"Max Bégouën on Teilhard"

Glyn Daniel

Antiquity March 1981

Passages bt Max Bégouën translated by Prof. Daniel Becquemont

[2] It is now a hundred years ago since Marie-Joseph-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born near Clermont in Auvergne. He found himself in 1908 in the Jesuit House near Hastings in England, which he described as the 'Cannes de l'Angleterre'. His palæontological research produced a meeting with Charles Dawson, and he became introduced to the work Dawson was doing at Piltdown where he had found what we know now to be a fake. His accounts of his palæontological adventures in Sussex are set out in his letters to his parents. In 1912 Dawson found three more pieces of the infamous human skull and Teilhard as he says, 'laid hands on the fragments of an elephant's molar . . . This first tooth of elephant impressed me in the way another man is impressed by bringing down his first snipe. On Saturday 30 August 1913 Teilhard found a canine close to the spot where the lower jaw had itself been disinterred. There was great excitement. Dawson said, 'the tooth is almost identical in form with that shown in the restored cast', and Dr Underwood said 'the tooth is absolutely modelled at the British Museum'. [Perhaps was.–Ed.]

The war came, Teilhard was a stretcher-bearer and was awarded the Médaille Militaire. By now Dawson had died in 1916. After the war Teilhard paid a sentimental visit to Lewes and Piltdown with Smith Woodward but nothing further was found. Indeed nothing was found after Dawson's death. In the speculation about Piltdown, and especially after the revelation that it was a fake, there has been much speculation about who were the fakers and what, if any, was Teilhard's part in all this. Louis Leakey wrote a book, which has fortunately not been published, saying that Teilhard was the forger; we argued passionately with him about all this for years. He insisted that Arthur Keith had told him that Teilhard was frequently at Piltdown. This is not true–his visits were very few. Professor Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University published in an article in [3] Natural History (13 July 1980) the theory that Teilhard and Dawson were co-conspirators and that the whole affair was 'a joke that went too far, not a malicious attempt to defraud'.

Gould bases his theory on Teilhard's writings and correspondence, including letters to Kenneth Oakley, but these letters are, in our view, no evidence of conspiracy and complicity. They are the letters of an old man who was trying to remember what really happened in Sussex that long ago, and had had for years his suspicions of what had been going on. After the exposure of the fraud Oakley wrote to him, 'You were hoodwinked about the whole affair', and Teilhard replied, 'No one thinks of suspecting Smith Woodward. I knew Dawson pretty well–a methodical and enthusiastic character. When we were in the field I never noticed anything suspicious in his behaviour. The only thing that puzzled me, one day, was when I saw him picking up two large fragments of skull out of a sort of rubble in a comer of the pit . . . When I found the canine, it was so inconspicuous among the gravels which had been spread on the ground for sifting that it seems to me quite unlikely that the tooth would have been planted. I can even remember Sir Arthur congratulating me on the sharpness of my eyesight.'

Yet it was planted, and the question remains, by whom? Kenneth Oakley was insistent, in replying to Gould's criticism, that there was no proof of Teilhard's involvement and that until such happened he must be given the benefit of the doubt. Not only is this right, but we must study with care the life of this distinguished man, 'scientist and seer', as Charles Raven called him. The biographies by Claude Cuenot, Robert Speaight and Mary and Ellen Lukas leave no doubts in our mind that S. J. Gould is making a most unfortunate canard. We never met Teilhard, but knew him through Miles Burkitt, Dorothy Garrod, the Abbé Breuil and Mademoiselle de Saint-Mathurin, and they testify that he could never have taken part in the Piltdown hoax. By a fortunate chance, and through the good offices of Dr Paul Bahn of the University of Liverpool, we have a remarkable document from Count Max Bégouën (one of the famous Trois Frères), which he has specially written for ANTIQUITY. Max Bégouën was one of Teilhard de Chardin's closest friends and Teilhard wrote of him to Madame Haardt on 28 December 1934, 'There are few minds I know of so fine, so intelligent and so clear.' Here is the témoignage of this fine, intelligent, clear, mind:

The discovery of the Piltdown Prehistoric Man by the end of 1912 had a great impact

on the scientific world.

M. Emile Cartailhac, a lecturer on prehistory at the Toulouse Faculté des Lettres, where

I was a student, spoke amply of this discovery during one of his courses in the spring of

1913. He was very precisely informed of all the news concerning prehistory by his

compatriot and friend, M. Marcelin Boule, professor of the Museum and director of the

Institut de Paléontologie Humaine.

Among the pupils of Marcellin Boule, there was a young Jesuit, palæontologist, Father

Teilhard de Chardin, who in August 1913 took a trip to Piltdown, accompanied by one

of the discoverers of the fossil bed, M. Dawson. And Father Teilhard dug out a strange

canine tooth which reinforced the controversies already concerning the various fossil

fragments of a human skull previously discovered.

When he came back to Paris in autumn, Father Teilhard was introduced by my father

in a meeting where Father Breuil, Salomon Reinach, and, I think, M. Boule were also


Of course, the story took a very great importance in my young prehistory student's mind.

Then the war came. On August 1st, my younger brother and I joined a regiment in

the colonial infantry, which happened to form a brigade with a regiment of zouaves.

I have related somewhere else how, on an afternoon in June 1915, on the Belgian front,

in the village of Killem, a corporal skirmisher came up to me as I was washing my

clothes in a pond . . . when he introduced himself: 'Teilhard', I stood up and exclaimed,

"You are the man of the Piltdown tooth!". In those days Teilhard's name was closely

linked to this famous human prehistoric vestige.

Of course we asked the Father to tell us about his discovery. His story was very

simple. Teilhard was taken by his friend Dawson on the gravel pit where some frag-

ments of a human fossil skull had been found, and, digging in the gravel, he had

picked the tooth which had become so famous, that's all.

I was wounded some time later and removed from the front, and met Father Teilhard

again only in 1920. I used to go very often to the Musée d'Histoire naturelle where

Marcellin Boule greeted me with [4] great regards. Only once did I hear Boule and

Teilhard speak of Piltdown, and on this occasion I heard them expressing doubts on

the age of the bones.

The years passed. Choukoutien supplanted Piltdown.

The second world war smashed the world for five years.

Then the scandal burst out: the famous Piltdown tooth was a fake. I was deeply

shocked by the news, as I felt it to be a great shock for the Father.

First and foremost, he was bitterly disappointed by a trustworthy friend's betrayal ;

then he experienced the mortification of having been cheated. He admitted that he did

not have enough experience of the 'terrain'. If he had had doubts about the authenti-

city of his findings, he would have surely expressed them. But he was blinded by his


When I saw Father Teilhard in Paris and spoke about Piltdown, he said: "I can't

imagine that Dawson tried to cheat me and used me to cover such a fraud. Anyway,

it is comforting to know that Science has reached such a degree of fineness that it is

able to disclose the best contrived frauds."

Teilhard tried to vindicate his old friend's honour. His moral value forbade him to

take a revenge. It is impossible to imagine that Father Teilhard could have been an

accomplice of such faking as regards a master whom he respected, esteemed, and

loved: Marcellin Boule . . . .

The accompanying letter to Dr Paul Bahn from Count Bégouën, dated 8 November, is also of interest:

It is difficult to express my thoughts on the Piltdown tooth and Teilhard's part as I

have no scientific argument to bring into the discussion.

My intimate conviction is that Father Teilhard has been 'done in' - once more - as

he did not see evil. He was disarmingly candid, and was afraid to cause pain to a


My testimony is that of a 4 year friendship with Father Teilhard - 40 years during

which I had many times the opportunity to see and experience his qualities of loyalty

and dedication on many occasions.

How often on various level was his candour and overindulgence taken advantage of!

He was very good. It was difficult for him to believe in the existence of evil.

We are well aware we may be told that this is subjective character assessment, not evidence as to the facts of what did, or did not, occur. True. But we are immovable in our view that this kind of first-hand témoignage is of great value – even that it would be considered in a court of law. And of course we do not forget the statement made by a woman from Lewes when it was suggested that Charles Dawson had done dubious things, including Piltdown: 'Impossible! He is a gentleman – I played golf with him.'

Our view of Teilhard's role in the Piltdown affair is shared by Peter Costello (15 Wellington Place, Dublin 4 ), who is writing a complete account of it, has already done a very great deal of research and has most interesting ideas. We look forward to his book to be published in 1982. Meanwhile he has given us a summary of his views which we are happy to print (pp. 58-9). If there is anyone, anywhere who has any knowledge of anything about Piltdown, Dawson, Teilhard, that has not yet been made public, would they please write to Mr Costello, or to us?



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Defending Teilhard de Chardin