Piltdown Unmasked

Philip V. Tobias

The Sciences Jan/Feb. 1994

[38] Piltdown Commons lies in the parish of Fletching in the English county of East Sussex. Nearby, the river Ouse flows eastward through a broad plain between two rows of gentle hills known as the North and South Downs. But when the river reaches Piltdown, it turns south—almost as if repelled by something sinister—passes through the South Downs at Lewes and enters the English Channel at Newhaven. Scattered along the country roads are "borrow pits" from which gravel has been removed to help build and repair the roads. One such pit lies beside the driveway leading to Barkham Manor, the seat of the local gentry. Barkham Manor suggests the kind of peaceful country house setting in which Agatha Christie delighted to place her genteel murder mysteries. And as it happens, the site was the stage for a corking whodunit: rife with deception, intrigue and corpses, the occurrence at Piltdown Common was arguably the scientific crime of the century.

On December 18, 1912, a meeting was held in Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, home of the Geological Society of Great Britain. Two men addressed the expectant audience: Charles Dawson, steward of Barkham Manor, an attorney and secretary to the Sussex Archaeological Society; and Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the British Museum. The speakers' announcement was worthy of the anticipation: at Piltdown Common, they said, they had discovered the first important fossil human skull ever to be unearthed in England.

France and Belgium had long boasted their Neandertal and Cro-Magnon skeletons; from Germany there had come the original Neandertal cranium and, near Heidelberg, the lower jawbone of what was then considered the oldest hominid discovered in Europe. Great Britain, however, had been thought barren of fossil humans, a point of much sadness in the British scientific community. With the Piltdown skull, Britain could point to a great contribution to the study of human evolution, and it seemed to have been worth the wait: because the skull appeared to have a jaw more like an ape's than did the German specimen, only the skull of the Java ape-man could, in 1912, lay stronger claim than the skull from Piltdown to the title of world's oldest human skull. The specimen, known as Piltdown man, occupied an honored place in the catalogues of fossil hominids for the next forty years.

But in 1953, thanks to some rigorous scholarly detective work, Piltdown man was revealed to be a forgery, manufactured from modem human and animal remains. The ruse was both remarkable and evil: remarkable because it had survived the most careful examinations and had eluded detection for more than four decades; evil because it had helped stall the advance of human evolutionary studies for more than a quarter-century. Of course, the very idea of dishonesty in science is repugnant. It is an article of faith among scientists to take for granted the integrity of one's colleagues. One might sometimes think them obtuse, simple-minded, pig-headed or deluded—but never that they are willful deceivers.

In that context the story of Piltdown man has recently come to a salutary, and cautionary, conclusion. In the past several years, nearly forty years after the revelation of the hoax and more than eight decades after its perpetration, the identity of the scientist-mastermind behind the plot has finally been disclosed. In a sense it is discouraging that so much time and effort had to be spent to set the record straight. Moreover, the existence of a hoax so subtle and so close to being successful sows the seed of doubt that elsewhere in science some of the foundations of knowledge are anchored in sand. Such doubt fuels the strong impression, much abroad today, that fraud in science has become more frequent. In February 1991 the journal Science referred to fraud as "a growth industry." By April of that year no fewer than five conferences on scientific misconduct had been sponsored by the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. Yet the Piltdown episode also serves as a warning to those who would commit fraud in the name of science. The vast scientific enterprise is, in the end, a relentless pursuer of truth. In spite of their devilish cleverness, the perpetrators of the Piltdown hoax have finally been caught, and their reputations, once honored, are now besmirched.

The Piltdown forgery was conceived, planned and executed sometime between 1907 and 1911. The faux hominid skull was constructed from the remains of a recent human cranium, later shown to have been thickened by disease during the subject's lifetime—thus, at first blush, the primitive look; half the lower jaw of an orangutan from which telltale parts had been removed and whose teeth had been filed to resemble worn human teeth; and a doctored canine tooth, [39] probably from the same lower jaw. In addition, artifacts and stone tools, supposedly of two epochs, and extinct mammal bones of two phases of antiquity were planted in the gravel layers exposed in the wall of the Piltdown pit. In all, thirty-seven pieces of bone and stone were involved, each carefully selected for a specific purpose, each altered and stained so as to match the coloration of the gravel itself. What is more, another ten fragments of human skulls and human and animal teeth were similarly prepared and planted in two other gravel exposures in the vicinity of Piltdown.

From 1911 until 1913 the planted specimens were "discovered," most of them by Dawson, one or two by Smith Woodward, and one, the doctored canine tooth, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a young Jesuit seminarian who was to become a distinguished paleontologist and evolutionist. Smith Woodward used the thick-boned human cranium and the doctored orangutan jaw—which he believed to be from the same individual—to reconstruct a complete "hominid" skull" [see photograph below ].

Most British scholars of the time accepted Smith Woodward's reconstruction, including such renowned figures as the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith and the anatomist and anthropologist Arthur Keith, a pioneer in the study of fossil man who was affiliated with the Royal College of Surgeons. But others insisted, correctly, that the jaw looked suspiciously like that of an ape— either a chimpanzee or an orangutan. Most of those investigators reasoned that both a hominid and an ape must have been represented in the Piltdown gravel, accounting for the confusion. There is no evidence, however, that any of them seriously doubted that the Piltdown finds were genuine fossils of creatures that had lived in ancient Sussex. One American scholar, William K. Gregory of the American Museum of Natural History, did at least suggest the possibility of a hoax. In 1914 Gregory remarked in a journal article that someone at the British Museum had confided to him that "a negro skull and a broken ape jaw" had been "artificially fossilized" and "planted in the gravel bed to fool the scientists." Gregory, however, dismissed the accusation.

It seems that the first person to be sure in his own mind that the Piltdown skull had been forged was Gerrit S. Miller Jr. of the Smithsonian Institution. Miller is said to have come to the insight quite suddenly, in 1930. But some of his colleagues, reminding him that he had never personally examined the specimens, dissuaded him from publishing the conclusion. Apart from those exceptions and some rumors, no documentation has come to light that anyone save the culprits themselves suspected—or knew—that Piltdown man was an elaborate, cynical fiction.


Arthur Smith Woodward, Piltdown Reconstruction, 1912

In 1953, however, the anthropologist Joseph S. Weiner [40] and the anatomist Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark, both of Oxford University, along with Kenneth P. Oakley of the British Museum of Natural History, produced irrefutable evidence that the lower jaw and teeth of Piltdown man had been fraudulently altered, stained and planted. Two years later the trio showed that the cranium, too, had been artificially stained and that all the other specimens unearthed at the three sites in the area had been misrepresented. As nationalist sentiment had amplified the acclaim accorded the original finds, it was a tribute to British science that the critical evidence of the forgery was furnished by British scholars.

The next logical question was, Who done it? Some scholars have wondered whether the answer even matters, since the exposure of the hoax removed the Piltdown remains from the stockpile of hominid fossils. Yet there were good reasons for pursuing the investigations. First, that search has put Piltdown in historical and philosophical perspective—and has furnished insights into the scientific process and the motives that drive scientists. It is also important to know not so much who was guilty as who could not have been guilty, so that the innocent might be exonerated. Finally, the lesson of Piltdown is that dishonesty must be included among the factors that influence the rejection or acceptance of scientific discoveries and concepts.

Of all the suspects in the Piltdown affair, the man who "discovered" most of the remains has seemed the one most strongly implicated in the hoax. Charles Dawson knew the local terrain and had the opportunity to plant the bones; he was also desperate for fame and for recognition by the scientific community. Weiner made a strong and generally accepted case in his 1955 book, The Piltdown Forgery, that Dawson was at least one of the perpetrators. But a concern has lingered for the past four decades: Could Dawson have had access to all forty-seven pieces planted at the three sites around Piltdown? Did he have sufficient command of the several scientific disciplines involved in pulling off such a complex hoax? For many scholars the answer to both questions is no. At least, they suspect, Dawson must have had a co-conspirator, a scientist with wide knowledge of, and ready access to, human skulls, ape jaws, fossil teeth and bones of extinct mammals, and ancient stone tools.

A small army of amateur and professional sleuths has sought clues to the identity of Dawson's accomplice. The trail has led to a number of scholars, including Smith Woodward and Teilhard. Suspect after suspect has been examined and, for lack of conclusive evidence, removed from the list—that is, all of them but one.

On April 26. 1984. I received a letter from the historian Ian Langham of the University of Sydney. Langham said he was leaving that night for London and wished to visit me on his way back to Australia. He also wrote:

My current research projects are (1) a biographical work on Arthur Keith; (2) a revaluation of the events surrounding the Piltdown forgery. Project (2) is the thing that is burning a hole in my brain at present, as I have amassed evidence relating to the culpability question which is, I believe, an order of magnitude "harder" and less circumstantial than anything that anyone else has managed to come up with so far. And before I bring the wrath of God down upon myself by publishing it, I would like to first check it out with the cognoscenti.

So it came about that Langham and I spent the afternoon and evening of May 24, 1984, in Johannesburg, talking of Piltdown. He had scoured the original sources for evidence, probably more thoroughly than had ever been done before. As a result he had come up with the most shocking—but at the same time the most logical and probable—conclusion about the identity of the scientist member of the team of forgers. Dawson, he agreed, was the on-the-spot man; the scientist-accomplice, he charged, was none other than Arthur Keith.

I trembled. Keith had been my hero. And yet it struck me that he was about the only one of all the men associated with Piltdown who had never been inculpated. I criticized Langham's proposal stringently, but at the same time I warmly encouraged him to pursue his researches. I drew attention to the dangers inherent in a two-person theory: Each one could have betrayed the other, and the great man would have exposed himself to enormous danger. Would there not have been some passing reference in a letter or a diary entry, by one man or the other?

I had long thought the wide acceptance of Piltdown had helped mightily to obscure the work of the South African anatomist Raymond A. Dart. In 1925 Dart had announced that he had discovered a small skull in Taung, South Africa, which he named Australopithecus and declared was a "missing link" on the threshold of humanity. Dart's announcement had been met with derision and rejection. I invited Langham to speak about Piltdown and Taung at the international symposium I was organizing to be held in Johannesburg in 1985, on the sixtieth anniversary of Dart's announcement. Langham's next letter to me from Australia, dated May 31, 1984, accepted my invitation to present a paper on Piltdown and its historical relation to the interpretation of Dart's findings. In a subsequent letter he withdrew from the symposium on financial grounds. I never heard from him again. He died on July 29, 1984.

Almost a year after Langham's death I received letters from his widow, Kathryn, as well as from the historian Peter Cochrane and the archaeologist Tim Murray, both of the University of Sydney, asking my views on their choice of Frank Spencer, an anthropologist at Queens College of the City University of New York, to bring Langham's researches on Piltdown to completion. I had no hesitation in replying that they could not have picked a more reliable, conscientious and scholarly person than Spencer for the job.

By coincidence, Spencer had been working on the life and letters of the anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka. That work had carried him to the Piltdown documents in London, including the diaries and correspondence of Keith. In his researches he had independently come to the same conclu[41]sion as Langham had: that the scientist-accomplice of Dawson had been none other than Keith. Spencer spent another five years scrutinizing every relevant document and acquiring more and more pointers to Keith's guilt. He produced two books, which were both published in 1990. In them is an analysis of the historical background and of all the personalities involved in the web around Piltdown. Spencer examined the question of the motives of each man and unearthed evidence to support his hypotheses about what those motives had been.

After Langham had divulged to me his own evidence against Keith in 1984, I had considered myself morally bound to secrecy on the subject: it was Langham's finding, and I had no right to disclose it. And so for six years I did not tell a soul about Langham's theory. But after Spencer's books were published (I wrote a preface to one of them), I pursued my own research and uncovered more lines of evidence tending to inculpate Keith. In Langham's, Spencer's and my analyses, Keith knew about—and was directly involved in—the goings-on around Piltdown. And to cover his tracks he took pains to convey the impression that, before the meeting of the Geological Society on December 18, 1912, he had had no acquaintance with the Piltdown site, the remains or Dawson.

But an anonymous article in the British Medical Journal of December 1912 gave details of the whereabouts of Piltdown that had not been mentioned at the meeting. Langham discovered, in an entry in Keith's diary, that Keith had written that article a few days before the Burlington House meeting. In his autobiography Keith states that he first met Dawson only in 1913. Yet there is evidence that Keith had met Dawson earlier, probably on at least three occasions.

Moreover, Keith mendaciously wrote to Hrdlicka after the meeting, telling him that he had not been allowed to see the Piltdown material before the meeting. It is now known, on the contrary, that Keith had seen the material twice before the meeting. In an entry in his diary for January 4, 1913, Keith reports that when taking his wife to see the Piltdown site he had failed to find it. Yet from his article in the British Medical Journal it is clear that Keith knew very well the location of the site. The diary entry, then, appears to have been a smoke screen.

In 1953 Weiner and Oakley visited Keith to tell him of their revelation of the hoax. Keith told the sleuthing scholars that he had burned all his correspondence with Dawson some years earlier. And, to be sure, when Spencer later catalogued virtually all of Keith's papers at the Royal College, he found hundreds of letters and notes—but not a scrap to or from Dawson. The deliberate, selective and total destruction by Keith of the Dawson correspondence is remarkable and most suspicious.














Nancy Graves, Bones and Their Containers (to Martin Cassidy), 1971


Strangely, though, Keith did speak repeatedly of Dawson's integrity. He also was given to harping on the authenticity of the Piltdown fossils, even when no one else thought it necessary to do so. Keith emphatically stated that the Piltdown remains were normal and free of disease, deliberately misrepresenting what the pathologist of the Royal College, Samuel G. Shattock, had said about the bones: that a pathological process—perhaps rickets—may have caused the strange thickening and several other features noted in the first Piltdown cranium. Nevertheless, Keith asserted in his 1915 book, The Antiquity of Man: "The bone is naturally formed; there can be no question of disease. My colleague Mr. Shattock definitely settled this point" (italics mine).

Why should Keith have lied about what Shattock had written? For one thing, if the skull were pathological, it could not have been validly used to support Keith's ideas about the evolution of hominids; for another, to cover his tracks again: if the skull were known to be pathological, the original planted cranium could fairly easily have been traced to the Royal College, where Keith worked, which had the largest collection of pathological skeletons in the United Kingdom.

I believe Keith selected a thick cranium because it was already known that earlier forms of humans, such as Homo erectus and Neandertals, had bulkier crania than does modern man. The skull's thickness would then be in keeping with the case the forgers were trying to make, namely, that the Piltdown remains represented a most ancient human.

It was for the same reason the forgers chose the lower jaw of an orangutan for planting at Piltdown. The more the jaw resembled that of an ape, the more easily Keith could claim it was more primitive than was the oldest jaw then known from Europe, the one discovered at Mauer, near Heidelberg. That, in fact, is what Keith asserted at the Burlington House meeting in the discussion after the revelation of the specimens by Smith Woodward and Dawson.

Keith undoubtedly had, and still has, a wide circle of admirers. Yet recent research has brought to light that several of his contemporaries not merely expressed dislike for him—not an uncommon emotion among competing scientists—but considered him dishonest. In 1914, for instance, Elliot Smith wrote to the English anthropologist Alfred C. Haddon about "Keith s game of deliberately fouling the pitch" and his tendency "to publish stuff which he [knew] to be false." The Oxford University geologist William J. Sollas, in 1925, wrote to the South African paleontologist Robert Broom about Keith,

who is indeed the most arrant humbug and artful climber in the anthropological world.... He makes the rashest statements in the face of evidence. Never quotes an author but to misrepresent him, generalizes on single observations, and indeed there is scarcely a single crime in which he is not adept.

And so the question is why. If Dawson and Keith are to be accepted as the Piltdown hoaxers, a motive for each man must be established. For Dawson, according to Spencer, it seems to have been an overweening desire to be recognized and to become a Fellow of the Royal Society. And in fact Dawson was nominated unsuccessfully for election to the society in 1913. His candidacy was renewed each year, always in vain, until his death in 1916.

In Spencer's analysis there were two principal motives for Keith's participation in the fraud. One was the establishment of a particular concept of human evolution; the other was pure ambition and career advancement. As for his ideas about evolution, Keith believed that ancestral hominids were humans with essentially modern-looking braincases, their greater thickness notwithstanding. So it was to be expected that modern-looking crania would be found in deposits of high antiquity. When no convincing instance of such a discovery came to light, one was concocted. Thus the large-brained Piltdown cranium was planted in a deposit made to look old by the inclusion in it of ancient stone tools and animal fossils, all obtained elsewhere. In that scenario, then, one of Keith's motives was to establish the case for a particular kind of ancestor—one conceived by him—that was earlier and therefore more important than any other fossil hominids then known in Europe.

The second proposed motive, in Spencer's view, was Keith's powerful desire for professional advancement. With hindsight, there is little doubt that of all the people involved it was Keith whose career benefited the most from Piltdown. From the beginning Keith had greeted the "discovery" with unalloyed enthusiasm and effusiveness. He called the skull "one of the most remarkable discoveries of the twentieth century"—one, perhaps not coincidentally, that verified all his theories about human origins.

Opponents of the ambition motive have declared that Keith was already at the top of his career when the discovery of Piltdown was announced. But that is clearly not true. First of all, Keith, in 1912, had not yet been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and his candidacy had twice been turned down. From his diaries and his autobiography it is plain that Keith craved the election and that he was bitterly hurt by his twofold rejection. Smith Woodward had become an F.R.S. at the age of thirty-seven and Elliot Smith at thirty-six. Keith was not nominated until he was forty-four and did not achieve the honor until he was forty-six, in 1913. Second, what Keith himself described as his "chief claim to recognition as a man of science" remained unpublished in 1912—and did not appear until 1915, in the form of The Antiquity of Man. Third, at the time the Piltdown hoax was conceived and executed Keith had not yet attained the pinnacle of achievement for a British scientist, a knighthood: he became Sir Arthur Keith only in 1921. By those three criteria, Keith had by no means reached the top of his profession when the fraud was planned and prepared. Indeed, he still had much to which to aspire.

In sum, Keith had abundant motive, the opportunity (with the willing help of Dawson), the knowledge, the access to materials and the skill to alter the specimens to enable him to perpetrate the Piltdown hoax. At his death in 1955, perhaps he believed he had escaped scot-free. But to paraphrase a remark by Cervantes on the subject of murder: "The truth will out."


Phillip V. Tobias is emeritus professor of anatomy and human biology and director of the Paleoanthropology Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. The author of some 880 publications, his most recent books are The Skulls, Endocasts and Teeth of Homo (two volumes), published in 1991 by Cambridge University Press, and Paleoanthropologia, published by Jaca Books of Milan in 1992.





Jim Dine, Ancient Fishing, 1989

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