More on Piltdown:

The Keith-Shattock Discrepancy Reconsidered

Current Anthropology 1993

Juan R. Munizaga

Departmento de Antropologia, Universidad de Chile

[279] Tobias (CA 33:243-93) considers Sir Arthur Keith the only culprit in the Piltdown fraud. He bases his conviction on an analysis of nine points the last of which, perhaps the most important to his charge, has to do with the thickness of the cranial bones. Here he accuses Keith of citing in support of his thesis that the Piltdown bones were normal the work of the pathologist Shattock (1914 which in fact reported the opposite, and. furthermore, being unaware of the morphological variation that this feature may present. It seems to me that, with regard to the first of these charges, the discrepancy between the two writers may be due more to the subjectivity that orients diagnosis, both in pathology and in anthropology (see Stewart 1951 for examples), than to any dishonest intent. The second, as we shall see, is also cause for misgivings.

The Shattock reference has two parts: one excluding the possibility that the Piltdown bones were affected by seven specific pathologies and the other suggesting that the exaggerated thickness of the bones might be due to rickets. Tobias seems to believe that, before Shattock's work, little was known about the causes of exaggerated thickness of bones ("At the time the cranium was cho sen [? 1911 or earlier] neither Keith, Dawson, nor anyone else would have known the results of Shattock's great study on calvarial thickening" [p. 256]. Beginning in 1893, however, with the discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus, exaggerated thickness of cranial bones was gen erally accepted as a primitive condition, and its signifi cance was the subject of debate. In Chile, because the pre-Columbian populations of the coast often presented this feature, discussion on the subject extended from 1894 to 1912 (Munizaga 1960) and raised issues similar to those analyzed here. Fonk (1912 [1906]:-343-44, my translation). accepted the racial origin of this feature but offered the following observations:

The considerable development of the bony mass, the premature ossification of the sinostoses, and the re placement of the diploe by a hard, compact sub stance that we observe in these crania rather closely resembles a pathological condition due to a recon struction of the bones of the cranium and the body that follows upon rickets.... The absence of hydrated carbides (amylar bodies) in the diet of these shellfish-eating tribes and in that of their Patagonian neighbors may effectively influence the chemical composition and structure of their bone systems.

Six years later another writer, Latcham (1912:358, my translation) rejected these observations:

We do not believe ... that such causes can be substantiated.... We have had occasion to study complete skeletons of this race, and in no case have we found that this feature extends to other osteological elements. Thus it must not be an effect of nutrition.... We suggest that it is racial and hereditary.

I do not know whether Keith was aware of the views of these writers, but in those years there was in fact [280] scientific interchange between European and South American anthropologists, paleontologists, and pathologists, some of whom (including Latcham) published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. It is important to bear in mind, however, that this difference of opinion has survived to this day, although the emphasis has varied over time. Before 1914, there seems to have been consensus that thick cranial bones were only exceptionally attributable to pathology. In later periods this relationship was inverted and, moreover, some maintained that thick crania were always pathological.

Hrdlicka (1914) imparted great impetus to the latter line of thinking when he identified and described a pathology very common among tropical pre-Columbian populations called symmetrical osteoporosis, in which riddling of the cranium was associated with an increase in the thickness of the bone, and years later he seems to have identified that pathology in the Piltdown remains. Subsequently, Williams (1929) observed its relationship with Cooley's anemia; Hamperl and Weiss (1955) called it "spongy hyperostosis"; Angel (1964) pointed to its association with thalassernia. My own epidemiological study of pre-Columbian populations (Munizaga 1965) implicated it as a result of anemia during childhood, whatever the origin of that sign. Stuart-Macadam (1991) has reviewed the recent advances in this area.

Those who see the feature as normal tend to refer to skeletal remains from nontropical regions in which porous crania are exceptional. For example, according to Weidenreich (1943: 16 1), "Thick cranial walls are not necessarily a pathological condition caused by Paget's disease or similar disturbances.... the thickness in such cases is chiefly due to the enlargement of the diploe." Similar doubts were expressed by Max Westenhofer (Munizaga 1960), although decades later one of his disciples judged the exaggerated thickness of a parietal at the expense of the diploe a normal feature (Henckel 1957). Boule and Vallois (1952) incorporate it into the routine description of fossils, and this position can also be found in studies on the origin of modern Homo collected by Smith and Spencer (1984). Therefore it is commonplace in the anthropological literature for writers to consider exaggerated thickness of the cranial bones a normal feature without even mentioning the variations they may present in the thickness of the diploe.

Returning to the Keith-Shattock discrepancy to which Tobias points, it is important to recognize that the great lines that orient the action of anthropologists and pathologists are completely opposed, and this introduces an element of subjectivity. Whereas the former study the normal and, without demonstration to the contrary, accept any feature as such, the latter are obliged to consider the possibility that any feature may be pathological. From their diagnoses arises an area of overlap in which it is entirely understandable that specialists will have opposite opinions. In the light of this, it is possible to suggest that in referring to Shattock's work Keith attributed no importance at all to the diagnosis of rickets, which seems to have been rejected in previous work.

It is logical that he would have emphasized Shattock's exclusion of the other seven pathologies, which in fact constituted a novel contribution from a scientific point of view and tended to support the normality of the feature in question.

As for the notion that Keith was unaware of variations in cranial thickness, I think that his description of the Boskop cranium (1925:370-71) is sufficient to refute it:

the parietal bone is very thick, measuring in its middle part–at the site of the parietal eminence–13 to 14 mm. But although so thick in its central part, it tapers off to half this thickness towards its edges or sutures.... This kind of thickening of the parietal bones is essentially of a pathological nature, for there is evidence which leads one to suppose that such changes are a result of wrong feeding during youth.

The Keith-Shattock case is appropriately treated in terms of Stewart's (1951 9 7) observation that "everyone who scrutinizes the literature on fossil man becomes more or less aware of the psychological elements that shape the author's conclusions.... Their exposure thus becomes an important step in reviews of this field." Beyond the question of Keith's guilt or innocence, its discussion serves to point up some of the methodological inconsistencies that have long been associated with physical anthropology–the enthronement of the concept of morphological dating and the naive use of bone thickness in the description and interpretation of human skeletal remains.


References Cited

ANGEL, J. L. 1964. Osteoporosis: Thalassemia? American Journal of Physical Anthropology, n.s., .22:369-74.

BOULE, M., AND H. VALLOIS. 1952.4th edition. Les hommes fossiles. Paris: Masson.

FONK, F. 1912 (1906). Los cráneos de paredes gruesas, segun Vergara Flores: Un dato más. Revista Chilena de Historia y Geografta 3:311-45.

HAMPERL, H., AND P. WEISS. 195 5. Uber die Spongioso hyperostose an Schádeln aus alt Perou (sogenanten osteoporosis simétrica). Virchows Archiv 327:629-42.

HENCKEL, C. 1957. Cràneos de paredes gruesas. Revista Universitaria (Universidad Cat6lica de Chile) 42: 15 - 17.

HRDLICKA, A. 1914. Anthropological work in Peru in 1913, with notes on the pathology of the ancient Peruvians. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 61, no. 18.

KEITH, A. 1925. The antiquity of man. London: Williams and Norgate.

LATCHAM, R. A. 1912. Los cráneos de Paredes gruesas. Revista Chilena de Historia y Geografta 3:346-58.

MUNIZAGA, J. R. 196o. Los cráneos de paredes gruesas en la literatura antropologica chilena: Estudio critico de las investigaciones realizadas entre los afios 1894 y 1958. Antropologia Fisica Chilena 1:21-37.

- 1965. Espongio hiperostosis (Hamperl y Weiss) u osteoporosis sitrietrica (Hrdlicka). Revista de Antropologia 3:31-63.

SHATT0CK, S. G. 1914. "Morbid thickening of the calvaria, and the

reconstruction of the bone once abnormal: A pathological [291] basis for the

study of the thickening observed in certain Pleistocene crania." XVIIth

International Congress of Medicine, London, July 1913, section 7, PP. 3-46.

SMITH, F. H. AND F. SPENCER. 1984. The origins of modern humans: A world survey of the fossil evidence. . New York: Alan R. Liss.

STEWART, T. D. 1951. The problem of the earliest claimed representatives of Homo sapiens. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology. I 5:97-106.

STUART-MACADAM, P.1991 "Porotic hyperostosis: Changing interpretations," in Human paleopathology: Current syntheses and future options. Edited by D. J. Ortner and A. C. Aufderheide, PP. 36-39. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

WEIDENREICH, F. 1943. Skull of Sinanthropus pekinensis: A comparative study on a primitive hominid. Paleontologia Sinica 10.1-289.

WILLIAMS, H. 1929. Human paleopathology,. with some original observations on symmetrical osteoporosis of the skulls. Archives of Pathology 7:839-902.


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