The Piltdown Conspiracy 1

Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes 1983

Stephen Jay Gould


[201] Introduction and Background




In his great aria "La calumnia," Don Basillo, the music master of Rossini's Barber of Seville, graphically describes how evil whispers grow, with appropriate watering, into truly grand and injurious calumnies. For the less conniving among us, the same lesson may be read with opposite intent: in adversity, try to contain. The desire to pin evil deeds upon a single soul acting alone reflects this strategy; conspiracy theories have a terrible tendency to ramify like Basillo's whispers until the runaway solution to "whodunit" becomes "everybodydunit." But conspiracies do occur. Even the pros and pols now doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald [202] acted alone; and everybody did do it on the Orient Express. 2

The Piltdown case, surely the most famous and spectacular fraud of twentieth-century science, has experienced this tension ever since its exposé in 1953 . The semiofficial, contained version holds that Charles Dawson, the lawyer and amateur archeologist who "found" the first specimens, devised and executed the entire plot himself. Since J. S. Weiner's elegant case virtually precludes Dawson's innocence (The Piltdown Forgery, Oxford University Press, 1955), conspiracies become the only reasonable refuge for challengers. And proposals for coconspirators abound, ranging from the great anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith to W. J. Sollas, professor of geology at Oxford. I regard these claims as farfetched and devoid of reasonable evidence. But I do believe that a conspiracy existed at Piltdown and that, for once, the most interesting hypothesis is actually true. I believe that a man who later became one of the world's most famous theologians, a cult figure for many years after his death in 1955, knew what Dawson was doing and probably helped in no small way-the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.




Teilhard, born in Auvergne (central France) in 1881, belonged to an old, conservative, and prosperous family. Entering the Society of Jesus in 1902, he studied on the English island of Jersey from 1902 to 1905 and then spent three years as a teacher of physics and chemistry at a Jesuit school in Cairo. In 1908, he returned to finish his theological training at the Jesuit seminary of Ore Place in Hastings, providentially located right next to Piltdown on England's southeast coast. Here he stayed for four years, and here he [203] was ordained a priest in 1912. 3 As a theological student, Teilhard was talented enough, but lackadaisical. His passion at Hastings was, as it always had been, natural history.

He scoured the countryside for butterflies, birds, and fossils. And, in 1909, he met Charles Dawson at the focus of their common interests-in a stone quarry, hunting for fossils. The two men became good friends and colleagues in pursuit of their interest. Teilhard described Dawson to his parents as "my correspondent in geology."

Dawson claimed that he had recovered the first fragment of Piltdown's skull in 1908, after workmen at a gravel pit told him of a "coconut" (the entire skull) they had unearthed and smashed at the site. Dawson kept poking about, collecting a few more skull pieces and some fragments of other fossil mammals. He did not bring his specimens to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of paleontology at the British Museum, until the middle of 1912. Thus, for three years before any professional ever heard of the Piltdown material, Dawson and Teilhard were companions in natural history in the environs of Piltdown.

Smith Woodward was not a secretive man, but he knew the value of what Dawson had brought and the envy it might inspire. He clamped a tight lid upon Dawson's information prior to its publication. He wanted none of Dawson's lay friends at the site, and only one naturalist accompanied Dawson and Smith Woodward in their first joint excavations at Piltdown-Teilhard de Chardin, whom Dawson had described as "quite safe." More specimens came to light during 1912, including the famous jaw with its two molar teeth, artificially filed to simulate human patterns of wear. In December, Smith Woodward published and the controversy began.

The skull fragments, although remarkably thick, could not be distinguished from those of modern humans. The [204] jaw, on the other hand, except for the wear of its teeth, loudly said "chimpanzee" to many experts (in fact, it once belonged to an orangutan). No one smelled fraud, but many professionals felt that parts of two creatures had been mixed together at the Piltdown site. Smith Woodward stoutly defended the integrity of his creature, arguing, with flawed logic, that the crucial role of brain power in our mastery of the earth today implies a precocious role for large brains in evolutionary history as well. A fully vaulted skull still attached to an apish jaw vindicated such a brain-centered view of human evolution.

Teilhard left England late in 1912 4 to begin his graduate studies with Marcellin Boule, the greatest physical anthropologist of France. But in August 1913, he was back in England for a retreat at Ore Place. He also spent several days prospecting with Dawson and on August 30 made a major discovery himself-a canine tooth of the lower jaw, apish in appearance but worn in a human fashion. Smith Woodward continued his series of publications on the new material, but critics persisted in their belief that Piltdown man represented two animals improperly united.

The impasse broke in Smith Woodward's favor in 1915. Dawson had been prospecting at another site, two miles from Piltdown, for several years. He probably took Teilhard there in 1913; we know that he searched the area several times with Smith Woodward in 1914. Then, in January 1915, he wrote to Smith Woodward. The second site, later called Piltdown 2, had yielded its reward-"I believe we are in luck again. I have got a fragment of the left side [it was actually the right] of a frontal bone with a portion of the orbit and root of nose.-In July of the same year, he announced the discovery of a lower molar, again, apish in [204] appearance but worn in a human fashion. The bones of a human and an ape might wash into the same gravel pit once, but the second, identical association of vaulted skull and apish jaw surely proved the integrity of a single bearer, despite the apparent anatomical incongruity. H. F. Osborn, America's leading paleontologist and critic of the first Piltdown find, announced a conversion in his usual grandiloquent fashion. Even Teilhard's teacher Marcellin Boule, leader of the doubters, grumbled that the new finds had tipped the balance, albeit slightly, in Smith Woodward's favor. Dawson did not live to enjoy his triumph, for he died in 1916. Smith Woodward stoutly supported Piltdown for the rest of his long life, devoting his last book (The Earliest Englishman, 1948) to its defense. He died, mercifully, before his bubble burst.

Meanwhile, Teilhard pursued his calling with mounting fame, frustration, and exhilaration. He served with distinction as a stretcher bearer in World War I and then became professor of geology at the Institut Catholique of Paris. But his unorthodox (although always pious) thinking soon led him into irrevocable conflict with ecclesiastical authority. Ordered to abandon his teaching post and to leave France, Teilhard departed for China in 1926. There he remained for most of his life, pursuing distinguished research in geology and paleontology and writing the philosophical treatises on cosmic history and the reconciliation of science with religion that later made him so famous. (They all remained unpublished, by ecclesiastical fiat, until his death.) Teilhard died in 1955, but his passing only marked the beginning of his meteoric rise to fame. His treatises, long suppressed, were published and quickly translated into all major languages. The Phenomenon of Man became a best seller throughout the world. Harvard's Widener Library now houses an entire tier of books devoted to Teilhard's writing and thinking. Two journals that were established to discuss his ideas still flourish.

Of the original trio-Dawson, Teilhard, and Smith Woodward-only Teilhard was still living when Kenneth [206] Oakley, J. S. Weiner, and W. E. le Gros Clark proved that the Piltdown bones had been chemically stained to mimic great age, the teeth artificially filed to simulate human wear, the associated mammal remains all brought in from elsewhere, and the flint "implements" recently carved. The critics had been right all along, more right than they had dared to imagine. The skull bones did belong to a modern human, the jaw to an orangutan. As the shock of revelation gave way to the fascination of whodunit, suspicion quickly passed from two members of the trio. Smith Woodward had been too dedicated and too gullible; moreover, he knew nothing of the site before Dawson brought him the original bones in 1912. (I have no doubt whatsoever of Smith Woodward's total innocence.) Teilhard was too famous and too present for any but the most discreet probing. He was dismissed as a native young student who, forty years before, had been duped and used by the crafty Dawson. Dawson acting alone became the official theory; professional science was embarrassed, but absolved.




I was just the right age for primal fascination-twelve years old-and a budding paleontologist when news of the fraud appeared on page one of the New York Times one morning at breakfast. My interest has never abated, and 1 have, over the years, asked many senior paleontologists about Piltdown. I have also remarked, both with amusement and wonder, that very few believed the official tale of Dawson acting alone. I noted, in particular, that several of the men I most admire suspected Teilhard, not so much on the basis of hard evidence (for their suspicions rested on what I regard as a weak point among the arguments), but from an intuitive feeling about this man whom they knew well, loved, and respected, but who seemed to hide passion, mystery, and good humor behind a garb of piety. A. S. Romer and Bryan Patterson, two of America's leading vertebrate paleontologists and my former colleagues at Harvard, often voiced their suspicions to me. Louis Leakey voiced them in print, [207] without naming the name, but with no ambiguity for anyone in the know (see his autobiography, By the Evidence ). 5

I finally decided to get off my butt and probe a bit after I wrote a column on Piltdown for other reasons (Natural History, March 1979). 1 read all the official documents and concluded that nothing excluded Teilhard, although nothing beyond his presence at Piltdown from the start particularly implicated him either. I intended to drop the subject or to pass it along to someone with a greater zeal for investigative reporting. But at a conference in France last September, I happened to meet two of Teilhard's closest colleagues, the leading paleontologist J. Piveteau and the great zoologist P. P. Grassé. They greeted my suspicions with a blustering "incroyable." Then Père Francois Russo, Teilhard's friend and fellow Jesuit, heard of my inquiries and promised to send me a document that would prove Teilhard's innocence-a copy of the letter that Teilhard had written to Kenneth Oakley on November 28, 1953. I received this letter in printed French translation (Teilhard wrote it in English) in October 1979 and realized immediately that it contained an inconsistency (a slip on Teilhard's part) most easily resolved by the hypothesis of Teilhard's complicity. When I visited Oakley at Oxford in April 1980, he showed me the original letter along with several others that Teilhard had written to him. We studied the documents and discussed Piltdown for the better part of a day, and I left convinced that Romer, Patterson, and Leakey had been right. Oakley, who had noted the inconsistency but interpreted it differently, agreed with me and stated as we parted: "I think it's right that Teilhard was in it.." (Let me here express my deep appreciation for Dr. Oakley's hospitality, his openness, and his simple, seemingly inexhaustible kindness and helpfulness. I always feel so exhilarated when I discover-and it is not so rare as many people imagine-that a great thinker is also an exemplary human being.) [208] Since then, I have sharpened the basic arguments and read through Teilhard's published work, finding a pattern that seems hard to reconcile with his innocence. My case is, to be sure, circumstantial (as is the case against Dawson or anyone else), but I believe that the burden of proof must now rest with those who would hold Father Teilhard blameless.


The Case against Teilhard




The main virtue of truth, quite apart from its ethical value (which I hold to be considerable), is that it represents an infallible guide for keeping your story straight. The problem with prevarication is that, when the going gets complex or the recollection misty, it becomes very difficult to remember all the details of your invented scheme. Richard Nixon finally succumbed on a minor matter, and Sir Waiter Scott spoke truly when he wrote the famous couplet: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave,/When first we practice to deceive! "

Teilhard made just such a significant slip on a minor point in his letter to Oakley. Teilhard offered no spontaneous recollections about Piltdown and responded only to Oakley's direct inquiries for help in establishing the forger's identity. He begins by congratulating Oakley "most sincerely on your solution of the Piltdown problem. Anatomically speaking, 'Eoanthropus' [Smith Woodward's name for the Piltdown animal] was a kind of monster. . . . Therefore I am fundamentally pleased by your conclusions, in spite of the fact that, sentimentally speaking, it spoils one of my brightest and earliest paleontological memories."-

Teilhard then stonewalls on the question of fraud. He refuses to believe it at all, declaring that Smith Woodward and Dawson (and, by implication, himself) were not the kind [209] of men who could conceivably do such a thing. Is it not possible, he asks, that some collector discarded the ape bones in a gravel pit that legitimately contained a human skull, the product of a recent interment? Could not the iron staining have been natural, since the local water "can stain (with iron) at a remarkable speed"? But Teilhard's notion can explain neither the artificial filing of the teeth to simulate human wear nor the crucial discovery of a second combination of ape and human at the Piltdown 2 site. In fact, Teilhard admits: "The idea sounds fantastic. But, in my opinion, no more fantastic than to make Dawson the perpetrator of a hoax."-

Teilhard then goes on to discuss Piltdown 2 and, in trying to exonerate Dawson, makes his fatal error. He writes:

He [Dawson] just brought me to the site of Locality 2 and explained me [sic] that he had found the isolated molar and the small pieces of skull in the heaps of rubble and pebbles raked at the surface of the field.

But this cannot be. Teilhard did visit the second site with Dawson in 1913, but they did not find anything. Dawson "discovered- the skull bones at Piltdown 2 in January 1915, and the tooth not until July 1915. And now, the key point: Teilhard was mustered into the French army in December 1914 and was shipped immediately to the front, where he remained until the war ended. He could not have seen the remains of Piltdown 2 with Dawson, unless they had manufactured them together before he left (Dawson died in 1916).

Oakley caught the inconsistency immediately when he received Teilhard's letter in 1953, but he read it differently and for good reason. At that time, Oakley and his colleagues were just beginning their explorations into whodunit. They rightly suspected Dawson and had written to Teilhard to gather evidence. Oakley read Teilhard's statement when he was simply trying to establish the basic fact of Dawson's guilt. In that context, he assumed that Dawson had shown the specimens to Teilhard in 1913, but had withheld them from [210] Smith Woodward until 1915-more evidence for Dawson's complicity.

Oakley wrote back immediately, and Teilhard, realizing that he had tripped, began to temporize. In his second letter of January 29, 1954, he tried to recoup:

Concerning the point of "history" you ask me, my "souvenirs" are a little vague. Yet, by elimination (and since Dawson died during the First World War, if 1 am correct) my visit with Dawson to the second site (where the two small fragments of skull and the isolated molar were found in the rubble) must have been in late July 1913 [it was probably in early August].

Obviously troubled, he then penned the following postscript.

When I visited the site no. 2 (in 1913?) the two small fragments of skull and tooth had already been found, I believe. But your very question makes me doubtful! Yes, 1 think definitely they had been already found: and that is the reason why Dawson pointed to me the little heaps of raked pebbles as the place of the "discovery."

In a final letter to Mable Kenward, daughter of the owner of Barkham Manor, site of the first Piltdown find, Teilhard drew back even further: "Dawson showed me the field where the second skull (fragments) were found. But, as I wrote to Oakley, I cannot remember whether it was after or before the find" (March 2, 1954).

I can devise only four interpretations for Teilhard's slip. 1. I thought initially, when I had only read the first letter, that one might interpret Teilhard's statement thus: Dawson took me to the site in 1913 and later stated in wartime correspondence that he had found the fragments in the rubble. But Teilhard's second letter states explicitly that Dawson, in the flesh, had pointed to the spot at Piltdown 2 where he had found the specimens.

[211] 2. Oakley's original hypothesis: Dawson showed the specimens to an innocent Teilhard in 1913, but withheld them from Smith Woodward until 1915. But Dawson would not blow his cover in such a crude way. For Dawson took Smith Woodward to the second site on several prospecting trips in 1914, always finding nothing. Now Teilhard and Smith Woodward were also fairly close. Dawson had introduced them in 1909 by sending to London some important mammal specimens (having nothing to do with Piltdown) that Teilhard had collected. Smith Woodward was delighted with Teilhard's work and praised him lavishly in a publication. He accepted Teilhard as the only other member of their initial collecting trips at Piltdown. Moreover, Teilhard was a house guest of the Smith Woodwards when he visited London in September 1913, following his discovery of the canine. If Dawson had shown Teilhard the Piltdown 2 finds in 1913, then led Smith Woodward extensively astray during several field trips in 1914, and if an innocent Teilhard had told Smith Woodward about the specimens (and I can't imagine why he would have held back), then Dawson would have been exposed.

3. Teilhard never did hear about the Piltdown 2 specimens from Dawson, but simply forgot forty years later that he had never actually viewed the fossils he had read about later. This is the only alternative (to Teilhard's complicity) that I view as at all plausible. Were the letters not filled with other damaging points, and the case against Teilhard not supported on other grounds, I would take this possibility more seriously.

4. Teilhard and Dawson planned the Piltdown 2 discovery before Teilhard left England. Forty years later, Teilhard misconstructed the exact chronology, forgot that he could not have seen the specimens when they were officially "found," and slipped in writing to Oakley.

Teilhard's letters to Oakley contain other curious statements, each insignificant (or subject to other interpretations) by itself, but forming in their ensemble a subtle attempt to direct suspicion away from himself.

[214] 1. In his letter of November 28, 1953, Teilhard states that he first met Dawson in 1911. In fact, they met in May 1909, for Teilhard describes the encounter in a vivid letter to his parents. Moreover, this meeting was an important event in Teilhard's career, for Dawson befriended the young priest and personally forged his path to professional notice and respect by sending some important specimens he had collected to Smith Woodward. When Smith Woodward described this material before the Geological Society of London in 1911, Dawson, in the discussion following Smith Woodward's talk, paid tribute to the "patient and skilled assistance" given to him by Teilhard since 1909. 1 don't regard this, in itself, as a particularly damning point. A first meeting in 1911 would still be early enough for complicity (Dawson "found" his first piece of the Piltdown skull in 1911, although he states that a workman had given him a fragment "several years before"), and 1 would never hold a mistake of two years against a man who tried to remember the event forty years later. Still, the later (and incorrect) date, right upon the heels of Dawson's first "find," certainly averts suspicion from Teilhard.

2. Oakley wrote again in February 1954, probing further into Dawson's first contact with the Piltdown material, wondering in particular what had happened in 1908. Teilhard simply replied (March 1, 1954): "In 1908 1 did not know Dawson." True enough, but they met just a few months later, and Teilhard might have mentioned it. A small point, to be sure.

3. In the same letter, Teilhard tries further to avert suspicion by writing of his years at Hastings: "You know, at that time, I was a young student in theology-not allowed to leave much his cell of Ore Place (Hastings)." But this description of a young, pious, and restricted man stands in stark contrast with the picture that Teilhard painted of himself at the time in a remarkable series of letters to his parents (Lettres de Hastings et de Paris 1908-1912, Paris: Aubier, 1965). These letters speak little of theology, but they are filled with charming and detailed accounts of Teilhard's frequent wanderings all over southern England. Eleven let[213]ters refer to excursions with Dawson, 6 and no other naturalist is mentioned so frequently. If he spent much time at Ore Place, he didn't choose to write about it. On August 13, 1910, for example, he exclaims: "I have travelled up and down the coast, to the left and right of Hastings; thanks to the cheap trains [les cheaptrains as he writes in French] so common at this time of year, it is easy to go far with minimal expense."

Perhaps I am now too blinded by my own attraction to the hypothesis of Teilhard's complicity. Perhaps all these points are minor and unrelated, testifying only to the faulty memory of an aging man. But they do form an undeniable pattern. Still, 1 would not now come forward with my case were it not for a second argument, more circumstantial to be sure, but somehow more compelling in its persistent pattern of forty years-the record of Teilhard's letters and publications.




I remember a jokebook I had as a kid. The index listed "mule, sex life," but the indicated page was blank (ridiculous, in any case, for mules do not abstain just because the odd arrangement of their hybrid chromosomes debars them from bearing offspring). Teilhard's published record on Piltdown is almost equally blank. In 1920, he wrote one short article in French for a popular journal on Le cas de 1'homme de Piltdown. After this, virtually all is silence. Piltdown never again received as much as a full sentence in all his published work (except once in a footnote). Teilhard mentioned Piltdown only when he could scarcely avoid it-in comprehensive review articles that discuss all outstanding human fossils. I can find fewer than half a dozen references in the twenty-three volumes of his complete works. In each case, [214] Piltdown appears either as an item listed without comment in a footnote or as a point (also without comment) on a drawing of the human evolutionary tree or as a partial phrase within a sentence about Neanderthal man. 7

Consider just how exceedingly curious this is. In his first letter to Oakley, Teilhard described his work at Piltdown as "one of my brightest and earliest paleontological memories." Why, then, such silence? Was Teilhard simply too [215] diffident or saintly to toot his own trumpet? Scarcely, since no theme receives more voluminous attention, in scores of later articles, than his role in unearthing the legitimate Peking man in China.

As I began my investigation into this extraordinary silence, and trying to be as charitable as 1 could, I constructed two possible exonerating reasons for Teilhard's failure to discuss the major event of his paleontological youth. Kenneth Oakley then told me of the 1920 article, the only analysis of Piltdown that Teilhard ever published. 1 found a copy in the ten-volume edition of Teilhard's oeuvre scientifique, and realized that its content invalidated the only exculpatory arguments I could construct.

The first argument: Marcellin Boule, Teilhard's revered teacher, was a leading critic of Piltdown. He regarded it as a mixture of two creatures (not as a fraud), although he softened his opposition after he learned of the subsequent discovery at Piltdown 2. Perhaps Boule upbraided his young student for gullibility, and Teilhard, embarrassed to the quick, never spoke of the infernal creature, or of his role in discovering it, again.

The 1920 article invalidates such a conjecture, for in this work, Teilhard comes down squarely on the right side. He mentions that his English companions, convinced by finding the jaw so close to the skull fragments, never doubted the integrity of their fossil. Teilhard then notes, with keen insight, that experts who had not seen the specimens in situ would be swayed primarily by the formal anatomy of the bones themselves, and that these bones loudly proclaimed: human skull, ape's jaw. Which emphasis, then, shall prevail, geology or anatomy? Although he had witnessed the geology, Teilhard opted for anatomy:

In order to admit such a combination of forms [a human skull and an ape's jaw in the same creature], it is necessary that we be forced to such a conclusion. Now this is not the case here. . . . The reasonable attitude is to grant primacy to the intrinsic morphological probability over the extrinsic probability of geologi[216]cal conditions.... We must suppose that the Piltdown skull and jaw belong to two different subjects.

Teilhard called it once, and he called it right. He had no reason to be embarrassed.

The second argument: Perhaps Teilhard had reveled in his role at Piltdown, cherished the memory, but simply found that the man he had helped to unearth could offer no support for, or even contact with, the concerns of his later career. On a broad level, this argument is implausible, if only because Teilhard wrote several general reviews about human fossils; however controversial or dubious, Piltdown should have been discussed. Even the leading doubters never failed to air their suspicions. Boule wrote chapters about Piltdown. Teilhard listed it without comment a few times and only when he had no choice.

In a more specific area, Teilhard's silence about Piltdown becomes inexplicable to the point of perversity (unless guilt and knowledge of fraud engendered it)-for Piltdown provided the best available support that fossils could provide for the most important argument of Teilhard's cosmic and mystical views about evolution, the dominant theme of his career and the source of his later fame. Teilhard never availed himself of his own best weapon, partly provided by his own hand.

The conclusion that skull and jaw belonged to different creatures did not destroy the scientific value of Piltdown, provided that both animals legitimately lay in the strata that supposedly entombed them. For these strata were older than any housing Neanderthal man, Europe's major claim to anthropological fame. Neanderthal, although now generally considered as a race of our species, was a low-vaulted, beetle-browed fellow of decidedly "primitive" cast. Piltdown, despite the thickness of its skull bones, looked more modern in its globular vault. The assignment of the jaw to a fossil ape further enhanced the skull's advanced status. Humans of modern aspect must have lived in England even before Neanderthal man evolved on the continent. Neanderthal, therefore, cannot be an ancestral form; it must [217] represent a side branch of the human tree. Human evolution is not a ladder but a series of lineages evolving along separate paths. In the 1920 article, Teilhard presented the Piltdown skull, divorced from its jaw, in just that light-as proof that hominids evolved as a bundle of lineages moving in similar directions. He wrote:

Above all, it is henceforth proved that even at this time [of Piltdown] a race of men existed, already included in our present human line, and very different from those that would become Neanderthal. . . . Thanks to the discovery of Mr. Dawson, the human race appears to us even more distinctly, in these ancient times, as formed of strongly differentiated bundles, already quite far from their point of divergence. For anyone who has an idea of paleontological realities, this light, tenuous as it appears, illuminates great depths.

To what profundity, then, did Teilhard refer Piltdown as evidence? Teilhard believed that evolution moved in an intrinsic direction representing the increasing domination of spirit over matter. Under the thrall of matter, lineages would diverge to become more unlike, but all would move upward in the same general direction. With man, evolution reached its crux. Spirit had begun its domination over matter, adding a new layer of thought-the noosphere above the older biosphere. Divergence would be stemmed; indeed, convergence had already begun in the process of human socialization. Convergence will continue as spirit prevails. When the last vestiges of matter have been discarded, spirit will involute upon itself at a single point called Omega and identified with God-the mystical evolutionary apocalypse that secured Teilhard's fame. 8

But convergence is a thing of the future. Scientists seeking evidence for such a scheme must look to the past for [218] twin signs of divergence accompanied by similar upward direction-in other words, for multiple, parallel lineages within larger groups.

I have read all of Teilhard's papers from the early 1920s. No theme receives more emphasis than the search for multiple, parallel lineages. In an article on fossil tarsiers, written in 1921, he argues that three separate primate lineages extend back to the dawn of the age of mammals, each evolving in the same direction of larger brains and smaller faces. In a review published in 1922 of Marcellin Boule's Les hommes fossiles, Teilhard writes: "Evolution is no more to be represented in a few simple strokes for us than for other living things; but it resolves itself into innumerable lines which diverge at such length that they appear parallel." In a general essay on evolution, printed in 1921, he speaks continually of oriented evolution in multiple, parallel lines within mammals.

But where was Piltdown in this extended paean of praise for multiple, parallel lineages? Piltdown provided proof, the only available proof, of multiple, parallel lineages within human evolution itself-for its skull belonged to an advanced human older than primitive Neanderthal. Piltdown was the most sublime argument that Teilhard possessed, and he never breathed it again after the 1920 article.

These two arguments have been abstract. A third feature of the 1920 article is stunning in its directness. For 1 believe that Teilhard fleetingly tried to tell his colleagues, too subtly perhaps, that Piltdown was a phony. In discussing whether the Piltdown remains represent one or two animals, Teilhard laments that the direct and infallible test cannot be applied. One skull fragment contained a perfect glenoid fossa, the point of articulation for the upper jaw upon the lower. Yet the corresponding point of the lower jaw, the condyle, was missing on a specimen otherwise beautifully preserved at its posterior end. Teilhard writes: "Since the glenoid fossa exists in perfect state on the temporal bone, we could simply have tried to articulate the pieces, if the mandible had preserved its condyle: we could have learned, without possible doubt, if the two fit together." I read this statement in a drowsy state one morning at two o'clock, but the next line-set off by Teilhard as a paragraph in itself terminated by an exclamation point-destroyed any immediate thought of sleep:-"As if on purpose [comme par exprès 1, the condyle is missing!"

"Comme par exprès." I couldn't get those words out of my mind for two days. Yes, it could be a literary line, a permissible metaphor for emphasis. But I think that Teilhard was trying to tell us something he didn't dare reveal directly.




1. Teilhard's embarrassment at Oakley's disclosure. Kenneth Oakley told me that, although he had not implicated Teilhard in his thoughts, one aspect of Teilhard's reaction had always puzzled him. All other scientists, including those who had cause for the most profound embarrassment (like the aged Sir Arthur Keith, who had used Piltdown for forty years as the bedrock of his thought), expressed keen interest amidst their chagrin. They all congratulated Oakley spontaneously and thanked him for resolving an issue that had always been puzzling, even though the solution hurt so deeply. Teilhard said nothing. His congratulations arrived only when they could not be avoided-in the preface to a letter responding to Oakley's direct inquiries. When Teilhard visited London, Oakley tried to discuss Piltdown, but .Teilhard always changed the subject. He took Teilhard to a special exhibit at the British Museum illustrating how the hoax had been uncovered. Teilhard glumly walked through as fast as he could, eyes averted, saying nothing. (A. S. Romer told me several years ago that he also tried to conduct Teilhard through the same exhibit, and with the same strange reaction.) Finally, Teilhard's secretary took Oakley aside and explained that Piltdown was a sensitive subject with Father Teilhard.

But why? If he had been gulled by Dawson at the site, he had certainly recouped his pride. Smith Woodward had devoted his life to Dawson's concoction. Teilhard had written about it but once, called it as correctly as he could, and [220] then shut up. Why be so embarrassed? Unless, of course, the embarrassment arose from guilt about another aspect of his silence-his inability to come clean while he watched men he loved and respected make fools of themselves, partly on his account. Marcellin Boule, his beloved master, for example, correctly called Smith Woodward's Eoanthropus "an artificial and composite being" in the first edition of Les hommes fossiles (1921). The skull, he said, could belong to "unbourgeois de Londres ",. the jaw belonged to an ape. But he pondered the significance of Piltdown 2 and changed his mind in the second edition of 1923: "In the light of these new facts, I cannot be as sure as I was before. I recognize that the balance has now tipped a bit in the direction of Smith Woodward's hypothesis-and I am happy for this scientist whose knowledge and character I esteem equally." How did Teilhard feel as he watched his beloved master, Boule, failing into the abyss-when he contained tools for extraction that he could not use.

2. The elephant and the hippo. Bits and pieces of other fossil mammals were salted into the Piltdown gravels in order to set a geologic matrix for the human finds. All but two of these items could have been collected in England. But the hippo teeth, belonging to a distinctive dwarfed species, probably came from the Mediterranean island of Malta. The elephant tooth almost surely came from a distinctive spot at Ichkeul, Tunisia, for it is highly radioactive as a result of seepage from surrounding sediments rich in uranium oxide. This elephant species has been found in several other areas, but nowhere else in such highly radioactive sediments. Moreover, the lchkeul site was only discovered by professionals in 1947; the doctored specimen at Piltdown could not have come from a cataloged museum collection.

Teilhard taught physics and chemistry at a Jesuit school in Cairo from 1905 to 1908. Just before coming to Piltdown. His volume of Letters from Egypt again records little about theology and teaching, but much about travel, natural his[221]tory, and collecting. He did not call at Tunisia or Malta on his passage down, but I can find no record of his passage back, and the two areas are right on his route from Cairo to France. In any case, Teilhard's letters from Cairo abound in tales of swapping and exchange with other natural historians of several North African nations. He was plugged into an amateur network of information and barter and might have received the teeth from a colleague.

This argument formed the base of evidence among my senior colleagues who suspected Teilhard-A. S. Romer, Bryan Patterson, and Louis Leakey (Leakey also mentioned Teilhard's knowledge of chemistry and the clever staining of the Piltdown bones). According to hearsay, le Gros Clark himself, a member of the trio that exposed the hoax, also suspected Teilhard on this basis. I regard this argument as suggestive, but not compelling. Dawson too was plugged into a network of amateur exchange.

3. Teilhard's good luck at Piltdown. Although records are frustratingly vague, I believe that all the Piltdown pieces were found by the original trio-Dawson, Smith Woodward, and Teilhard. (In the official version, a workman may have given Dawson the first piece in 1908.) Dawson, of course, unearthed most of the material himself. Smith Woodward, so far as I can tell, found only one cranial fragment. Teilhard, who spent less time at Piltdown than his two colleagues, was blessed. He found a fragment of the elephant tooth, a worked flint, and the famous canine.

People who have never collected in the field probably do not realize how difficult and chancy the operation is when fossils are sparse. There is no magic to it, just hard work. A tooth in a gravel pit is about as conspicuous as the proverbial needle in a haystack. The hoaxer worked hard on his Piltdown material. He filed the canine and painted it to simulate age. Apes' teeth are not easy to come by. If I had but one precious item, I would not stick it into a large gravel heap and then hope that some innocent companion would find it. It would probably be lost forever, not triumphantly [222] recovered. I doubt that I would ever find it again myself, after someone else had mucked about extensively in the pile.

Teilhard described his discovery in the first letter to Oakley: "When I found the canine, it was so inconspicuous amidst the gravels which had been spread on the ground for sifting that it seems to me quite unlikely that the tooth could have been planted. I can even remember Sir Arthur congratulating me on the sharpness of my eyesight." -Smith Woodward's recollection (from his last book of 1948) is more graphic:

We were excavating a rather deep and hot trench in which Father Teilhard, in black clothing, was especially energetic; and, as we thought he seemed a little exhausted, we suggested that he should leave us to do the hard labor for a time while he had comparative rest in searching the rain-washed spread gravel. Very soon he exclaimed that he had picked up the missing canine tooth, but we were incredulous, and told him we had already seen several bits of ironstone, which looked like teeth, on the spot where he stood. He insisted, however, that he was not deceived, so we both left our digging to go and verify his discovery. There could be no doubt about it, and we all spent the rest of that day until dusk crawling over the gravel in the vain quest for more.

I also have some doubt about Teilhard's flint, for it is the only Piltdown item indubitably found in situ. All the other specimens either came from gravel heaps that had been dug up and spread upon the ground or cannot be surely traced. Now in situ can signify one of two things (and the records do not permit a distinction). It may mean that the gravel bed lay exposed in a ditch, cliff, or road cut-in which case, anyone might have stuck the flint in. But it may mean that Teilhard dug into the layer from undisturbed, overlying ground-in which case, he could only have planted the flint himself.

[223] Again, I regard this argument only as suggestive, not as definitive. It is the weakest point of all, hence its place at the bottom of my list. Perhaps Teilhard was simply a particularly keen observer.


[An illustration in Natural History original - deleted in reprint]

Wide World Photos

Teilhard de Chardin with skull of Peking man.




What shall we make of all this? I can only imagine three conclusions. First, perhaps Piltdown has simply deluded another gullible victim, this time myself. Maybe I have just encountered an incredible string of coincidences. Could all the slips in the letters have been innocent errors of an aging man; the comme par exprès merely a literary device; the failure to use his best argument a simple oversight; his conspicuous silence beyond a few fleeting and unavoidable mentions only an aspect of a complex personality that no one has fathomed; his profound embarrassment just another facet of the same personality; the elephant and hippo Dawson's property. . . ? I just can't believe it. Coincidences recede into improbability as more and more independent items coagulate to form a pattern. The mark of any good theory is that it makes coordinated sense of a string of observations otherwise independent and inexplicable. Let us then assume that Teilhard knew Piltdown was a hoax, at least from 1920.

We are left with two possibilities. Was Teilhard innocent in the field at Piltdown? Did he tumble to the hoax later (perhaps when he deciphered the inconsistencies in Piltdown 2)? Did he then maintain silence out of loyalty to Dawson who had befriended him or because he didn't wish to stir a hornet's nest when he was not completely sure? But why, then, did he try so hard to exonerate Dawson in the letters to Oakley? For Dawson had used him and played on his youthful Innocence as cruelly as he had deceived Smith Woodward. And why did he write a series of slips and half-truths to Oakley that embody, as their only pattern, an attempt to extract himself alone? And why such intense [224] embarrassment and such conspicuous silence if he had guessed right but had been too unsure to say so?

Alan Ternes, editor of Natural History, made the interesting suggestion that Teilhard, as a priest, might have heard of the hoax through a confession by Dawson that he could not subsequently reveal. I have not been able to ascertain whether Dawson was Catholic; I do not think that he was. But I am told that priests may regard statements of contrition by other baptized Christians as privileged information. This is the most sensible version I have heard of the hypothesis that Teilhard knew about the fraud but did not participate in it. It would explain his silence, his embarrassment, even the "comme par exprès." But, in this case, why would Teilhard have tried to construct such an elaborate and farfetched theory of Dawson's innocence in his first letter to Oakley? Confession may have required silence, but surely not sheltering by falsehood. Any why the slips and half-truths for his own exoneration in the subsequent letters?

This leaves a third explanation-that Teilhard was an active coconspirator with Dawson at Piltdown. Only in this way can I make sense of the pattern in Teilhard's letters to Oakley, the 1920 article, the subsequent silence, the intense embarrassment.

This conclusion raises two final issues. First, to cycle back to my introduction, conspiracies have a tendency to spread. Once we admit Teilhard into the plot, should we not wonder about others as well? In fact, several knowledgeable people have strong suspicions about some young subordinates in the British Museum. I have confined my work to Teilhard's role; I think that others may have participated.

Second, what about motive? However overwhelming, the evidence cannot satisfy us without a reasonable explanation for why Teilhard might have done such a thing. Here 1 see no great problem, although we must recast Piltdown (at least from Teilhard's standpoint) as a joke that went too far, not as a malicious attempt to defraud.

Teilhard was not the dour ascetic or transported mystic that his publications sometimes suggest. He was a passion[225]ate man-a genuine hero in war, a true adventurer in the field, a man who loved life and people, who strove to experience the world in all its pleasures and pains. 1 assume that Piltdown was merely a delicious joke for him-at first. At Hastings, he was an amateur natural historian, with no expectation of a professional career in paleontology. He probably shared the attitude toward professionals so common among his colleagues-there but for the vagaries of life go I. Why do they have the fame, the reputation, and the cash? Why do they sit at their desks and reap rewards while we, with deeper knowledge born of raw experience, amuse ourselves? Why not play a joke to see how far a gullible professional could be taken? And what a wonderful joke for a Frenchman, for England at the time boasted no human fossils at all, while France, with Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, stood proudly as the queen of anthropology. What an irresistible idea-to salt English soil with this preposterous combination of a human skull and an ape's jaw and see what the pros could make of it.

But the joke quickly went sour. Smith Woodward tumbled too fast and too far. Teilhard was posted to Paris to become, after all, a professional paleontologist. The war broke out, and Teilhard had to leave just as the last act to quell skepticism, Piltdown 2, approached the stage. Then Dawson died in 1916, the war dragged on to 1918, and professional English paleontology fell further and further into the quagmire of acceptance. What could Teilhard say by the war's end? Dawson could not corroborate his story. The jobs and careers of other conspirators may have been on the line. Any admission on Teilhard's part would surely have wrecked irrevocably the professional career he had desired so greatly, dared so little to hope for, and at whose threshold he now stood with so much promise. What could he say beyond comme par exprès.

Shall we then blame Teilhard or shall we forgive him? We cannot simply laugh and forget. Piltdown absorbed the professional attention of many fine scientists. It led millions of people astray for forty years. It cast a false light upon [226] the basic processes of human evolution. Careers are too short and time too precious to view so much waste with equanimity.

But who among us would or could have come clean in Teilhard's position? Unfortunately, intent does not always correlate with effect in our complicated world-yet 1 believe that we must judge a man primarily by intent. If Teilhard had acted for malice or in hope of reward, I would have no sympathy. But I cannot view his participation as more than an intended joke that unexpectedly turned to a galling bitterness almost beyond belief. I think that Teilhard suffered for Piltdown throughout his life. 1 believe that he must have cried inwardly as he watched Smith Woodward and even Boule himself make fools of themselves-the very men who had befriended and taught him. Could the anguish of Piltdown have been on his mind, when he made the following pledge from the trenches during World War 1?

I have come, these days, to realize one very elementary fact: that the best way to win some sort of recognition for my ideas would be for me myself to attain, in the trust possible sense of the word, to a "sanctity" that will be manifest to others-not only because of the particular force God would then give to whatever good is in my aspirations and influence-but also because nothing can give me more authority over men than for them to see me as someone who speaks to them from close to God. With God's help, I must live my "vision" fully, logically, and without deviation. There is nothing more infectious than the example of a life governed by conviction and principle. And now I feel sufficiently drawn to and sufficiently equipped for, such a life.

Teilhard paid his debt and lived a full life; may we all do so well.




1 This essay has been the subject of many commentaries, most positive, but some (to put it mildly) excoriatingly negative (the most brutal, if you'll pardon the aroma of suspicion by association, from devotees of the "Teilhard cult"). In this light, 1 have decided to reprint the essay (which first appeared in Natural History Magazine for August, 1980) without any changes-for it would be unfair to improve it by correcting errors and ambiguities and then to turn on my detractors (see next essay) with a product better than the original that they first criticized. Since it is simply immoral to publish known error, I shall correct a few mistakes by footnote, so everyone can see where I goofed the first time round. I shall let all interpretations stand without comment and indicate any changes of opinion (minor and insubstantial) in the next essay.

2 I guess this should now read "Many pros and pols," the wheel of fortune spinning quickly, as it does. Yet fiction has, ironically, the rock-hard permanence that fact must lack-and everyone did do it, now and forever more, on the Orient Express.

3 I thank Rev. Thomas M. King, S. J. of Georgetown University for pointing out two inconsequential but highly embarrassing errors in this paragraph. Teilhard entered the Society of Jesus in 1899, not 1902, and he was ordained in 1911, not 1912.

4 Again I thank Rev. King for calling my attention to an error, this one of some potential consequence and therefore more embarrassing. The longer Teilhard remained in England, the more opportunity he had to work with Dawson. He left, in fact, not late in 1912," as 1 stated, but on July 16.

5 I have since learned that Louis Leakey was far more serious in his probings than 1 had realized. He was convinced of Teilhard's guilt and was writing a book on the subject when he died.

6 Several critics have pointed out that some of the letters refer to visits that Dawson made to Teilhard's seminary at Ore Place rather than to field trips, or "excursions" proper. 1 goofed to be sure, but I don't see how my point is weakened.

7 (This footnote, and only this one, was part of the original essay.) Teilhard's complete works are spread over two editions-a thirteen-volume edited compendium of his general articles (Paris: Editions de Seuil), and a more extensive ten-volume facsimile reprint of his professional publications (Olten: Waiter-Veriag). To my annoyance, 1 discovered that the Paris edition has expurgated all Piltdown references without so stating and without even inserting ellipses. In trying to spiff up Teilhard's record, they have made him appear even more culpable by accentuating the impression of guilty silence. I therefore consulted likely originals whenever I could find them. One expurgation is particularly infuriating in its downright misrepresentation. A posthumous volume of essays, Le Coeur de la matière ("The heart of matter," Seuil, 1976), reprints Teilhard's application for the chair of paleontology at the Collège de France in 1948 (ecclesiastical authority did not permit him to accept). In this autobiographical essay, Teilhard discusses his role in human paleontology: "My first stroke of good luck in this area of ancient human paleontology came in 1923 when I was able to establish, with Emile Licent, the existence, hitherto contested, of paleolithic man in Northern China." If Teilhard had thus truly suppressed Piltdown in presenting himself for review, what but complicity could we infer? By sheer good fortune, I found a copy of this unpublished, mimeographed document in the reprint collection of my late colleague A. S. Romer. It reads: "My first stroke of good luck in this area of ancient human paleontology was to be included, when still young, in the excavation of Eoanthropus dawsoni in England. The second was, in 1923, to be able to establish, with Emile Licent. . . . I doubt that half a dozen copies of the unpublished original exist in America, and I might easily have been led from the published and doctored version to an even stronger indication of Teilhard's complicity based on his silence. (It has, of course, occurred to me that the pattern of silence I detect in Teilhard's writing might represent more his editor's posthumous expurgation than Teilhard's own preference. Yet the completely honest ten-volume facsimile edition contains more than enough material to establish the pattern, and 1 have checked enough original versions of potentially expurgated texts to be confident that references to Piltdown are fleeting and exceedingly sparse throughout Teilhard's writing.)

8 Essay 18 presents a more detailed account of Teilhard's evolutionary philosophy.



Museum of Comparative Zoology

Harvard University

December 23, 1980


Dear Dr. Blinderman


I am surprised that you used by best argument for implicating Teilhard a a way of letting him off the hook. Your letter seems to asume that I charged Teilhard as the sole guilty party. In this case, of course, your reversed interpretation of the letter to Oakley would hold. But I made it quite clear in my article that I regarded Teilhard as a co-conspirator with Dawson - and that I view Dawson as the principal instigator of the hoax. Thus, Dawson began it in 1908 before he met Teilhard, and he finished it by finding the second set of bones after Teilhard had left. I don't see how Dawson can possibly be gotten off the hok, and I would be most interested to read your article. People who have not done paleontological or anthropological field work often fail to realize that it is virtually impossible to plant a few bones in a large area and hope that someone will find them. The second site was a large set of fields. Smith Woodward himself could never identify the spot from Dawson's sketchy account. I do not see how an innocent Dawson could ever have found two small skull fractures and an even smaller tooth in an area measured in square miles.






` Stephen Jay Gould

Professor of Geology


August 6, 1986

Dear Charles,

As I see it, given the fact that Dawson found almost all the remains, there are only two general solutions to Piltdown possible: either Dawson did it himself (in which case I think that Teilhard was involved), or someone intimately associated with Dawson who could direct his searches did it - in which case a local person must have been the hoaxer. In either case, all the ridiculous theories about Sollas, Conan Doyle, Smith, etc. may be abandoned. Yours on Lewis Abbott, and Costello's on Wood head both fall into a class of plausible alternatives by my criteria. Thus, I am most interested in what you have to say, for I do view Abbott as a quite plausible suspect. One other question, about which I have some anxiety: do you know what is happening with Langham's manuscript? I'm eager that it appear (though I do not know what conclusions he reached), and I would like to do anything I can to assure this. Do you have any information?




Stephen Jay Gould

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