Teilhard and the Piltdown Hoax 1

Karl Schmitz-Moorman

Teilhard Newsletter July 1981



[2] Gould seems to think that Teilhard falsely exaggerated the time he devoted to studying at the seminary so as to disguise the time he was free to roam the countryside, looking for fossils as he pleased. The reality was quite different.

The life of a theology student in the Jesuit Order today is tightly structured and it was much more so when Teilhard was at Ore Place in Hastings. He had to attend classes on Monday, Tuesday (morning), Wednesday, Friday and Saturday: Thursday was exempted from classes according to an old French custom. Mass, prayers and meals had to be respected to the minute, if not to the second, as were the "silentia" (study hours). Twice a week-on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons-the students had to take a walk of two hours at least, more if they wanted, so as to get the necessary exercise. Once a month they had to go for a one-day excursion. Since this was the common everyday life in all Jesuit seminaries, there was no need for Teilhard to write home about it to his parents (which Gould seems to [3] think extraordinary and incriminating) especially not to his father who was not particularly pious but rather a man interested in natural history and country life.

It is not surprising, then, that though Teilhard studied seriously in the seminary, his letters to his parents speak mostly of the natural setting in which the seminary was placed. Teilhard certainly used most of the time permitted to him on his rare walks and excursions to hunt for fossils. But we must understand the strict rules that encompassed his life. No seminary student was allowed to go off by himself; he had to be accompanied by at least two other young Jesuits. Some comments by Teilhard on this situation exist in letters he wrote to a fellow Jesuit, Felix Pelletier, with whom he published some papers on mineralogical finds in Jersey, and the correspondence is preserved in the Jesuit Archives at Chantilly, France. They show that Teilhard was always under supervision when he was working in the field during the seminary years. The same was true for his life inside the seminary. Doors could be opened at any time and superiors could step in to see how the students were getting on. Rules were very strict. In order to have taken part in the Piltdown hoax, Teilhard would have had to make many visits to Uckfield in East Sussex-but this would not have been possible for someone studying at the Jesuit seminary. The distance was too great for a walk back and forth in one day (about 40 miles in each direction); bicycles were not available and money was not at the disposal of the students who, being vowed to poverty, did not have any appreciable amount of money. Students had to ask superiors for travel allowances and rarely received them.

What can we know of how Teilhard spent the very limited time at his disposal to explore his growing fascination with digging for fossils; how did he meet the amateur fossil hunter, Charles Dawson; how many times were they together? A good deal of this story is told in the letters Teilhard wrote to his parents. 2

Teilhard met Dawson in 1909 (Letter 18, March 31, 1909) while he (Teilhard) was searching near the seminary for fossil plants and fish teeth. We know also that Dawson visited Teilhard at Hastings several times: on December 4, 1909 (Letter 33 ) on February 12, 1911 (Letter 64) and on April 20, 1912 (Letter 94 ). The April 20 letter records that Dawson showed Teilhard some "prehistoric relics (silex, elephant and hippopotamus teeth and especially fragments from a very thick and well fossilized human skull) which he had found in the alluvia not very far from here, in order to interest me in similar research." Teilhard then adds, somewhat regretfully, "but I shall hardly have the time to do that."

Dawson lived in the town of Lewes in East Sussex, near Uckfield and the area of the Piltdown gravel beds, some 40 miles from Hastings. The letters make evident that Teilhard did not visit Dawson there until May 31, 1912. That opportunity came towards the end of Teilhard's theological studies when he had taken on the temporary duties of a convent chaplaincy in the small town of Bramer which is situated not far from Lewes.

It is clear from the detailed description Teilhard wrote down for his family (Letter 97, June 3, 1912) that he was giving them a "first picture." The letter goes on to describe how Dawson drove Teilhard to Uckfield where they picked up Smith Woodward, Director of the Paleontological section of the British Museum, and that they then drove three miles through Sheffield Park (later known as Piltdown 2), finally ending up at Barkham Manor (Piltdown 1) where they hoped to find some fossils. Teilhard described the spot as a "small strip of grass, 4 to 5 meters wide, which runs along a path leading to a farm (Barkham Manor). Under this turf there is a layer, about 50 centimeters thick, of gravel which is being used for road building. A workman helped us to dig. After several hours' work he met with success. Dawson uncovered a piece of the famous human skull, of which he has already found three pieces. And I myself laid my hand on fragments of an elephant's molar. Woodward leaped about with the eagerness of a young man at the site. And his eyes, which are usually rather cold, sparkled with intense eagerness. Since I had to catch a train back, I left the other two to finish their search."

Teilhard left Bramber on June 17, 1912 to return to Hastings where he was to begin a triduum of vows, and he stayed at the Seminary until his final examinations were over. On July 10, 1912 he wrote to Dawson that he would be unable to "go to Lewes next week" because he had "to leave from Hastings (to begin his studies in Paleontology in Paris under Marcellin Boule) on Tuesday (July 16)." He expressed the hope that "we will again dig together the Uckfield's (sic) gravels next year. 3

Thus, when Teilhard left England in the summer of 1912 to begin his studies in Paris, he had been only once to Piltdown. He had driven through Sheffield Park. He had dug at Barkham Manor for a few hours only, and he had been there with both Smith Woodward and Dawson.

After settling in Paris, Teilhard was kept informed by Dawson, full of the Home Valdensis, which is to be formally announced in November. On January 1, 1913, Teilhard wrote to Fr. Pelletier: "The last news from Dawson is a postcard giving me information on the skull he found at Lewes, Eoanthropus dawsoni, which was presented to the Geological Society on December 18. 4 [Typos corrected] To know the importance of the discovery, one must wait some time for publi[4] cation of the paper and for the critical evaluation that will follow. Stratigraphically, the gravels can only be Chellean. The elephant and the mastodon should be looked at again. Anatomically it seems that the form of the skull, and especially of the jaw (which I have not seen) is very remarkable. I am in a special position to hear the opinions of Boule and Obermaier who are not easily taken in-especially if the findings are English." Teilhard obviously was much influenced by the critical stance of his teachers in the problem of separating the Piltdown man from the assorted fossils. He had not seen the jaw and was waiting for the documents and for the opinion of his masters as to the authenticity of the first Piltdown skull.

The following summer, 1913, Teilhard was back in England to make his retreat at the seminary at Hastings and he stopped off at Lewes for a second time, staying there from Friday, August 8, to Sunday, August 10. (Letter 129, August 15, 1913). "The principal occupation," he wrote, "was digging in Uckfield, in the gravels of Piltdown. I was there from Friday afternoon when I arrived, all day Saturday, and in the afternoon of Sunday. The research is really exciting; unfortunately, this time we found nothing, except perhaps one small fragment of nose. At least the weather was almost fine. Piltdown is a very pretty corner of Sussex, heavily wooded, near a golf course, and near a very pretty park (Sheffield Park-editor's note) which one must cross to reach Uckfield. For three days Dr. Smith Woodward of the British Museum worked with us."

On Monday, August 11, Teilhard left with Dawson and Smith Woodward for London. While there he visited an exhibition of the Piltdown remains. This exhibition was also closely scrutinized by anatomists attending a scientific congress and, after Teilhard had left, Smith Woodward was sharply attacked by Professor Arthur Keith of the Royal College of Surgeons who opted for a different kind of reconstruction of the skull than the one Smith Woodward had made. Teilhard heard of this incident, and he commented on it in his August 15th letter: "But such reconstructions hold very little interest for me. What counts is finding more and more fossils."

It was this conviction-that it was important to find more bones that would help to connect the human skull piece and the ape-like jaw-that lay behind Teilhard's jubilation on his third visit to Dawson at Lewes. On Saturday, August 30, on his way back to France after his retreat, he stopped there and was able to dig once again with Dawson and Smith Woodward. It was then that he found the canine tooth in the gravel pit-"an important piece," he wrote (Letter 132, September 10, 1913) "that seems to prove that Woodward's reconstruction of the skull is correct. We had a moment of great excitement . . . Think of it: it was the last dig of the season!"

From Lewes Teilhard went to London with Smith Woodward, and from there, via Jersey, back to France.

According to the notes added to the published LETTRES D'HASTINGS by Father de Lubac and Father Demoment, this was the last time Teilhard visited Uckfield (until after the war). He did return to the seminary at Hastings briefly at the end of September 1914-a month after war had been declared-to begin his "Tertianship" and there he practiced the thirty days of spiritual exercises that were to prepare him for his last year of Jesuit studies. No record exists of a visit to Dawson during this trip. Back in France, in December of 1914, Teilhard was declared "fit for service" and immediately drafted into the French Army as a stretcher bearer.




1 This is a much edited version (by W. McCulloch) of an article that was too long for this Newsletter.

2 The only published set of Teilhard's letters of the period is his correspondence with his parents, published as LETTRES D'HASTINGS ET DE PARIS (1908-14), Paris: Aubier, 1965. All the numbered letters in this article are from that volume. A translation of some of these letters into English was published by Herder & Herder, N.Y. 1968. (Incidentally these are the only Teilhard letters Gould claims to have looked at.)

3 Unpublished letter in the Archives of the British Museum. (Editor's note)

4 Letter in the Jesuit Archives at Chantilly, France. All letters to Fr. Pelletier quoted here are in those archives.

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