"Prime Suspect"

The Piltdown Confession 1994

Irwin Schwartz

[Courtesy of the Geological Society of London]

Annotator's Foreword

[ v] On a cold December day in 1908, in a village unknown outside the rural confines of Sussex in southern England, the first in a series of archeological discoveries destined to rock the foundation of science's understanding of human origins was made. The discoveries simultaneously threatened the Judeo-Christian Adam-and-Eve creation paradigm, which only fifty years earlier had been menaced by the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The removal of a small number of bone fragments and artifacts from gravel pits near the obscure hamlet of Piltdown would foment a struggle for existence for both the religious and scientific communities. It would set priest against minister against pastor, and geologist against anatomist against anthropologist. It would ignite a war– of words and more–between men of the cloth and those of the spade. The thrusts and parries would last half a century, during which time the party or parties responsible for firing the first shot would remain unidentified.

[vi] It was not until 1953 that the fraudulent nature of Piltdown Man was finally confirmed. The cranial and mandibular remains were determined to have come from two quite different creatures. In addition to finding by fluorine dating that the two parts of the head were of different age, it was demonstrated that the cranium belonged to a relatively recent human being and the jaw was an orangutan's.

The identity of the perpetrators of the Piltdown hoax– a fraud which fooled some of the best scientists for almost half a century–remained unknown. Several very informed students of the incident have proposed candidates selected from a broad lineup of suspects. All of the accusatory evidence was circumstantial, however, and none could be made to stick. Until now.

We can at long last unambiguously and without equivocation specify the perpetrators of what turned out to be the grandest of illusions in the history of science. There were three co-conspirators, one of whom–the author of this memoir–died in 1916. At his request, the manuscript (which was written in the year he died) was to be maintained in safekeeping until 2008, the centennial anniversary of the clandestine deposit of a human parietal bone fragment. I obtained the original autograph (with the permission of the author's estate) and publish it now in its entirely, accompanied by annotations. The account weaves a tale threaded by intrigue and deception, scientific brilliance and Christian dogma, personal pride and professional passion, and murder.


On the







This Chronicle, attested to by my hand

on this Seventeenth day of July in the

Year of Our Lord

One Thousand Nine Hundred and Sixteen, is

bona fide and authentic:




I was one of three co-perpetrators of the fraud which may be referred to as the Piltdown hoax, or as the hoax of Sussex Man ("Eoanthropus dawsoni" ). I uncategorically state–with incontestable and undeniable proof to follow–that it was I who surreptitiously deposited fabricated fossil remains and artifacts in and around gravel-pits adjacent to the village of Piltdown, in the County of Sussex, on 9 July 1908, in performance of the deception. 1 repeated the act of subterfuge several times at the initial site, and at one other site, until 1915. 1 maintained anonymity at the time, and determined to remain mute until my death. This conduct was elicited by an unremitting fear of assassination.

[1] I have been blessed with the good fortune of having made the discovery of three legitimate new species for which the signal honour was having my surname appended to their genera. 1 I am also, however, accursed with the stigma of having my name attached to a fabricated species. It is Eoanthropus (variously, Eocanthropus) dawsom that will no doubt forever impugn my credentials for intellectual honesty. At the outset of this reminiscence 1 feel obligated to plead that, for such a corruption of personal and professional integrity, 1 am truly repentant; for 1 participated in perverting the science 1 love so much....

[9] I met my first co-conspirator, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in 1909. He was then attending the Jesuit College in Hastings, where, in addition to his theological studies, he sated his keen interest in geology and paleontology. ... [17] I poured our drinks and we toasted our friendship. Then 1 said, "Pierre, 1 should like to speak seriously to you. Now that we are alone, 1 want to tell you something which will make you and one other man the only persons other than 1 who possess this knowledge. 1 am going to entrust you with certain information. This is not, however, a confession of the type to which you are accustomed, Father. This is one friend speaking to and sharing with another. Feel however you may wish personally about what 1 tell you, Pierre, but 1 implore you to hold what 1 am going to say between us. "

Our mood had suddenly shifted from one of gay celebration to earnest sobriety. Teilhard looked me directly in the eyes and, without his saying so much as a syllable, 1 knew that my secret would be safe with him.

Although the clock had just struck midnight, and 1 mentioned that my soliloquy might consume rather a [18] large amount of time, Teilhard warmly assured me that he was intent on listening to what 1 had to tell him.

I refreshed our snifters and began.

I commenced by explaining to Teilhard my move to Uckfield in 1890, where I established my practice as a solicitor. It was during the following year that 1 sent to Dr Arthur Smith Woodward a tooth he was later to describe as having belonged to a heretofore unknown species of Plagiaulax, a Cretaceous 17 Wealden mammal. I continued to dig in and around the Wealden area assiduously during my studies of Hastings Castle, several Lavant caves, a Roman encampment at Pevensey, and a skeletal excavation near Eastbourne. In 1899, I believe it was, I made the discovery of a gravel-bed at Piltdown Common, not too far from Barkham Manor, at which 1 was employed as steward at the time. 1 was indeed astonished to find such a deposit since it contained peculiar brown flints which to my knowledge had never been seen so far to the north. Given the general nature of the contents of the gravel-pit, 1 thought it might possibly hold fossiliferous remains, and accordingly asked the workmen to be on the look-out for any bones or fossils they might uncover during their labours. It was not until 1908 that two workmen presented me with fragments of what they [19] thought resembled a fragmented coconut. One of them had shattered the whole with his pickaxe, and gave me a small piece, which happened to be a human left parietal bone.

"It was in fact I who had placed an almost-complete human calvaria 18 in the pit the night before", I confessed. "I feigned almost uncontrollable excitement and tipped the workman liberally for his recovery of the skull fragment. It was at this precise point, Pierre, that my hoax was inaugurated. I had conceded my first lie. To bolster the credibility of the 'find', as well as to reinforce my confidence in the success of the perfidious act, 1 contacted Samuel Woodhead. 19 At my invitation, he joined me in continuing the search for other fragments, but we were, to my disappointment, quite unsuccessful in that endeavour. My fear was that the remaining fragments had disappeared along with the gravel that had been removed for road-paving.

"I still paid occasional visits to the pit, but it was not until several years later that, when having a look over the rain-washed spoil-heaps, I lighted on a larger piece of the same surreptitiously deposited skull which included a portion of the left supra-orbital border. 20 ...

[29] "My immediate problem, Charles, is that 1 fall into the 'educated-mentality' category of 'new thinker'. 1 have indeed been influenced by the scholarship of Darwin and Hegel, and 1 view Christianity as an evolving system as much as 1 look upon humankind's physical and mental development as a process in a state of continuous flux. Since 1 speak freely and publish my writings in those regards, my views have become known by both my Church and the Protestant Evangelical right. 1 have been warned of disciplinary action by the Church Fathers and 1 have also been threatened with physical harm. The religion of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin seems to fit nowhere and it seems to suit no one. 1 tend to agree with Marcus Terentlus Varro when he said, 'Divina natura dedit agros, ars humana aedificavit urbes. 32 The truth is, Charles, that divine and non-divine entities influence our world. " ...


My friend, Arthur Conan Doyle


[47] Teilhard continued: "Now, the greatest possibilities for evolution in the right direction, so to speak, lay with those animals that had the biggest brains, that is, the apes. Along with brain-power went bipedalism, which freed up use of the hands (and vice versa), as well as other adaptations including binocular colour vision. The crucial factor, however, was development of the brain.

"My fear, though, is that the anti-Darwinians will want to invade the public arena with their creationistic rubbish by teaching it in the schools. There is already a movement in the United States in that direction. 1 can effectively guarantee you, Charles, that some day it will be deemed illegal to teach Darwinian evolution in a school classroom. There are presently very influential political and ecclesiastical communities in America which are in the process of trying to convince the law-makers of the various States to legislate that the teaching of Darwinism be extra-legal. 47

I do not subscribe to such Evangelical rot and I publicly say so. 1 am prepared to fight the Good War, as it were, against anti-Darwinians, and I am ready [48[ to use all the power available to me in waging that war. The Evangelicals are quite aware of my position, and have warned me to desist or suffer the consequences. I have a small collection of anonymous and threatening letters to prove my point. 1 will show them to you some day.

"Now, Charles, perhaps you can understand why it is that I am not upset at having been drawn

into your little Sussex Man scheme. As much as you back-handedly invited me to join you in your act of reprisal against the scientific community, I recognised that the very same hoax would represent a weapon which 1 could use against the Evangelicals. One of the greatest terrors that could be foisted upon that community of tyrants is tangible proof that Man has evolved from a lower form which was intermediate to ape-like creatures and modern sapiens. Although I do believe that legitimate proof in the form of legitimate fossil remains will someday be presented to the scientific community and to the world at large, the fabrication of 'temporary evidence' of such evolutionary descent will serve very well the purpose at hand. Your scheme presents itself to me as a powerful vehicle for putting the fear of God, as it were, into the most God-fearing Christians on Earth. Your judgement of my character and motivation was very good, Charles. Let us now toast to the success of our newly-founded partnership."

[57] I continued rummaging through the contents of the package when I returned from the station, and found a pot-pourri of treasures. The package contained hippopotamus, beaver, stag, mastodon, and elephant remains, the mixture of which was represented by both bones and teeth. My quick analysis of their origin ran thus: The hippo bone could very well have been of English origin (East Anglia or the Thames terrace), or perhaps from the Continent (the Somme Valley in France), or even from Tunisia, Malta, or Borneo. The elephant bone–a femur, about which more later–could have come from the Thames terrace or the Somme Valley. The Elephas molar fragments might have been of Tunisian origin. 49 Clearly, [58] I thought my benefactor must be a well-travelled and knowledgable man.

The package also contained a sealed envelope. I opened it carefully and removed the sheet of paper it contained. The note was type-written this time, and read:






[59] I then showed him the note that had been included in the package. As if to substantiate my own bewilderment of the package's mysterious source, Teilhard asked with awe. "How could anyone have known?"

'I do not know", was the only response 1 could offer.

"Well, Charles", said Tellhard,"let's do it. Let us see what our benefactor has sent."

I handed the prize specimen to Teilhard and asked him to open it, at which point he untied the string and carefully unfolded the heavy brown butcher's-type paper. He laid the whole on my desk with the contents unveiled.

"This is astounding, Charles!" he cried. "This is absolutely astounding !"

I nodded agreement, for sitting atop the unfolded paper was the right half of a hominid-like mandible.

"Can you identify this jaw, Pierre?" I asked.

'I am not an anatomist, Charles, but 1 will certainly give it a try. "

"One need not be a student of anatomy to see the significance of this specimen."

[60] "Well", he responded, while carefully turning it through his hands, "it is certainly not of human origin, Charles. "

"And how do you know that?"

"It is not built like that of a human."

"Specifically, Pierre, specifically, 1 pleaded. "How is it not human?"

"I see morphological differences in three areas. First, Charles, the jaw possesses no symphysis–it has no chin. Second, the canine, relative to the other teeth, is larger than that of a human, in addition to which there is evidence of a diastema into which the upper canine would fit. And third, the condyle of this jaw would not articulate with the cranium as in a human because it emerges from the ramus at the wrong angle." ...

[70] Teilhard regripped the Jawbone, and I began to file anew. I felt more confident this time, and was able to work the tooth down a bit more quickly. After not too much time, I was finished and took the piece from Teilhard for inspection.


Teilhard jumped. "What is it, Charles?"

I was rather angry and quite embarrassed.

"Look, Pierre. Look.. I've really bungled things now!"

With a false sense of security in my orthodontic prowess, 1 had inadvertently filed the two teeth down in different planes. I felt like a blithering idiot, it being now quite impossible to mend the error because in so doing too much of one tooth would have to be removed to even out the occlusal surfaces. 58


[Courtesy, Geological Society of London]

Arthur Smith Woodward, my precise contemporary

[103] I followed the debate with rapt attention, and witnessed the thrusts and parries as if I were attending a fencing match. I had accomplished precisely what I set out to do: introduce bogus fossils to the scientific community, have them accepted as authentic, and fuel an empty and worthless controversy over meaningless artifacts. "What fools these scientists are," I thought, "What bloody fools !" ...

[112] Teilhard and I drove over by carriage to meet Smith Woodward at the station. After greeting each other warmly, Teilhard enthusiastically congratulated Smith Woodward on his presentation of 18th December at the Society. We then drove immediately to the Barkham farm and walked to the gravel-pit where we were met by that [113] pesky goose, Chipper. He was indeed a nasty brute, and would not leave us alone. Geese, as 1 understand it, can be particularly territorial. At one point of extreme annoyance, Teilhard looked up at me and with feigned innocence asked: "Charles, have you ever tasted roast goose?"

The day was hot and Teilhard, poor man, was dressed completely in black. He was perspiring profusely as we three went digging and rummaging through the pit. We searched in vain for quite a while. Then–finally–Teilhard shouted: "Yes. Yes! I think I have found the canine! Charles! Arthur! I HAVE THE CANINE!"

Smith Woodward could not immediately believe that Teilhard had hit pay-dirt since throughout the day we had been finding small pieces of iron-stone that resembled in shape a canine tooth. However, after a few minutes of inspection, Smith Woodward verified that "Yes, indeed!" Teilhard had found the one and only piece of evidence that could vindicate his reconstruction of the Piltdown skull. Smith Woodward was beside himself with joy and satisfaction.

I caught a glance at Teilhard, who winked at me.

An invitation to stay for dinner was begged off by Smith Woodward, who said he was returning immediately to London to see how the tooth would fit into its reconstructed mandibular socket.

"Perfectly", I said to myself, as we climbed into my carriage. "It would fit perfectly."

[149] Others, including Mr. Lewis Abbott, 89 said that the bone resembled, of all things, a cricket bat, but was certainly used for application other than defending a wicket.

Mr. Abbott, a short, stocky man with a ferocious [150] moustache, was a strong supporter of the intermediary position of the Piltdown Man in human evolution. His backing of my position was total and unequivocal.

As Abbott was speaking, I saw that Doyle was deep in thought and busy writing something on a sheet of paper. I put on my reading spectacles and peered over to see what was occupying him. What he wrote is shown below in his own handwriting

Presently, Doyle noticed that I was reading his notes, and he handed me a newspaper clipping from the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, dated 1 February 1913. On that date, Abbott had published a short article entitled "Pre-Historic Man: The Newly-Discovered Link in His Evolution". I read it while Abbott had the floor.

The recent discoveries in Sussex have a special bearing on the evolutionary principle.

The pit's geological formation is just what had been anticipated, and the fossil fauna

just as expected, [151] and the cranium and jawbone most exactly what had been

expected in the combination of humanoid, chimpanzoid, and gorrilloid features. The

jawbone is, as it should be, more like that of a chimpanzee than of a human being.

Unfortunately, the part of the jawbone that carries the canine is missing, but if there

had been a canine, it would in all probability be essentially chimpanzoid. We have at

last discovered the Pleistocene ancestor of at least one branch of modern man.

When I finished reading, I handed the clipping back to Doyle, who whispered in my ear, "Abbott is Mr. X."

I sat through the rest of the meeting in total anxiety, longing for it to end so that, first, Doyle could repeat what he had just said to my incredulous ears and, second, so that I could share my feeling with him that this assemblage, which is considered to be the finest of the world's scientific community, is more gullible and perhaps more feeble-minded than I could ever have imagined....

[152] "Conan", I said excitedly as we left the chamber, "did you say to me during the meeting that Abbott is Mr. X?"

"Yes, I did, Charles."

"How do you know?"

"The newspaper article betrayed him."

"In what way? How, Conan?" I pleaded.

"Simple mathematics, Charles. The article was published on 1 February 1913, meaning that Abbott had to prepare it for the editorial staff sometime in January, or possibly even earlier than that. I checked the Geological Society register and learned that he did not sign it on 18 December 1912, the date when Smith Woodward and you presented the bone fragments and their reconstruction to the Society. Now, the paper you and Smith Woodward presented was not published in the Society Journal until [153] March of 1913, so Abbott could not have known the contents of your presentation until then. In addition, he could not have seen casts of the reconstruction since they were not available until April. He also could not have seen the 'chimpanzoid' canine because Teilhard would not 'find' that until August 1913. Abbott therefore had information that should not have otherwise been available to him when he was writing his article. In the article, Abbott mentions 'a chimpanzoid jaw now before me.' He also mentions 'a row of human jaws now before me', and that there are 'thousands' of jaws in his collection. The orang-utan jawbone which you received in the package sent to you must have come from Abbott's own private collection."

"By Jove, I believe you are correct, Conan!" I said. Your powers of deduction are at least as good as those of Sherlock Holmes", I added with a smile. "When I showed Teilhard the contents of the package and the letter sent to me, neither of us had even the vaguest idea who might have sent them. It makes perfect sense that Abbott is our man!"

"Yes, I think so, Charles. But we must speak to Abbott himself in order to substantiate the hypothesis. Can you arrange for us to visit him?"

"Of course. I've known Abbott for many years and he is a good friend." ...

[163] "Incidentally, how is it you knew that Dawson's Piltdown activities were fraudulent?"

"Oh, simple enough," Abbott responded. "As you know, the Sussex Evangelical Association had held more than several meetings at the Barkham farm. One day, when I was in attendance at one of the gatherings I saw Charles working in the gravel-pit by the side of the road. As I was casually watching him, it struck me as rather queer that he would remove an object from his utility bag and bury it amongst the gravels. I realised at that point that something was amiss."

"Mm, I see", Doyle said. "You are very observant."


1 Iguanodon dawsoni, a dinosaur; Plagiaulax dawsoni, a mammal; Salaginella dawsoni, a plant.

17 A geological period dating to more than 150 million years ago.

18 The skullcap, or top of the head.

19 Samuel Allison Woodhead (1862-1943), a chemistry instructor at Uckfield Agricultural College and a close friend of Dawson's.

20 The bony ridge above the eyebrows. A prominent supra-orbital ridge is what gave the Neanderthals their "bettle-browed" appearance.

31 "God gave us the fields, humans built the cities." From De re rustica. Varro was a Roman scholar who lived during the first century B.C.

47 One need only be reminded of the Dayton, Tennessee, Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925 to see that Teilhard's fear did indeed materialize.

58 Here is an illustration of what happened:

89 William Abbott, the jewelry-cum--eolithophile, was described by Keith in The Antiquity of Man as one "whose opinion in all that pertains to the geology of the Weald deserves serious consideration," p. 296.

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