Expert views differ on Jesuit's role

in the Piltdown Man forgery

Norman Hammond

Archaeology Correspondent

London Times July 15 1980



The theory that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the noted Jesuit philosopher, helped to perpetrate the Piltdown Man forgery early this century has received support from one of the scientists who helped to unmask the fraud a generation ago. Dr. Kenneth Oakley, formerly of the British Museum, said yesterday that a letter written to him by Teilhard in 1954 had given him "strong indications that Teilhard was in collusion with Charles Dawson," the man long thought to be at the centre of the affair.

Professor Joseph Weiner, the other scientist involved in the exposure and the author of The Piltdown Forgery, published in 1953, said yesterday, however, that the charge was "little more than conjecture," and that Teilhard would not have risked his burgeoning career in paleontology nor helped to fool so many scholars who had been kind to him.

The notion of de Chardin's involvement, which has had some currency in academic circles for many years, has been revived by Professor Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University, in an article the American magazine Natural History.

Dr. Oakley said: "A letter which Teilhard wrote me in January 1954, supported by his embarrassment whenever I asked him about Piltdown, have made me very dubious about his being innocent. In the letter he says three times, rather too emphatically, that the second Piltdown site, which convinced some scholars who doubted the first one, had already yielded its two skull fragments and one molar tooth when Dawson first took them there."

Many scholars had felt that the collocation of "a human cranium and ape-like jaw at the first site was fortuitous, but when an ape-like molar turned up with human skull fragments a second time, two miles away, the legend of "Dawn Man" was launched effectively.

Professor Weiner challenges the view of Dr. Oakley and Professor Gould. He said: "There is no positive unequivocal evidence of Teilhard's connivance, and the facts are equally or better understood as indicating his involvement with Piltdown as entirely innocent. We know that Charles Dawson had a strong desire to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and he went to great lengths in pursuit of that objective, lengths hardly necessary for a mere jape.

"Why should Dawson put his plan in jeopardy by involving this young priest? He did not need Teilhard's help. Why should Teilhard wish to deceive Professor Smith Woodward, Sir Arthur Keith and others who had been extremely kind to him?

Prtofessor Weiner and Dr. Oakley interviewed Teilhard de Chardin in the 1950s, after the exposure of the forgery, and taxed him with his reluctance to discuss the Piltdown finds from 1920 onwards. "I came away pretty sure that Teilhard had become by 1920 extremely uneasy about the discovery, but for many reasons could not speak about it," Professor Wiener said.

Dr. Oakley's view is that the embarrassment was real enough and the sadness too, but that those were caused by Teilhard's remorse at having helped to perpetrate a successful academic fraud for four decades.

Rumor in the academic world has it that documentary proof of Teilhard's guilty collusion with Dawson exists, but is being suppressed by the scholar who holds it; a variant is that Teilhard was indeed japing, but was fooling Dawson himself, by salting further fakes that Dawson was inclined to regard as genuine, although Dawson has perpetrated the initial forgery.

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Defending Teilhard de Chardin