Mastermind of Piltdown Hoax Unmasked?

John Noble Wilford

The New York Times June 5, 1990



The British Museum

Sir Arthur Keith, now a prominent suspect in the Piltdown hoax, shown in 1914 at Royal College of Surgeons with unidentified bones.


Scholarly sleuths trying to get to the bottom of the Piltdown hoax believe they have at long last got their man, the mastermind in the most famous science fraud of the century.

The skull and jaw of the "Piltdown Man," found in a gravel pit in England and announced to the world in 1912, were a sensation because the discovery upset prevailing theories about the antiquity of the modern human form. The specimen confounded-scientific inquiry for years, throwing many paleontologists off the scent of what is now seen as the true course of human evolution.

Not until 1953 was the Piltdown Man exposed as a fraud, bones assembled and doctored to appear to be what they were not. Someone had joined a human cranium no more than a few hundred years old with an orangutan's jaw to create the impression that the large brain preceded and presumably dictated all future prehistoric human evolutionary steps.

Prominent List of Suspects

But the mystery of who did it has persisted to this day, and the list of suspects has included many prominent scientists as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

The incriminating evidence that supposedly cracks the case will be published in full in a book, "Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery," due out this fall by the Oxford University Press. The book vas written by Dr. Frank Spencer, an anthropology professor at Queens College of the City University of New York. His research elaborated on the earlier detective work of Dr. Ian Langham, a historian at the University of Sydney in Australia, who died in 1984.

"I'm pretty convinced that this is the definitive solution," Dr. Spencer said in an interview last week. "We don't have the smoking gun. But I think the interpretation we've made is a reasonable one and in harmony with the facts and what we believed to have transpired."

So Who Did It?

Paleontologists familiar with the Langham-Spencer thesis agreed it was probably the most persuasive one ever offered. But they said anything short of discovering a signed confession was unlikely to settle the case once and for all.

Who was the perpetrator?

One man almost surely had a hand in it, according to most experts who have examined the evidence. He was Charles Dawson, a country lawyer in Sussex and amateur geologist, who said he collected the bone fragments at the village of Piltdown between the years 1908 and 1912. He brought the specimens to the attention of Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of paleontology at the British Museum, in the middle of 1912. The announcement was made by Dr. Woodward at a meeting of [C6] the Geological Society of London on Dec. 18, 1912.

Mr. Dawson, the argument goes, had a motive, which was his desire for a collecting coup that would assure entrance in the Royal Society. He had the opportunity, for he lived near the site and could have salted it with bogus bones he might have obtained from his contacts at museums. In his analysis of the hoax in 1955. Dr. Joseph S. Weiner, a South African paleontologist at Oxford, who was instrumental in exposing the fraud, decided that Mr. Dawson must have acted alone, though he recognized that Mr. Dawson could have been the agent of a "shadow figure" who masterminded the caper.

The general assumption is that there was a second man, someone with the knowledge of paleontology, access to fossils and an even stronger professional motive than Mr. Dawson's. His identity is the deeper Piltdown mystery.

In the book by Dr Spencer, the alleged second man is none of the dozen or so suspects who had been rounded up by scientists and historians over the years. He was a prominent man known to be associated with the Piltdown inquiry, but who never seems to have attracted the least suspicion–until now.

Among the usual suspects, Dr. Woodward is generally judged innocent. He rendered the judgment that the skull and jaw were genuine prehistoric relics. It is unlikely, experts say, that if he knew the facts he would have exposed himself as the duped party in the affair.

Some scholars have even suspected that Dr. Woodward was the intended victim of the hoax. Before his death in 1978, Dr. James A. Douglas, a professor of geology at Oxford, let it be known that he believed his famous predecessor at Oxford, William J. Sollas, had been the perpetrator as a way of making Dr. Woodward, his pretentious academic rival, look ridiculous. If he was the instigator why did Dr. Sollas never spring the trap?

Dr. Grafton Elliot Smith, an Australian anatomist in England, has also been implicated. He had much to gain. Piltdown served to underscore the validity of his theoretical predictions regarding the pre-eminence of the brain in human evolution. But Dr. Spencer concluded that the circumstantial evidence against Dr. Smith was "flimsy."

Deflating the High and Mighty

Lewis Abbott, a jeweler in Hastings and collector of fossils, could have been involved. He knew Mr. Dawson and lived nearby. A counterfeiter of jewels, he was not above such a scheme and had the resources and skills. Dr. Charles Blinderman, an English professor at Clark University and author of "The Piltdown Inquest" in 1986, noted that Mr. Abbott was on record before 1912 as saying that pompous paleontologists should be punished by entrapping them with clever takes. Given Mr. Abbott's personality, Dr. Spencer said, "he would not have sat idly by awaiting Mr. Dawson's inevitable ascent to fame, but would have seen to it that the mission was aborted."

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist, could have been the second man. In the years immediately before the 1912 announcement, he lived at a Jesuit seminary in Hastings and on many occasions tramped the fields hunting fossils with Mr. Dawson. On Mr. Dawson's first joint excavations at Piltdown with Dr. Woodward, the only other person to accompany them was Dr. Teilhard.

Priest as a Suspect

In casting a suspicious eye on the French priest, Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, the writer and paleontologist at Harvard, has cited several slips Dr. Teilhard made years later in correspondence reconstructing the facts and timing of his relationship with Mr. Dawson and the Piltdown Man. Louis Leakey, the Kenyan paleontologist, also suspected Dr. Teilhard and reported a conversation in which the priest Is supposed to have said, "I know who did the Piltdown hoax and it was not Charles Dawson." He gave a little smile and said no more.

Add to the cast of suspects the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. In 1983 John H. Winslow, an American archeologist, pointed the finger, noting that Doyle lived near Piltdown, knew Mr. Dawson and had a keen interest in fossils. But he had no apparent motive. The case against Doyle, Dr. Spencer said, is "grounded almost entirely on supposition." It reveals how desperate the sleuths had become to settle blame on someone, anyone.

No one seemed to give much thought to Sir Arthur Keith. In 1912, he was a rising star in science as an anatomist and conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was prominent socially, ambitious and willing to take risks. At a time of theoretical flux in paleoanthropology, he was the champion of the concept that modern humans evolved earlier than had been supposed and the first manifestation was the enlarged brain.

In this way of thinking, there was no room in the human lineage for the Neanderthals of Europe or the Java Man, found just before the turn of the century and later determined to be a specimen of a direct human ancestor. There was room. however, for a "missing link" with a modern-sized brain combined with a simian jaw, something like the Piltdown Man. What scientist had the most to gain from the Piltdown discovery, and did secure greater fame? The answer Dr. Spencer said, is Dr. Keith.

Research on the Piltdown papers at the British Museum and Dr. Keith's papers at the Royal College of Surgeons led Dr. Langham, until his death, and Dr. Spencer independently to suspicions about Dr. Keith's role in the case. The most suggestive piece of evidence was an entry Dr. Keith made in his diary in December 1912. This revealed that an anonymous article about the Piltdown discovery that appeared in the Dec. 21, 1912 issue of The British Medical Journal had been written by Dr. Keith. He had written it two days before the Geological Society meeting, and the article left no doubt that the author had been privy to knowledge about the dig site that was not reported by Dr. Woodward at the meeting and was presumably a closely guarded secret.

Other clues began to fall into place. It was established that Mr. Dawson and Dr. Keith had met at least a year before and that the scheme could have been hatched sometime between July 1911 and the beginning of 1912. Their alibi for meeting in London was presumably a collaboration on a minor scientific paper.

As Dr. Spencer reconstructed events, Dr. Keith provided technical expertise and possibly the bones too. The fragments were stained to look prehistoric, and the orangutan teeth were filed down to show the kind of wear exhibited on human teeth. Mr. Dawson placed the bones in the gravel deposit where they would be found when Mr. Dawson, Dr. Woodward, and occasionally Dr. Teilhard visited the site in the summer of 1912. Dr. Teilhard was apparently an innocent bystander, brought along by Mr. Dawson to lend credibility to the finds. Who would doubt the word of a priest?

'Surprising, Nay, Shocking'

In a foreword to the book, Dr. Phillip V. Tobias, director of paleoanthropology at the University oŁ Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, called the case against Dr. Keith "the newest, the most surprising, nay, shocking, and the most seemingly logical conclusion as to the identity of the scientist-member of the team of forgers."

Dr. Fred H. Smith, a paleontologist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who has examined the new evidence, said: "I think Spencer makes a very good case. I don't think it's ironclad. But when you look at whose career benefited most by Piltdown, Arthur Keith's name certainly heads the list."

Dr. William Ball, a former keeper of paleontology at the British Museum, said: "Is this the end of the Piltdown affair? Until such time as an unequivocal, signed and detailed confession comes to light (and one that can be shown to fit the facts as we now know them), } rather doubt it."

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