Of Piltdown Men and don Juan Forgeries


Of Piltdown men and don Juan forgeries - the surprising costs of scientific hoaxes

Richard de Mille

Human Behavior March 1979 c


[68] "Castaneda's don Juan," wrote Marcello Fruzzi, "may be the biggest hoax in anthropology since the Piltdown man." The comparison is far from superficial. Although Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson's dawn man) clung to the evolutionary tree for 41 years (1912-1953), whereas don Juan walked Sonoran sands no more than eight (1968-1976), the hoaxes are alike in several ways. This is particularly true if we compare them in the framework of Ronald Millar's theory (broached in The Piltdown Men, 1973) that the, hoaxer was not after all Charles Dawson, a Sussex solicitor and amateur geologist who found certain skeletal fragments in a local gravel pit, but Grafton Elliot Smith, a brilliant man of science given to mordant jokes on his colleagues.

In Millar's closely reasoned speculation, Smith championed a theory of prehistoric cultural diffusion that would be well served by any discovery in British soil of a missing link between ape and man, an evolutionary gap now filled by Australopithecus. Preoccupied by his unfashionable thesis, Smith conceived a trick to draw attention to it. Over a period of several years, he deposited fragments of a modern human skull, suitably antiqued. and parts of an orangutan's jaw, stained to match, where the unsuspecting Dawson would be likely to find them. This was no careful forgery meant to stand the test of time, but a clever concoction meant to explode in laugher at the expense of Smith's scientific adversaries. Filed to resemble human teeth, the orangutan's molar surfaces bore telltale scratches of artificial abrasion. Much to Smith's dismay, reasons Millar, nobody looked for those signs of fabrication. Since he could not openly question Dawson's discoveries without risking exposure, Smith supplied new evidence of their spuriousness, to no avail. Instead of betraying the fakery, parts of a single skull planted at different sites gave rise to a second Piltdown man; and only untimely death kept the discoverer from being knighted. Despairing of exhibits preposterous enough to disillusion his credulous colleagues, the hoaxer went to his grave without confessing. Not until 1953 when he had been dead for two decades did anyone scrutinize the Piltdown relics as a possible forgery.

In light of Millar's theory, let me now list the features these hoaxes have in common:

Each could have been exposed at once by a competent, skeptical inquiry- into the shape of Piltdown's teeth, into the existence of Castaneda's voluminous Spanish field notes, never offered for examination and now, alas, destroyed by convenient flooding of Castaneda's basement

Each was the product of a clever prankster who was very knowledgeable about the relevant science.

Each provided superficially plausible support for a particular scientific tendency - Smith's cultural diffusion, the ethnoscience and ethnomethodology Castaneda encountered al UCLA:

Each was hailed by some as a giant step in science but was doubted by others.

Each wasted the time of, or made fools of, some trusting colleagues.

Each cast suspicion on an innocent party-Piltdown on Dawson, don Juan on Theodore Graves. When Don Strachan was reviewing Castaneda's Journey for the Los Angeles Times Book Review (Feb. 6, 1977), a UCLA anthropology professor, who requested anonymity, told Strachan that "Graves was the prime mover" of Castaneda's doctoral committee. In fact, Graves did not sign the dissertation but had left the country for New Zealand a year before it was signed by five other professors.

Each hoaxer presented ever more extravagant material in an apparent but long unsuccessful attempt to unmask the imposture.

Neither hoaxer confessed. Castaneda, [69] of course, can still do so; but frank confession would be quite out of character for him. His flagrant fourth and outlandish fifth books constitute a sort of implied confession.

In certain ways, the hoaxes are dissimilar. Grafton Elliot Smith seems to have had no accomplices, but credulity is stretched by the optimistic proposal that not one of Castaneda's faculty sponsors knew what was going on during the five years in which he presented his suspect, unsupported, self­congratulatory writings for academic approval.

The scientific cost of Piltdown man was high; of don Juan, low. Some 40 years Sir Arthur Keith played dupe to Piltdown, a quarter of a century Arthur Smith Woodward hunted additional fragments of him; countless lectures and articles expounded his evolutionary significance. In contrast, few anthropologists subscribed to don Juan; no pits were dug to find him or monuments erected to him; trifling research funds were diverted by him. The spate of Juanist writings has been literary, philosophical, or occult but seldom scientific.

Piltdown did more harm than good-his only contribution a warning against further frauds. Even within the confines of science, don Juan may do more good than harm, because he reveals the condition of anthropology, disclosing a widespread confusion between authenticity and validity-a false inference that don Juan must exist because some of his lore agrees with what Indians say-and manifesting the rift between those anthropologists who, in Colin Turnbull's words, "regard anthropology primarily as a humanity and those who regard it primarily as a science."

In 1955, J. S. Weiner convinced the world of Dawson's apparent duplicity and Piltdown's undeniable illegitimacy. Four years later, when Weiner's Piltdown Forgery was galvanizing anthropology students much as The Teachings of Don Juan would electrify them 10 years thence, Castaneda began his studies at UCLA. Reflecting on his subsequent career, dare we entertain the fantastic notion that the Piltdown hoax not only foreshadowed the don Juan hoax but also inspired it? I believe that if we do not entertain such fantastic notions we shall never understand Carlos Castaneda.


Adopted from Castaneda's Journey, Capra Press 1978; Richard de Mille, PhD is a writer and editor who lives in Santa Barbara, California.

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