Piltdown mystery

J. C. Head

New Scientist January 1971

Sir,-I read with interest your recent report (ARIADNE, 10 December, p 471) that Professor Leakey suggests that the Piltdown hoax may have been carried out by Teilhard de Chardin and not as commonly thought, by Charles Dawson. About 10 years ago when I was living in Brighton I met a Mr Essex who had been one of the original workers on the Piltdown excavations and he held an identical view to that of Leakey.

One of Essex's points lay in his estimation of the personalities of the two men: Dawson being pompous, self-opinionated and unimaginative, far more likely to be the victim than perpetuator of such a hoax, whereas Teilhard was, as Leakey states, well known as a practical joker. One has only to read Dawson's patronising references to Teilhard to find a motive.

Furthermore, Essex saw the various finds both at the site of the pit and in Dawson's office in Uckfield. He was certain that some of these had been switched en route, prior to Dawson's inspection.

l have not met Mr Essex since we had the conversation reported above and do not know whether he is still living in Brighton. In any event it will clearly be difficult to solve the mystery after 60 years but some points are worth considering.

1. The really crucial issue is whether the remains of the skull found in 1908 were genuine or not. If they were planted, then, almost certainly, Dawson must have been the culprit, as at that stage there was no one else m the scene who could have carried out the hoax. It is worth noting that the labourer who found the skull was using a pickaxe at the time which suggests that the skull may have been in fairly solid matrix of gravel. It may be recalled too, that the skull had been more complete before the labourer smashed it, believing it to be a coconut

2. I have been told that the bone implement found buried near the pit is a tool used in the alpine regions of France as an aid to thatching roofs. If this identification can be confirmed, and remembering that some of the Piltdown II finds have been identified as coming from France, then the link with France is becoming too strong to ignore.

3. Even at the time of the discoveries the treated orang utan jaw could have been distinguished from the genuine fossil bone of the skull. The staining of the jaw was only superficial and fresh bone possesses different density and different mechanical properties, which can be revealed on drilling or cutting, from fossil bone. A careful examination of the jaw bone might have exploded the hoax very early on and the hoaxer must have been clever enough to have realised this possibility. This suggests that the intention may have been to humiliate Dawson when the truth was revealed rather than to attempt a long-term deception. In the event Sir Arthur Smith Woodward did not allow ready access to the jaw and many workers had to be content with examining a plaster cast of it and thus the affair dragged on for so many years.

J. O. Head

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