origin of Species. There was a need to find very ancient human remains, particularly a skull or part of a skull. The intensity of this need can be judged by the appearance outside Britain of three forgeries all produced in the decade after the Origin. All three were fabricated remnants of a primeval human–in effect, historical fictions.

The first of these forgeries occurred at Moulin-Quignon, near Abbeville in France, in 1863. A site was being excavated by Boucher de Perthes, an archaeologist committed to the existence of fossilised human remains. He had previously unearthed flint tools in the same stratum of earth as the bones of extinct animals. This was evidence that humans had existed at this very ancient time, and that somewhere their bodies–not only accoutrements–must be buried. He turned his attention on Moulin-Quignon, and offered a reward of 200 francs for any labourer who found a human remain. In March 1863 a workman gave Boucher de Perthes a human tooth and the relevant authenticating assortment of flints and fossils. The spot where the discovery had been made was excavated exhaustively, and soon presented the lower half of a human jaw. Boucher de Perthes had found a prehistoric human. The discovery was hailed nationally and archaeologists and anthropologists flocked to the site. They were disappointed, but the Moulin-Quignon jaw was given a prestigious place in the Academy of Sciences.

Doubts as to the authenticity of the jaw were soon raised, particularly in England, and fierce nationalist bickering broke out. Some of the flints found alongside the jaw proved to be fakes. A black market of fake archaeological relics already existed, an automatic response to the high prices being offered by museums and collectors. Indeed it was in England at exactly this time that the most famous flint faker Edward 'Flint Jack' Simpson was at work. An untold number of his fakes permeated the market, and it was only because of his own confession that anyone ever found out. Flint Jack gave a public demonstration of his skill in 1862 which earned him sincere praise by Llewellyn Jewitt in the Reliquary Quarterly Archaeological Journal and Review.

[94] antiquaries owe him a debt of gratitude for opening their eyes to deception, and for

showing them how a lost art may be restored ... the man possesses more real

practical antiquarian knowledge than many of the leading antiquarian writers of the day,

and he is a good geologist and palaeontologist. (quoted in Cole, 1955, p. 79)

The Moulin-Quignon fake was not seen so positively. A scientific analysis of the amount of organic matter in the jaw proved it to be modern. Hence the forgery had led to one of the first independent dating tests. The Anthropological Society of London was relieved. The magnitude of what was at stake was expressed by Sir John Evans (father of Sir Arthur Evans, the discoverer of Minoan Crete) in the Athenaeum. His fears are very reminiscent of Thomas Warton's grave prophecies about the wrong outcome of the Chatterton controversy:

It may be asked why, when so many genuine flint implements had been found in the

beds of Moulin Quignon ... it was worth taking so much trouble to prove that a certain

small number of implements reputed to have been found there were false. To this I

reply that trivial as the question may appear, the consequences of a wrong answer

to it are most important. For if these implements, without a solitary sign of antiquity

about them, had been determined to be undoubtedly genuine, we should then

have had no characteristics left whereby to distinguish true from false, and should have

been at the mercy of every flint knapper and gravel digger who thought fit to impose upon us.

(Athenaeum, 6 dune 1863; quoted in Cole, p. 125)

The issue is about true or false history. But Evans limits the matter to the question of the age of the relic. He does not consider the possibility of a genuinely old fossil being planted in a location, as Schliemann did with his treasure. The difficulty of defining this kind of 'falseness' may account for the prolonged controversy over Piltdown Man, as we shall see.

The main method of dating a relic involved the identification of the geological stratum the relic was found in, reinforced by adjacent existence of other fossils: context and contiguity. In 1866 in America another attempt to exploit this procedure took place. The New World wished to stake its own claim to our antiquity. In gravel deposits at Calaveras in the Table Mountains of California a gold miner claimed to have found a human skull deep inside a mine. That location could only mean it was very [95] old, but the bewildering question of how the skull found its way into the rock weighed against its authenticity. The issue was decided by the first fluorine dating test on human bone. Almost a hundred years passed before the test was revived to solve the riddle of Piltdown Man. Sir Arthur Keith, a biologist and staunch supporter of Piltdown, noted risibly of the Calaveras skull: 'the discovery of a modern aeroplane in a church crypt which had been bricked up since the days of Queen Elizabeth would form a parallel instance to finding a modern human skull in a Miocene formation' (1911, p. 143). Those words were written on the eve of the Piltdown revelation which was to show the unworkability of Keith's analogy. In Piltdown terms the 'modern aeroplane' becomes an Elizabethan relic.

The third archaeological forgery of the 1860s presents us with a picturesque sideshow. The New World is again the location. George Hull, a trickster, carved a giant statue of a man and buried it for a year on his brother's farm in the Oriondaga valley, south of Syracuse, in 1869. Once a patina had been acquired he dug it up. The giant was frozen in a grimace of extreme agony. Hull allowed the sensationalists to move in. The question was posed: was this an ancient statue or a fossilised giant man? Hull put his find to lucrative use, charging spectators an entrance fee to see the colossus. The famous impressario Phineas T. Barnum tried to buy Hull out. When Hull rejected him, Barnum had a replica of the giant made and took that on tour. By now no one believed the 'original' to be genuine, and the judge to whom Hull went for an injunction ruled that it could hardly be a crime to exhibit a 'fake fake' (Klein, 1956, p. 143). That ruling says much about the ethics of reproduction, something we shall be considering in the final chapter.

Another connection worth making is the support George Hull was given in literary fiction. In 1872 Jules Verne published Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a geological fantasy in which a group of explorers penetrates to the earth's core and travels back through evolutionary time as they do so. The climax of the journey is the discovery of a preserved antediluvian world in which life is gigantic, including a briefly-glimpsed prehistoric human:

There, indeed, less than a quarter of a mile away, leaning against the trunk of a giant

kauri, was a human being, a Proteus of these underground [96] regions, a new son of

Neptune, keeping a watch over the innumerable herd of mastodons .. this was not a

fossil man whose body we had lifted out of the ossuary, he was a giant able to command

these monsters. He was over twelve feet tall; his head, as large as that of a buffalo, was

partly concealed by the tangle of his matted hair; anyone would have thought he had a

mane, like that of the primordial elephant. In his hand he wielded an enormous bough, a

crock worthy of this antediluvian shepherd .. I would rather admit the existence of some

animal whose structure resembles the human, some monkey-like being from the earliest

geological period .. but the size of the one we had seen went beyond all palaeontological limits.

The 'monkey-like being' was to win the day, however. When Sherlock Holmes's creator, Sir

Arthur Conan Doyle depicted his version of a prehistoric world preserved in the present in The

Lost World (1912), he opted for the human-ape, and anticipated the unveiling to the world the same year of Piltdown Man.

The main reason the 'monkey-like being' rather than the colossus won through was the appearance in 1871 of Darwin's The Descent of Man. Here the question of our simian origins was addressed directly. Darwin states that 'man is the co-descendant with other species of some ancient, lower, and extinct form' (Darwin, 1874, pp. 2-3). He stresses this idea is not new, and ironically cites Boucher de Perthes as one of those who had consolidated the 'high antiquity of man' (p. 2). This 'common progenitor' (p. 152) was as much simian as human, an 'ape-like creature' (p. 43) or a binary 'semi-human' (p. 46). Our bodies were once covered with a 'uniform hairy coat' (p. 18) and our canine teeth were much more prominent.

He who rejects with scorn the belief that the shape of his own canines, and their occasional

great development, in other men, are due to our early forefathers having been provided with

these formidable weapons, will probably reveal, by sneering, the line of his descent. (p. 41)

Yet Darwin comments shrewdly on the logic of evolution:

In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some ape-like creature to man as he now

exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point when the term 'man' ought to

be used. (p. 180)

[97] When was the modern human born? At what point did the ape become a recognisable human being? Some aspect of our morphology had to be chosen as uniquely human, such as a developed brain, an upright stance, a smooth brow. Yet by evolutionary theory such characteristics would be latent or present in a less developed form one stage lower down the ladder of creation, a few thousand years previously. Hence the attractiveness for believers in evolution of the idea of the 'missing link', a single anthropoid bridge between the lower and upper forms, human and ape. In 1863 the scientist, philosopher and evolutionary convert T.H. Huxley had asked

Where, then, must we look for primaeval Man? Was the oldest Homo sapiens pliocene or

miocene, or yet more ancient? In still older strata do the fossilized bones of an Ape more

anthropoid, or a Man more pithecoid, than any yet known await the researchers of some

unborn palaeontologist...? Time will show. (Huxley, p. 159)

Darwin was more positive:

those regions which are the most likely to afford remains connecting man with some extinct

ape-like creature, have not as yet been searched by geologists. (Darwin, 1874, p. 157)

Piltdown Man was a fictional solution to this dilemma. Before that 'discovery' in 1912 the ranks of Ancient Men had swollen: Java Man, found by Eugene Dubois in 1891-92; Heidelberg Man, 1907. In 1911, on the eve of Piltdown Man's birth, these two latest candidates for the 'missing link' were assessed by Arthur Keith. He concluded that neither were sufficiently simian. Dubois named his find pithecanthropus erectus ('upright ape')

as a link which bridged the gulf between man and anthropoids. In a zoological sense the name

is justified, but so many are the human characters and so strong is the suggestion that in

discovery of Dubois we have a representation of an actual stage in the evolution of man, that it

seems more expedient to simply give the name of Homo javenesis, or the fossil man of Java.

(Keith, 191 1, p. 133)

Heidelberg Man was a little more tricky. The jaw of this [98] ancient ancestor was massive, an ape-like mandible in 'a condition intermediate to the anthropoid and the modern human form' (p. 83). However, Heidelberg's canines were retrogressed, placing it a couple of stages too far along the evolutionary production line. This early human may have been 'brutish, perhaps, in appearance' but was for Keith 'in every sense of the biologist–a man' (p. 93). How fortunate for Piltdown Man, therefore, that he (or she) possessed those telltale prominent canines.

Piltdown Man 1912-53

In the last chapter we saw how Sherlock Holmes's amazing bibliographical skills came to prominence at precisely the time Thomas James Wise's fake first editions began to roll from the presses. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seems to have had an uncanny knack of fictionally ~paralleling~ major forgeries. In 1912 his science fiction novel The Lost World was serialised in Strand Magazine. The story is really the converse of Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. This time the intrepid explorers venture up on to a hidden plateau rather than down into the bowels of the earth to discover the prehistoric world evolution has passed by. As in the earlier story, there are ancient humans as well as dinosaurs. Conan Doyle's early human, however, is very much Darwin's simian progenitor. The first encounter with one occurs at the top of a tree the narrator has climbed to try to get a clear view of the Amazonian tableland. Modern and ancient human meet face to face:

It was a human face–or at least it was far more human than any monkey's that I have ever

seen. It was long, whitish, and blotched with pimples, the nose flattened, and the lower jaw

projecting, with a bristle of coarse whiskers round the chin. The eyes, which were under thick

and heavy brows, were bestial and ferocious, and as it opened its mouth to snarl what sounded like a curse at me I observed that it had curved, sharp canine teeth. (Conan Doyle, p. 198)

This description would fit perfectly John Cooke's famous reconstruction of Piltdown Man. Professor Challenger, the comically bumptious leader of the expedition, ponders on the tete a fete:

[99] 'the question which we have to face is whether I it] approaches more closely to the ape

or the man. In the latter case, he may well approximate to what the vulgar have called the

"missing link"'. (p. 203)

The question remains academic for, as so often happens in science fiction, the newly encountered alien soon becomes a menace. The novelist has much greater freedom than the archaeological forger who cannot animate his fiction. Conan Doyle's ape-humans are brutal and savage, and there is soon open warfare between the two extremes of the human evolutionary scale. "'Apemen–that's what they are–Missin' Links, and I wish they had stayed missin'"' (p. 231) exclaims one of the beleaguered crew. Developed canines are no match for rifles, however, and the semi-human progenitors are soon conquered in a familiar imperialist scenario.

On their return to civilisation Challenger's party are only too aware that the public and particularly the scientific community will scoff at their experiences. Even photographs are not sufficient, for they can be faked. Incontrovertible authentic evidence is needed. Challenger calls a public meeting, and in a sensational coup de grâce produces a live pterodactyl which had been captured on the plateau. Needless to say, the creature is frightened by a member of the audience and flies out of an open window. The living evidence of the lost world and its 'missing link' was lost, at least until another expedition could be mounted. But the loss was being more than compensated for in real life. On 18 December 1912, a matter of weeks after Professor Challenger's revelation, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward unveiled to a packed meeting of the Geological Society in London a reconstructed skull of a human-ape whose brain-case and jaw they claimed to have discovered. The cranium was human; the mandible simian. Surely, then, here at last was the long-awaited 'missing link'. It took almost half a century to decide the matter.

Charles Dawson was a lawyer and respected amateur archaeologist. His story of how he discovered Piltdown Man appeared in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in March 1913. Some time in 1909 Dawson was out walking near his home at Piltdown, near Fletching, in Sussex, when he noticed [100] that ancient flint tools had been used to repair a road surface. Dawson asked the workman digging in gravel nearby to be on the alert for any similar artefacts. Like Boucher de Perthes he was extraordinarily lucky, and was soon presented with the partial brain-case of a human skull. The layer of gravel the fragment came from made it very old indeed. Dawson set to work excavating the gravel beds himself. He enlisted the aid of his friend Arthur Smith Woodward, anthropologist and Keeper of the Geology Department at the Natural History Museum, and later (from 1913) a Jesuit priest Father Teilhard de Chardin. More pieces of skull were found in this site which, in archaeological terms, was fast becoming a treasure trove. Then in 1912 came the really sensational find: the ape-like mandible. According to Smith Woodward's posthumously published memoirs this jaw was very appropriately a joint discovery: 'We both saw half of the human lower jaw fly out in front of the pick-shaped end of the hammer' (Smith Woodward, 1948, p. 11). In fact there was nothing human about the jaw at all except in its physical proximity to the remains of the human cranium. By standard archaeological logic however, there could be only one reasonable explanation for this remarkable occurrence: the two portions of the skull had originally been halves of the same structure. Here was a literal human-ape, a binary creature whose different halves were so obviously antagonistic. All Dawson and Woodward had to do was to glue the halves together. It was this reconstruction which was exhibited at the end of 1912. Smith Woodward awarded Dawson the highest accolade by naming the missing link after him: Eoanthropus Dawsoni. Arthur Keith, one of the first and most loyal converts to Piltdown Man recalled in 1915:

It was quite plain to all assembled that the skull thus reconstructed by Dr Smith Woodward

was a strange blend of man and ape. At last, it seemed, the missing form–the link which

early followers of Darwin had searched for–had really been discovered. (Keith, 1915, p. 306)

Piltdown Man was, from a historical point of view, 'the most important and instructive of all ancient human documents yet discovered in Europe' (p. 293). The half-million year-old ancestor was 'the earliest specimen of true humanity yet [101] discovered' (p. 316). The Manchester Guardian, with a licence to exaggerate granted to journalistic ballyhoo, captured this feeling of euphoria: 'A Skull Millions of Years Old' proclaimed its headline on 21 November 1912 (news of the find leaked out before the public unveiling). There were of course dissenting and incredulous voices. Even Arthur Keith expressed an initial anxiety that there were no large canine teeth actually in the jaw. The canines may have retrogressed, which would make Piltdown's claim to be the missing link really no more credible than Neanderthal Man. Dawson's band returned to the gravel pits, and soon produced a large canine tooth from the appropriate adjacent piece of earth. 'Dawn Man', as he was nicknamed, was complete, and took his place on the frontier of our antiquity. Charles Dawson was still not satisfied. In 1915 he shifted to a new site a couple of miles away and came up with another composite human-ape. Like the second manuscript Chatterton sent to Horace Walpole, this duplication could have' been a disaster. But so perfectly did Piltdown Man satisfy archaeological and cultural needs that the second discovery did not destroy the authenticity of the whole. One could call Dawson a liar and contest the provenance of the relics, but that still left the relics themselves. It was, after all, impossible to refute Dawson's story other than by evidence from the 'text'–the fossil bones. There was no other way of countering Dawson's testimony. In any case he died in 191G, leaving those opposed to Piltdown with no possibility of cross-examining him. The manner in which the two halves of the Piltdown skull were linked was scientifically respectable. They had been found literally cheek-by-jowl. They had the same iron staining from the gravel. To Arthur Keith Conan Doyle's fiction had been realised in fact:

there was revealed, for the first time, a human race in which the canine teeth were

pointed, projecting, and shaped as in anthropoid apes. that we should discover such a

race, sooner or later, has been an article of faith in the anthropologist's creed ever

since Darwin's time. (Keith, 1915, p. 447)

Piltdown Man's modern home became the British Museum. There, with Smith Woodward's help, the Dawn Man was protected from troublesome and inquisitive investigators. The [102] perfect residence for what the Manchester Guardian called 'the first Englishman' (quoted in Reith, 1970,p.41) had been found. This is not to say that the Piltdown fraud was perpetrated by the inner coterie of the British Museum. But there is a strong possibility of a certain amount of complicity in not wishing this national treasure to be pried into too closely. The pressure for a fresh analysis grew as more Ancient Men were found around the world. Australopithecus, discovered in South Africa, showed reverse characteristics from Piltdown. The jaw had become human-like before the upper skull: canines retrogressed before the brow-line. Nevertheless it was not until 1949 that permission was granted to carry out scientific tests on the Piltdown skull. The same pattern of events that occurred with TJ. Wise's forgery was about to take place. A forgery was to advance a specialist field of knowledge by its destruction.

During the Second World War K.P. Oakley, a junior geologist and anthropologist at the British Museum, came across the long-forgotten fluorine dating test that had been used on the Calaveras skull. The older bones are the more fluorine they absorb from the earth. Oakley asked to apply the test to Piltdown. His request for a sample was grudgingly granted. He was only allowed to drill away a tiny amount of bone from the cranium, too little for a conclusive result, but sufficient to reduce the.antiquity of Piltdown Man from 500,000 to 50,000 years old. Oakley picked up a scent. With the help of J.S. Weiner and other scientists concerted pressure was put on the British Museum for a larger test sample to be made available. The Museum succumbed, and the full might of modern science was unleashed against our increasingly fragile ancestor. J.S. Weiner recalled the 'whole battery of chemical and physical tests' employed and the use of 'anatomical, radiological, and chemical' analyses (Weiner, 1955,p.34).So in 1953 Piltdown Man received its death-blow, its human and simian halves torn apart. The most startling results related to the jaw. Whereas the skull was really thousands of years old, the jaw was that of a modern orang-outang. All the various parts of the composite head had been given an artificial iron stain. The molar teeth had been filed flat to give them the human quality of being worn by mastication. The bone of the jaw was so fresh it burnt when drilled. The revelation was quickly parodied. In a cartoon in Punch, for example, an ape sits terrified [103] in a dentist's chair. The dentist is saying 'It will probably hurt, but I'm afraid I've got to extract the whole lower jaw' (Reith, 1970, p. 46). J.S. Weiner reckoned that most of the pieces of the Piltdown jigsaw, like some of Schliemann's treasure, could have been picked up on market stalls. The newspapers were characteristically quick to find victims and scapegoats for the hoax. 'The Missing Link Hoax: Experts Spoofed by Monkey's Jaw', 'A Lawyer made a Monkey out of Scientists' read some of the headlines (quoted in Cole, 1955, p. 158). Away from the glare of stagelights a more interesting reaction is that of A. T. Marston, a London dentist and amateur archaeologist who had discovered the Swanscombe skull in 1935. He had apparently been telling Oakley for years to apply modern science to Piltdown. The British Museum had stood in the way:

Those who besmirch the memory of Mr. Dawson are hiding their own sycophantic

servility to the traditions of the British Museum. It is the British Museum who for

years have been playing a hoax on the public by presenting the Piltdown skull,

the so-called 'missing link', as something authentic. Now they have knocked the

guts out of their own argument. (Cole, pp. 159 60)

The value of a cultural object is determined externally. J.S. Weiner expressed relief: 'the end of Piltdown man is the end of the most troubled chapter in human palaeontology' (Weiner, p. 204). From that point independent and reliable dating methods existed. But Weiner could not predict an end to archaeological forgery. He might have asked a more pertinent question: what is the complexion of 'genuineness'? So long as there is more to authenticity than we are led to believe, forgery will continue to be both a meaningful concept and a threat.

[selections from bibliography]

Cole, Sonia (1955) Counterfeit. John Murray.

Reith, Adolf (1970) Archaeological Fakes. Barrie and Jenkins.