"Smith as Culprit"

The Piltdown Men

Ronald Millar 1972

[241] The most convincing evidence against Charles Dawson is that Piltdown was his special province. Even now it is an isolated place. By his own admission Dawson had regularly visited the site 'since just before the end of the last century.' This adds up, for it was in 1908 that Dawson was appointed to the stewardship of Barkham Manor on the grounds of which the Piltdown Pit was discovered. Indeed, the manor house overlooks it. At any time Dawson could have 'planted' [242] the bones without attracting notice, that is if he did not introduce them as the search progressed.

But was Dawson the only person to know about Piltdown and the expectations of the gravel? Dawson said that such antique gravel had not been 'experienced' in Sussex by geologists. Where did he get this information? Having discovered what he suspected was antique gravel at Piltdown Dawson must have spoken or written of it to many. Woodward stated that Dawson frequently sought advice about his finds So it is not impossible that the lawyer's surveillance of Piltdown was an open secret. Woodward counselled discretion in 1912. But Dawson had discovered the pit in 1898. Ten years had elapsed before the first piece of bone appeared at Piltdown in 1908.

Unfortunately there is no evidence of such an interchange. It is believed that the lawyer's private correspondence was destroyed when Castle Lodge was vacated in 1931. But reticence does not seem to have been Dawson's strong point. In fact, he was gregarious and garrulous. Therefore it is by no means unreasonable to suppose that such a lengthy search would have become known. That the pit was under regular scrutiny by an amateur enthusiast such as Dawson would have been sufficient for the forger's purpose. Who then was the forger?

Sir Arthur Smith Woodward has hitherto entirely escaped suspicion. He seems to have gained even more from Piltdown in the way of fame than Dawson. His long friendship with Dawson would have assured that the 'planted' bones would be returned to him almost automatically. We have only his word that Dawson discovered Piltdown man II. He had ready access to human and animal fossils. He could have sneaked the orang-utan jaw from the museum collection. But Woodward can, I think, be dismissed on the grounds that he was too dedicated, too studious, for such an undertaking. He was a queer fish–almost the archetypal boffin. His ascetic approach to his chosen subject was a by-word. He scurried about the museum workrooms, head down, oblivious of the living world. This resulted directly in two nasty accidents.

On the first occasion he collided with a class exhibition [243] case and fell to the floor snapping a leg. Woodward refused emphatically to go to hospital or to be attended by a surgeon. He set the limb himself with the result that henceforth he walked with a limp. Some human anatomist? A similar collision resulted in a broken arm. His younger assistants, with the expectation of being free of the Woodward thrall for a few weeks, were shocked from recumbent positions on benches by the conscientious professor's appearance for work the following day.

It is unlikely, therefore, that such a man would even dream of perpetrating such a fraud. Especially if one takes into account his nigh on a lifetime's search at Piltdown.

The other successful searcher at Piltdown was Père Teilhard de Chardin. The evidence against the priest is as black, if not blacker, than that against Dawson. One has merely to recall the incredulity of Dawson and Woodward when Teilhard de Chardin discovered the missing canine tooth in a stretch of gravel which had just been thoroughly searched. Oakley's discovery in connection with the Elephas planifrons molar is highly significant in this case. Before his arrival at Ore Place, Hastings, the student-priest has actually stayed near Ishkuel, Tunisia.

Teilhard de Chardin is a hard man to place His lifelong struggle with his religion made him deeply introspective. He was a prolific author but one can gather little of the quality of the man from the output. The books are for the most part quasi-scientific explanations of his conception of the place of evolution within religion. In this last task he sees no contradiction imposed by one on the other.

The priest has by no means escaped suspicion in some quarters. Sir Wilfred Le Gros Clark told me that because of the Tunisian association he at one time strongly suspected Teilhard de Chardin. Oakley agreed, but like Le Gros Clark, he feels that not only lack of the requisite anatomical knowledge but the nature of the man must exonerate him.

The discovery that Piltdown man was a deception deeply hurt Teilhard de Chardin. According to Oakley he took the news far harder than Sir Arthur Keith. He miserably told Oakley that throughout the vicissitudes of his life the main consolation was that he had helped to discover the Piltdown [244] man. Teilhard de Chardin might have been putting on an act but he did in fact arrive England too late to have 'planted' the original find in 1908. It is just possible however, that he might have added the Elephas planifrons molar to gain some kudos. That he planted the controversial canine is highly doubtful.

Sir Arthur Keith, as one of the world's paramount comparative anatomists, is possibly the only person who can escape suspicion purely on prestige. He is further exonerated by his misinterpretation of the skull, by treating it as that of a primitive hominid which had existed too early in time to have developed the more prominent left side. If anything, the joke was on him as much as on Woodward. But contrary to expectations he took the terrible news quite calmly. Oakley recalled the visit he paid with Dr J. S. Weiner to the old man's home at Downe. He had, Keith said, in any case heard the news on the radio. He said at the outset of the interview: 'I know why you have come to me . . .' The visitors gave Keith the full story. He said that they were probably right 'but it will take me a little time to adjust to the new view.' Poor Keith. How bitter that moment must have been for him. Someone had made a fool of him for forty years.

But now let us return to Woodward's ill-fated construction of the first Piltdown skull. Owing to an imperfect knowledge of human anatomy, shared by the bird man Pycraft, he made a grave error over the reconstruction. Another mistake was his failure to recognize that the cranial bones of Piltdown man II rightly belonged to Piltdown man I. By contrast the American Ales Hrdlicka found himself able to suggest that the Piltdown II molar must have come from Piltdown I after an examination which cannot have been more than brief. The incompetence at South Kensington is understandable for clearly the department did not know what it was about. But the most surprising feature of the whole mess was the non-intervention of Grafton Elliot Smith.

Not only was Smith an accomplished human anatomist but he was also an expert on prehistoric and ancient human skulls. He had certainly examined enough of them not many years before during his archaeological survey of Nubia. [245] Smith was called in to the affair well before the unveiling of Piltdown man in December 1912. That he stood by and watched the baffled Woodward and Pycraft wrestle with the reconstruction is therefore certain. By no stretch of the imagination can it be accepted that he too was incompetent. A word from him would have put Woodward on the right track; certainly so in the case of the side ridge of the skull which Woodward took for the median ridge. His complete failure to assist Woodward is in my opinion, highly incriminatory.

What then was Smith's motive? Two immediately come to mind. First, if a sufficiently primitive man were to be discovered in England, this would lend support to Smith's almost obsessive views on migration. He argued that as the new waves of culture spread from 'somewhere in the Middle East' the exponents of the new learning, so to speak, drove the more primitive occupants further out. A near-animal Piltdown man as far west as Britain would lend admirable support to this view.

Alternatively, at the time of the 'planting' of the fossils, Smith was in what might be considered a backwater appointment in Cairo. It is therefore possible that he coveted the job at South Kensington. He must have known that neither Woodward nor Pycraft were human anatomists. His cataloguing of the Hunterian Collection had brought him into close contact with both.

I was at first inclined towards the second motive. I thought that as Smith grew in professional stature and the forgery refused to let itself be discovered, he allowed the matter to stagnate. He could not do otherwise, for a sudden revelation at this late stage would be highly suspicious. But as my research advanced, and I realized that Smith was a highly likely suspect, my view of the actual motive changed. In its place came the conviction that Smith would have loved a chuckle at the expense of what he thought, possibly correctly, was stick-in-the-mud palaeontology and anatomy. Somehow the whole affair reeks of Smith.

At the time of the Piltdown discoveries Smith was mostly in Egypt. But his appearances in England coincide remarkably with the turn of events in Sussex. Smith had all [246] the qualifications, both esoteric and professional, for what I believe is more accurately called the Piltdown hoax. Access to the remains of extinct fauna would have presented little difficulty to a professor of palaeontology. If Dawson had attempted such a remarkable aggregation then suspicion would have been drawn to him at once. Moreover, Smith' work in Nubia had made available a vast collection of human skulls. In his catalogue there are many thousands that are 'mediaeval'. Many have peculiarities caused by disease and whim of nature. Not a few are as thick in section as the Piltdown skull.

But what would have been Smith's excuse when the Piltdown forgery was detected, as he must have thought it inevitably would be? Would his pontifications about the value of the Piltdown skull bring him a share of the opprobrium heaped on Woodward? At first this seems an insurmountable objection to my hypothesis, but it is in fact not so. I have examined all Smith's writings on the subject with care and in not one instance does he fail to state carefully that his findings were based on the examination of a plaster cast of the skull. He even used his argument with Keith to imply that these plaster casts were inaccurate. If Keith had access to the actual skull, he said, like Woodward, then Keith would have to revise his opinion as to the morphology of the skull. He did not think plaster casts were inaccurate in 1903 when he wrote from Egypt to Symmington advising him to have a good look at them (see page 102). Another clue to his method is that even as late as November 1915 he wrote that he had actually seen the skull fragments for the first time. It seems highly unlikely that three years had passed without sight of the actual fragments, that his Geological Society paper was based on the examination of a mere plaster cast. In fact, would any anatomist wage war with an authority such as Keith on the basis of a plaster cast when Woodward would have been only too pleased to show him the original?

I asked Oakley if it were not possible that the Piltdown skull might have come from Egypt, from Nubia. He replied that there was as much for the proposition as against it. All that was known of the skull, he said, was that it was Caucasian in type and over a half-century old. Egyptians certainly have [247] Caucasian skulls, he said. Oakley must have guessed the drift of the question for he asked me whether in the course of my research I had not come to some conclusion as to the identity of the Piltdown forger. At the time I did not know that Oakley had studied under Sir Grafton Elliot Smith. The naming of Smith did not bring an objection from him. He raised his eyebrows. Indeed, Oakley thought that I could be right. He recalled Smith's arrogant delivery of a lecture. Oakley was not impressed with this superiority or by the air of conceit that Smith exuded. It is only fair to mention, however, that Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark was most favourably impressed by the Australian, by Smith's kindness and assistance in the way of laboratory space at University College when Le Gros Clark returned from a tour of fossil men sites overseas. Le Gros Clark also considers that the evidence against Dawson is considerable but he does suspect a professional accomplice.

One might speculate endlessly on the permutations of layman and scientist. Could Dawson have been in league with Smith against Woodward? This is not at all likely. It will be recalled that Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward had been friends for many years. Dawson was a regular house guest. Lady Woodward had a special tablecloth on which eminent scientific visitors were invited to scrawl their signatures. It was an honour that had been extended to Dawson. Any such treachery would have been entirely foreign to Dawson.

So Piltdown man can be summed up as a hoax that went sour. It was certainly not intended as a forgery that would stand the test of time. It was skilfully contrived but clumsily put together. Although the realization that Sir Grafton Elliot Smith might be the hoaxer dawned on me about halfway through the preliminary research for this book, try as I may I have not been able to come up with concrete evidence of the Australian's participation. In fact it is hard to visualize anything that would come into this category other than a straightforward confession. I do hope, however, that I have shown that Dawson does not fit the bill. And that Smith does.

One thing that certainly emerges is the extraordinary waste of time, the absorption of brilliant minds, that was the result of the Piltdown hoax. The blind Woodward dictating the [248] results of a search which lasted over a quarter of a century creates a poignant picture. Or is it too unkind to suggest that all concerned would have wasted their time anyway?

Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark is inclined to take a brighter view. He anticipates with relish the discovery of yet another Piltdown man. 'What would Science think then?' he asked me. In a more serious vein, he said that the major outcome of the Piltdown episode was that Science was now on its guard; that it would be impossible for a similar fraud to be perpetrated. Maybe all budding palaeontologists should be taken down to Sussex to see the now derelict stone tribute to Charles Dawson at Piltdown just to make sure.

Many a hero has lost his glory posthumously because a historian has credited him with the peculiar gift of talking in italics. Others have been brought down by being quoted out of context. Grafton Elliot Smith was ill-advised enough to tell the 1912 Geological Society meeting that his association of the simian (ape) jaw with a human brain was not surprising to anyone familiar with recent research on the evolution of man. Now that the whole Piltdown edifice has crashed down, how strange this remark sounds. Could he have been laughing at his colleagues?

Grafton Elliot Smith also told poor Dawson that Piltdown man's brother or cousin from Talgai was found at a place called Pilton in Queensland. In fact, there is no such place in the whole of Australia. Could Smith's eyes have watered just a little as he watched the innocent dupe Dawson swallow this gobbet of false information?

Let us be even unkinder with a little test of absolutely no consequence. Turn to the picture of the Piltdown men facing page 161. One of this distinguished group almost definitely was the Piltdown forger–or hoaxer. Nature assures us that all are excellent likenesses. Pick the hoaxer out for yourself. I will not state the obvious

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