Eighty-One Years without a Punch Line

The Sciences May/June 1994

Paula E. Drew

[6] "Reputation besmirched"; "evil"; "repugnant." I quote at random from some of the wrathful sputterings of Philip V. Tobias in "Piltdown Unmasked" [January/February].

Well, hurrah for Arthur Keith, perpetrator of the Piltdown hoax, which continues to be a triumph! After eighty-one years it still outrages those who can’t en[7]joy a joke that challenges their own field of expertise.

The Piltdown skull, which combined elements of an orangutan jaw and a modern human cranium, was a delicious joke that fooled the scientific community by satisfying its human vanity and appealing to its unexamined certainty that the uniquely large human brain evolved before upright locomotion. Far from helping to "stall the advance of human evolutionary studies for more than a quarter-century," the Piltdown affair continues to inform students as to how a false assumption about the uniqueness of the human intellect impeded acceptance of much of our evolutionary path. The story delights and instructs my students every semester. The thought of someone artificially fossilizing the two disparate components of the Piltdown skull by steeping them in strong tea, I think, appeals even more than the clever filing away of the telltale condyles of the orangutan jaw, the creation of humanlike wear patterns on the teeth, the doctoring of a canine and all the scene setting with old bones and artifacts.

I thank the team who have finally unmasked Arthur Keith, that he might posthumously receive the accolades he richly deserves.

Philip Tobias replies: Paula Drew’s dogmatic assertion that the Piltdown hoax was no more than a joke is not original. It falls down for the same reason it has failed before. If the hoax was "a delicious joke" to fool the scientific community, its point would surely have become evident only when the joke was out, by the rapier thrust of revelation. Yet no one brought the joke into the open at the time when the scientists had just been diddled. Nobody had the last laugh. A joke without its punch line at the time it is duping people is no joke at all. The hoax came to light only when the dramatis personae were either dead or too old to matter.

Ms. Drew’s sense of humor is quizzical, her categorical claim is unsupported by evidence, and she does not explain the total absence of contemporary laughter or even sniggers at the scientists’ expense.

Incidentally, although the idea tickles the taste buds, it was not tea that the salted specimens were steeped in, but potassium bichromate and, in one instance,

Bismarck brown. Those are not ingredients of any of the fifty-seven varieties of tea in my kitchen.


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