J. S. Weiner and the exposure of the Piltdown forgery

Antiquity March 1983

[46] As we said in our last issue (1982‚ 164) Professor Joe Weiner, during his last illnesses, set down his views of how Piltdown had been unmasked, and asked that this document should be offered to us for publication. Professor Geoffrey Ainsworth Harrison (now Professor of Biological Anthropology in the University of Oxford‚, who was a close friend and colleague of Professor Weiner, has kindly prepared the following note for us, which draws extensively on what Weiner wrote as his last views, and puts them into the context of the many discussions they both had together on this fascinating subject.

The recent death of J. S. Weiner appears a fitting time for attempting to correct some misinterpretations which appear to have grown up concerning the early stages in the exposure of the Piltdown forgery. In making this exposure Weiner collaborated fully with Dr Kenneth Oakley of the British Museum (Natural History) and with Sir Wilfred Le Gros Clark of the Anatomy Department at Oxford but it was Weiner alone who deduced that the Piltdown remains must have been forged, and who took the first steps to expose the forgery.

Of critical significance is the role of the fluorine test developed by Oakley and applied by him to the Piltdown remains. In many people's minds this test was the key to the exposure by showing that the skull fragments could not have belonged to one individual. This, however, was the conclusion from the results of the second series of fluorine tests, undertaken after the suggestion of forgery. The first tests, performed on very small samples, indicated no more than that all the remains were probably rather recent geologically. Weiner recounts his own introduction to the results of the first tests: 'Somewhere around 1950, Dr Oakley came and gave a talk to the Oxford University Anthropological Society and told us about the first results he had obtained from his reintroduction of the fluorine test. These tests had been made, amongst other bony remains, on the Piltdown fragments, and I was immediately struck by the anomalous nature of the results he announced, that I raised it in public discussion (as I recollect) and then went up and spoke to him privately. Let me add that this was the very first time I met [47] Kenneth Oakley. What these first tests had shown was that the mandible was much younger than had been supposed, and so was the skull cap. This in itself struck me as extraordinary, that an ape-like fossil of such recent age could be found in England of all places towards the very end of the Pleistocene. What was even more incongruous was that the similar dates given by the fluorine test (with a high error of estimation) made it possible that all the fragments belonged to one individual. This to me was an astonishing finding, since a composite, "primitive" man-ape would be even more incongruous at the end of the Pleistocene in England than two separate fossil individuals. Kenneth Oakley listened to my arguments but took the matter no further.' Clearly these first fluorine tests were far from being in any way decisive, and led many to doubt the validity of the technique.

Weiner, himself, considered whether X-ray crystallography might help resolve the incongruity. He admits to knowing nothing at the time about the crystalline structure of bone, but it seemed to him possible that over the long period of the Pleistocene subtle differences in crystal structure might well have developed in fossils of different age. He not only discussed these ideas with the then Reader in Chemical Crystallography at Oxford, now Emeritus Professor H. M. Powell, but actually went on a short course in the subject of X-ray crystallography at Cambridge. However, he admits to finding the geometry too complicated for his mathematical background and was not able to take his own investigations any further. Nevertheless, in due course X-ray crystallography did come to play a very important part in the Piltdown exposure, as is recounted in Weiner's book The Piltdown forgery.

The book also describes in great detail the sequence of events which led Weiner to suspect the authenticity of the Piltdown material. Much of the evidence was collected before he ever approached his eventual collaborators. In his papers he recalls how he first made his suspicions known to Le Gros Clark. 'After I had worked on the idea that the molar teeth had been deliberately filed down to make the crenulations very similar to those worn-down human molars, and after I had also stained these chimpanzee teeth with permanganate, I put the results of my fabrication in front of Professor Le Gros Clark. He looked at the material and immediately said, "Has somebody been messing with these bones?", looking intently at the smooth surfaces of the lower molars and said, staring fixedly at me, "You don't really mean to say that is the way it was done?", and I said "Yes". And he promptly replied "I am sure you are right".'

They then decided upon a course of action; clearly it was necessary to bring in the British Museum immediately. Not only did they need access to the original fossils, which Weiner himself had never seen, but they also wanted to save the Museum the acute embarrassment of having one of its most valued fossils exposed as a fraud from outside. They were particularly concerned that the scientific analysis of the 'fossils' were thorough and wide-ranging.

Weiner recalls that immediately after showing Le Gros Clark his own fabrications, 'Le Gros Clark phoned Oakley in London. I should add that before he phoned I asked him to make a number of points to Oakley. One, and the most important, was to emphasize that the first fluorine dates must be incorrect and that all the fluorine tests would have to be redone. The second point I made was that he (Oakley) would find that the material had been stained, probably superficially. Thirdly, and this we discussed in some detail, was for Oakley to look at the surfaces of the molars and also of the canine, to see whether it was at all obvious that artificial abrasion had been applied. I made the general point to Oakley through Le Gros Clark that we should regard the allegation of a forgery as a hypothesis to be refuted or validated by as many tests as we could apply and that unless we obtained really cast-iron results then the idea of a forgery would have to be given up.'

Weiner remembers that Oakley was 'quite taken aback', but as the Piltdown remains were in his charge he immediately re-examined the material and telephoned back to say that he was utterly convinced that abrasion had been applied; it was particularly obvious on the canine. It was agreed then that the whole matter should be kept as secret as possible while the scientific analyses were being undertaken, and that the British Museum would be actively associated with the exposure. The Director, Dr (later Sir) Gavin de Beer, was informed immediately. Weiner and Le Gros Clark took on the responsibility of examining the morphology and considering who the perpetrator of the fraud might be, while Oakley, 'with great zeal' undertook the further chemical analysis and brought in the help of the Government Chemist's Laboratory. He was able to get permission to drill [48] much more bone than had previously been allowed and undertook the second set of fluorine tests. These showed exactly what Weiner had predicted: that the cranium and jaw were of different, though recent dates.

Weiner acknowledges that, 'Kenneth Oakley soon took the view that everything (from the Piltdown sites) was probably fraudulent and made it his business to study the eoliths, the other flints, and the so-called bone implement and he was able to prove that these had all been artificially stained and that the bone implement had been fashioned with a metal knife. With the chemists the associated fauna was thoroughly examined and irrefutable evidence of deliberate staining and foreign provenance obtained.'

The events recounted in this note are drawn from a document prepared by J. S. Weiner, shortly before he did and now lodged with the British Museum (Natural History). Most of them I can also personally testify to, since I acted as a research assistant to Weiner throughout the period being considered. Let it also be acknowledged that they were never disputed by Kenneth Oakley. But because of the eventual significance of the fluorine testing it has come to be thought by many that Oakley was the prime mover in the Piltdown exposure. In the event, though he was throughout enthusiastic, assiduous, unremittant and careful, his role was essentially supportive and collaborative. The essential credit for exposing the fraud, and by so doing, clarifying our whole understanding of morphological trends in human evolution, must lie primarily with J. S. Weiner.