Piltdown hoax: new light

Nature 4 January 1979

J. S. Weiner

[10] SIR,-If L. B. Halstead (2 November, page 11) had taken the trouble to look a little more closely at the evidence presented in the scientific papers on the Piltdown forgery (as well as in my book, The Piltdown Hoax ) he would surely have realised (and this goes also for Mr Richard L. E. Ford) that the late Professor Douglas' arraignment of Professor Sollas is really without any foundation. The "evidence" of Sollas as instigator and co-conspirator with Charles Dawson amounts to very little and that, quite trivial and unconvincing.

Dr Oakley has already, in his letter to The Times (7 November 1978) shown that Douglas was mistaken in thinking that the Mastodon bones he said he gave Sollas were part of the Piltdown assemblage. The receipt by Sollas, according to Douglas' recollection of 68 years ago of a packet of potassium bichromate can hardly be taken as positive evidence for the reasons which Dr Oakley gives in his letter.

Moreover, Douglas should have known that Dawson had admitted to the use of bichromate, that Woodward knew this, and two people told me spontaneously (that is before the disclosure of the hoax) that they were aware of Dawson's staining activities. Moreover, as Oakley and I have shown. Dawson used a number of different methods of staining and we are left to suppose (on no evidence whatever) that Sollas initiated Dawson in all these methods.

The third item furnished by Douglas in his remembrance of Sollas borrowing apes teeth from the Anatomy Department at Oxford. If Douglas had remembered Sollas borrowing an ape's jaw or even better, an orang's jaw, that would have been rather more interesting, because it was an orang jaw with its molars that was used for the plants at the two Piltdown sites. To say that Dawson needed Sollas as a supplier is sheer guess work and unnecessary at that.

A likely source, as I have pointed out, was Abbott of Hastings, not to mention local museums and even straightforward purchase. A fourth item of "evidence" is the Sherbourne horse's head. For Douglas to say that this little curiosity (which cannot in fact be brought home to Sollas) is "an almost similar act" to that of the elaborate Piltdown Forgery is quite fatuous.

The motive attributed to Sollas for the humiliation of Smith-Woodward does not make sense. If his plan was to "expose" Smith-Woodward's gullibility and incompetence, why should he have so firmly supported the new Eoanthropus dawsoni in the first place? Why did he not wreak his vengeance by exposing the forgery at any time after Dawson's death in 1916? Halstead argues disingenuously that once Dart had discovered Australopithecus Sollas would have known that it was only a matter of time before Piltdown Man was exposed. But if Sollas was so sure about the status of Australopithecus africanus in relation to Piltdown, surely Dart's discovery provided the perfect opportunity (from 1925 onwards) to expose both Piltdown and Smith-Woodward.

The truth is that none of the leading palaeontologists of the day, including Dart and Broom (despite their many australopithecine discoveries), nor Leakey, nor Le Gros Clark, could see that Australopithecus made Piltdown Man impossible and (ergo) fraudulent. The reasons for this myopia, I have discussed elsewhere. A hint from Sollas or later Douglas, to any one of these would have been sufficient. Halstead is simply arguing from hindsight in suggesting that Sollas went to his grave rubbing his hands in anticipatory glee.

In my book I point out in some detail that a "mastermind" to guide Dawson through all the years of the complicated sequence of the events at Barkham Manor and Sheffield Park would need to be of Mephistophelean calibre. It would be tedious to repeat here all that is implied in asserting, or postulating, a continuous connection between Dawson and Sollas. Douglas and his sponsors do not even begin to face up to this. In the case of Sollas it would be quite as difficult a task as that which faced the recent accuser of Elliott Smith. Messrs. Halstead and Ford might care to look for proof of Sollas' alleged activities in the light of the arguments in my paper on Elliott Smith and Piltdown (Symp. Zool. Soc. Lond. no., 33, 23-26; 1973).

One thing the late Professor Douglas has succeeded in doing. He has certainly added a mystery of his own devising to the Piltdown saga–why should Douglas on such incredibly weak evidence take the trouble to besmirch Sollas' reputation?

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