Piltdown man

Kenneth Oakley

Letter to New Scientist November 1981


[432] I read with care the interesting series of articles "Piltdown man: the missing links" by Dr L. Harrison Matthews (16 March-2 July, 1981). Matthews has written a fascinating account of the sort of happenings that lay behind the Piltdown forgery, and 1 doubt if there is anybody now alive who could have recounted this extraordinary story with greater insight .Of course he had to lace together the facts through a use of artistic licence. I find only one serious flaw in the reconstruction.

There is no proved factual evidence known to me that supports the premise that Father Teilhard de Chardin gave Charles Dawson a piece of fossil elephant molar tooth as a souvenir of his time spent in North Africa. This faulty thread runs throughout the reconstruction, leading to the production by Teilhard of the fraudulent canine tooth, which Matthews supposes Teilhard (driven by a laudable motive) took from his waistcoat pocket on 30 August, 1913, saying in effect to Dawson and Woodward 'I have found the missing canine tooth".

After spending a year thinking about this accusation, I have at last become convinced that it is erroneous. I knew Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quite well during the last five years of his life. I had three opportunities for long discussions with him in 1954, after the exposure of the Piltdown forgery in November 1953 (Weiner, J. S., Oakley, K. P. and LeGros Clark, W. R, Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology, vol. 2, p 139): at the Natural History Museum, at my home in Amersham, and at Swanscombe to which I took him to see the gravels that had been the source of the Swanscombe skull. He talked freely on many topics, [458] but on the subject of the Piltdown forgery he would not be drawn. He dismissed it as "so very sad'. Now that his friend, the late Max Begouen has explained the reasons behind this sadness (editorial, Antiquity March 1981) it can no longer be regarded as an indication that he felt in any way guilty

about Piltdown.

With Teilhard expected to join the digging party at Piltdown on 30 August, 1913, he was surely

the ideal fall-guy to find the fraudulent canine tooth. He was a keen-eyed collector and specially interested in vertebrate teeth. Wouldn't the fact of his being a priest add to the credibility of the scientists searing for further remains of the "missing link"? I have heard it suggested as a weakness of this theory, that he might not have seen the fabricated tooth planted for him to find on

the gravel laid out for sieving. The colours of the tooth (black and brown) and the colours in the

Piltdown gravel were very similar, and the pieces of ironstone in the gravel were of much the same

size as the fabricated tooth. However in my experience it is amazing what tiny fossils will be seen by the eagle-eyed collection, the so-called "horn" palaeontologist (which 1 regard Teilhard as

having been). Remember too that the Piltdown canine has a shiny surface which would have glinted among the dull, matt surfaces of the ironstone pebbles in the Piltdown gravel-

* Hypothetical structure of the human phylum, as suggested by the Australopithecines and the Pithecanthropines. In H. sapiens the originally diverging elements composing the human phylum are decidedly converging under the pressure of forces of socialisation. (After T. de Chardin, Trans. N.Y. Acad. Sci. vol . 14, p. 208)


I am impressed by Father Teilhard's dedication to what he saw as truth. Therefore I am unable to

believe that if he knew Piltdown was in part fraudulent, he would have placed "Eoanthropus " on

the hypothetical tree of hominid evolution which he showed at a meeting of the New York Academy

of Sciences on 23 February, 1952*. On looking at this tree the reader may be surprised to find that Eoanthropus was placed by Teilhard the lineage leading through Swanscombe Mail to Homo sapiens. Clearly he was not seeing Eoanthropus as an ape-man as Eoanthropus was defined by A.

S. Woodward. He was seeing" Eoanthropus " in the sense Proposed by G. S. Miller on 24 November 1915. On that date Miller removed the mandible from Eoanthropus dawsoni and Placed it in Pan vetus a new species of chimpanzee. At the same time Miller selected the temporal bone of

the Piltdown cranium as the type specimen (lectotype) of Eoanthropus dawsoni.. It is interesting to

note that in a paper published by Teilhard in 1920 he supported the view that the Piltdown mandible (lower jaw) was that of a Pleistocene ape, whereas the Piltdown cranial bones were those of a Pleistocene man.

In answer to the question raised by G. L. Townshend of Leeds (Letters, 24 September, p. 823). When an acid-insoluble residue of the Piltdown mandible (lower jaw) was examined by means of the electron-microscope, intact collegen fibrils were revealed; but when the same method was applied to acid-insoluble residues of the cranial bones no such structures were seen. Chemical analysis (Oakley, K.P. 1955) of the cranial bones showed up in 7.5 per cent organic carbon, representing degraded collagen, quite sufficient for radiocarbon dating.






Miller, G. S. (1915) Smithson. miscell. Col., vol. 65, p. 19.

Oakley, K. P. (1955) Bull. Br. Mus. Nat. Hist. (Geol.) vol. 2 p. 254.

Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1920) Revue de Questions Scientifique vol. 72 p. 149. Trans. New

York Acad. Sc., vol. 14, p. 208.

Weiner, J. S., Oakley, K.P., and Le Gros Clark, W. E. (1953). Bull. Br. Mus. Nat. Hist.


Woodward, A. S. (1912) in Dawson, C. and Woodward, A. S., Quart. J. Geol. Soc. Lond.


Dr. Kenneth Oakley died on 2 November (see p. 421).



[421] Piltdown Man


One of the last pieces to come from the pen of Dr Kenneth Oakley, the much liked and respected British anthropologist who died last week. was a letter to New Scientist. In the letter (page 457), Oakley comments on Dr L. Harrison Matthew's series of articles in New Scientist reconstructing the events of the famous Piltdown fraud.

For most of his working life, Oakley was employed at the British Museum (Natural History). He will be best remembered for the research that proved the remains of :he Piltdown Man a fraud, The claim that Piltdown Man provided a missing link between man and the apes held good until Oakley's research blew the hoax sky high in 1953.

Oakley's early research convinced him that the amount of fluorine in bones increased with time, providing a technique for checking the antiquity of fossils( although he never claimed that the technique offered a firm chronology). When Oakley used his fluorine technique on the remains "found" at Piltdown in Sussex-remains that his colleague at the British Museum, Arthur Smith Woodward, has used to reconstruct a skull of Eoanthropus (Dawn Man)-he found that the various bones were not of the same age and so must have been planted.

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Defending Teilhard de Chardin