The Piltdown Forgery: Pursuit of the Perpetrator

Current Anthropology 1991

Bernard Campbell

Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery. By Frank Spencer. London, Oxford, and New York: Natural History Museum and Oxford University Press, 1990. 17.95

The Piltdown Papers: 1908-I955. By Frank Spencer. London, Oxford, and New York: Natural History Museum and Oxford University Press, 1990.30.

[227] All fraud has a certain fascination; scientific fraud is especially fascinating, and none more so than Piltdown. Back in 1912 one or more probably two clever and ambitious persons created an important fossil man–a missing link. With his own associated fauna and industry, he was planted in situ in Pliocene gravels at a village called Piltdown, in Sussex, England. So cleverly was this done that the fossils held the confidence of the scientific establishment for over 40 years. The fraud was a remarkable feat, but its success was due not only to its careful preparation and perpetration but to the trust in which the scientific community held its members. The assumption of scientific honesty is after all a central dogma of scientific research.

The hoax occupied and misled anthropologists, stifled research, and seriously damaged British anthropology. It was uncovered in 1953 by the brilliant South African anatomist Joseph Weiner (trained by Raymond Dart), who, as an outsider, was able to think the unthinkable–that this famous and important fossil man in his prehistoric environment was a complex and sophisticated fraud. (His insight followed an examination of the bones at a Wenner-Gren meeting in London in July 1953.) After the denouement later that year, in which he was assisted, in particular, by Kenneth Oakley and W. E. Le Gros Clark, Weiner carried out his own detective work, later published as The Piltdown Forgery (1955). In it he uncovered much of the background to the Piltdown discovery and threw strong suspicion upon Charles Dawson, the local solicitor who had discovered the fossils–an ambitious, ingenious, and very capable amateur archaeologist. Weiner felt, however, that a more highly trained mind must have been involved. Since the publication of his excellent little book, papers and books have appeared pointing the finger of suspicion at a whole range of individuals who had the necessary opportunity, skill, and resources. These include both very eminent men and minor actors in the drama. Besides Charles Dawson (chief suspect), we have Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the world-famous Jesuit priest, writer, and palaeontologist; G. Elliot Smith, a distinguished neuroanatomist and anthropologist at University College, London; A. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes; W. J. Sollas, professor of geology at Oxford University; M. A. C. Hinton, deputy keeper in the Department of Zoology of the British Museum (Natural History); W. R. Butterfield, curator of the Hastings Museum; S. A. Woodhead, a chemist and the principal of Uckfield Agricultural College; and L. Abbott, an amateur archaeologist. The best case to date has been made against Teilhard de Chardin (suspected by L. S. B. Leakey and indicted by Stephen J. Gould in 1980 to the horror of Teilhard's many admirers).

In Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery and The Piltdown Papers, Frank Spencer (professor of anthropology at Queens College, City University of New York) presents a brilliantly researched and compelling case against the distinguished British anatomist and anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith, M.D., F.R.C.S, D.S.C., F.R.S., conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. (Spencer reached his conclusions at more or less the same time as the Australian historian Ian Langham [1942-841, and on Langham's death his wife passed his papers on to Spencer.) The revelation is astonishing in many ways, and though it does not fit all the evidence perfectly it is almost convincing.

Keith had no children to defend his honour, but his great-nephew wrote to the Sunday Times on reading an account of these books that "Uncle Arthur came from the sort of Scottish background that prized intellect . . . with puritan zeal . . .' and integrity." This is precisely the point: Keith was seen to be a man of integrity–the most improbable of all suspects (and never before suspected). He was already the holder of a much prized position in London and surely had no need to boost his career. The consequences of exposure would have been disastrous.

But motives there were. First, Keith was a believer in the reality of what were known as eoliths (dawn-tools), and like others of his persuasion he needed a dawn-man of the Pliocene period to have made them. Eoanthropus (as Piltdown man was to be called) fulfilled this need and authenticated the very questionable primitive artifacts. Secondly, professional ambition often remains long after it appears to the onlooker to be redundant. Keith enthusiastically set about his reconstruction of the skull and wrote numerous papers and books, including three editions of his best-selling The Antiquity of Man (1915, 1925, 1931). His fame spread far and wide. After 1913, the attendance figures at his Hunterian lectures reached an all-time high. Thirdly, he used the discovery to further his rivalry with Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, who was keeper of geology at the Natural History Museum. Keith wrote in his diary: "[I was] thrusting a quiet and fairly effective spoke in the Boyd Dawkins and Smith Woodward wheel. I expect it will be war to the death between the RCS [Royal College of Surgeons] and SK [South Kensington]."

[218] Beyond a reasonable doubt? Frank Spencer seems to think so. It seems to me, however, that in a court of law an effective defence could quash the case against Keith. Most of the circumstantial evidence could be argued to be the result of simple error or a lapse of memory. Further evidence, which may well still exist, is needed to clinch the case.

Finally, it must be said that these two books constitute a first-rate piece of scholarship: excellently planned, well written, with copious notes and references. The Piltdown Papers contains all one needs to follow the author's arguments and could easily hold further clues that have been missed. There is still more to be leamt; we haven't heard the last of Piltdown Man.

Back to the

Back to the

Back to