"Leakey and Piltdown"

[Glyn Daniel]

Antiquity September 1975


[167] Leakey was always especially interested in the Piltdown affair. He firmly believed that the refusal of many scholars ... to accept the authenticity and antiquity of Kanam and Kanjera was in part due to their conviction that modern man could not have existed at such an early date and must have an ape-like ancestry. Piltdown fitted the pattern of a character half-ape, half-man. While we have no recollection of Leakey suggesting Piltdown to be a forgery, and there is no suggestion of t his in Sonia Cole's book, he was immensely suspicious of the remains. In the second edition (1934) of Adam's ancestors he wrote: 'If the lower jaw really belongs to the same individual as the skull, then the Piltdown man is unique in all humanity. . . It is tempting to argue that the skull, on the one hand, and the jaw, on the other, do not belong to the same creature. Indeed a number of anatomists maintain that the skull and jaw cannot belong to the same individual and they

see in the jaw and canine tooth evidence of a contemporary anthropoid ape.' He referred to the whole affair as an enigma: In By the Evidence he says 'I admit . . . that I was foolish enough never to dream, even for a moment, that the true explanation lay in a deliberate forgery.'

Once the forgery had been demonstrated, Leakey was as intrigued as most people as to who was responsible. He did not accept the solution proposed by many that Charles Dawson was the hoaxer. He was convinced that it was first of all a practical joke played on Dawson by Teilhard de Chardin. When, argued Leakey, Teilhard found that Dawson had taken the material to the British Museum, he told Dawson that he had himself tricked him. Dawson then said they must continue the hoax together to see to what extent the pundits could be taken in. 'From then on,' wrote Leakey (in lit. ), 'Teilhard and Dawson continued jointly with the hoax, with Teilhard playing the more important role of providing more of the fossils and helping with the chemistry.' In 1972 Leakey was engaged in completing a book in which he set out these theories and he discussed the whole affair with us fully in conversation and letters.

[168] We differed in our views of Teilhard's role and we based our views on Teilhard's letters. If we may treat these as a primary source, Teilhard met Dawson between 1 July and 25 July 1909. On the latter date he describes how he took 'my new friend, Mr Dawson, the geologist, to the cliffs to show him the iguanodon tracks'. The first mention of Piltdown is in a letter of 26 April 1912. 'Last Saturday, my geologist friend, Mr Dawson, came for a visit. He brought me some prehistoric remains, flints, elephant and hippopotamus, and, especially, a very thick, well-preserved human skull which he had found in the alluvium deposits not far from here.' [The Jesuit seminary at Ore Place, Hastings.] A letter from Bramber dated 3 June 1912 gives an account of Teilhard's first visit to Piltdown (first according to our reading of the evidence from his letters). He wrote:


We planned an excursion to the famous alluvial deposits at Uckfield (north of Lewes): the prehistoric remains I mentioned in one of my letters over a month ago came from there. I began with a hearty English breakfast in Mr Dawson's very tidy home; it's a very comfortable dwelling nestling right in the middle of the ruins of the old castle which overlooks Lewes. Mrs Dawson is an Irish woman born in Bordeaux. One son is in the colonial army in the Sudan and is cluttering up the house with antelope heads.

I was received cordially. Around 10 o'clock, we were in Uckfield, where Professor Woodward joined us. He is director of the British Museum's palaeontology division, and is a little man with salt-and-pepper hair, plus a rather cold appearance. At three o'clock, armed with all the makings for a picnic, we started off in the car. After going across Uckfield Castle's grounds, we were left off on the hunting ground; a grassy strip 4-5 metres wide, which skirts a wooden path leading to a farm. Under this grass, there's a centimetre layer of gravel which is gradually being removed to be used for roads. A man was there to help us dig; armed with picks and sifters, we working for several hours and finally had success. Dawson discovered a new fragment of the famous human skull; he had already three pieces of it, and I myself put a hand on a fragment of an elephant's molar; this find made me really worth something in Woodward's eyes. He jumped on the piece with the enthusiasm of a youth and all the fire that his apparent coldness covered came out. To catch my train, I had to leave before the other two had to abandon their search.


In September Teilhard returned to Uckfield with Dawson and Woodward and it was then that he found the canine tooth of what was thought to be Piltdown Man. It is just possible that the finding of the canine tooth was a piece of legerdemain by Teilhard who was known to be a practical joker and a conjurer of ability. This is certainly what L.S.B.L. thought. We think that he cannot have started the whole affair and accept the letters to his parents as truthful accounts of what was happening. Teilhard was not involved in Piltdown until on 26 April 1912 his geologist friend brought him the thick well-preserved human skull. Teilhard was certainly not the person who started the Piltdown hoax; here we are entirely against L.S.B.L. But did he improve on it? The whole incident of the canine tooth stinks and we all wait to hear Professor Weiner's considered views on that strange day, 30 August 1913.

We are certain that Teilhard was not involved in the beginning of Piltdown; he just could have been curiously involved in the affair of the canine. Leakey insisted to the last on Teilhard's complete involvement. Writing to the Editor on 11 September 1971 he said:


Dear Glyn,

Thank you for your letter of 25th August from France. Many of the points you make on pages 1 and 2 are easily answerable. I will answer them as soon as I can. I still do not think your facts are all correct and certainly not that 'the 3rd June 1912 was the first time that Teilhard was at the site.' There is a record somewhere in a letter of his seeing Dawson collect two pieces of skull.

Anyway, I will write further. Also you make no comment of the time when Teilhard found one of the best artefacts.

Yours sincerely and in haste,



He died three weeks after writing this letter and there was no further communication. [169] Of his book about Piltdown and Teilhard, Sonia Cole writes: 'After his death Mary [Leakey] was very anxious to prevent its publication; Louis had no new evidence to put forward and she felt that the imputations he made would damage his reputation-she was far more concerned about Leakey's reputation than about Teilhard's (Leakey' luck, p. 399). Sonia Cole's own comment is this: 'Louis had no real evidence, only a hunch: Teilhard had once told him that Dawson, the main suspect, was not responsible, but had refused to elaborate' (p. 375).


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Defending Teilhard de Chardin