"On Piltdown"

The Myths of Human Evolution 1982

Niles Eldredge and Ian Tattersall

[78] Schoetensack's discovery won him great and well-deserved acclaim in continental Europe, but little of the importance of his specimen penetrated to England where, in the absence of domestic fossil humans, the leading anatomical lights of the day were expounding theoretically on the course of human evolution, confidently predicting that fully modern-looking human fossils would be found as far back as the Pliocene, the epoch antedating the Pleistocene. One English specimen there was, found at Galley Hill, near London, in 1888.. It was discovered in deposits claimed to be of early Pleistocene age, but, since it differed in no way at all from fully modern man, it had been regarded as a relatively recent burial, intrusive into the older deposits. Until, that is, it was rediscovered by Arthur Keith, one of the two most influential British anatomists of his day. Keith affirmed the skeleton's antiquity and thus its status as evidence of the extreme antiquity of anatomically modern man. To Keith, and to his rival Grafton Elliot Smith , the Neanderthal and Java fossils were no more than aberrant offshoots of the human line, lacking either the large brain or the antiquity to be expected of our ancestor. To Smith, in particular, the possession of a large brain was the outstanding hallmark of mankind, the feature that had both characterized and guided human evolution.

The stage was thus set for the announcement in 1912, by Arthur Smith Woodward, that a large-brained hominid had been found in Pliocene deposits at Piltdown, in Sussex. Woodward was the foremost British paleontologist of the time, an expert on fossil fish and Keeper of Geology at the British Museum. He had received the first Piltdown fragments from Charles Dawson, an amateur fossil collector who had contributed to the museum's collections in the past, and who had

himself obtained the specimens from workmen who had been digging in a gravel pit near Piltdown common. Dawson and Smith Woodward subsequently visited the site on several occasions and recovered more material themselves, including mammal fossils indicative of considerable antiquity. Eventually, by the end of 1913, most of the left side and back of a cranium [79] had been recovered, together with the right rear half of a lower jaw which lacked the point of articulation with the cranium, and a single canine tooth. Smith Woodward assembled these various bits into a reconstruction of the entire skull, in which the cranial vault resembled that of a modern man, and the lower jaw was apelike. Proof positive at last not only that man's large brain had characterized his line from the earliest times, but also that the earliest man was an Englishman. The apelike aspect of the lower law of Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn man"), as Smith Woodward had named the form, bothered Keith a good deal, but argument (and of that there was plenty) centered on the accuracy of Smith Woodward's reconstruction rather than on the validity of the fossils themselves. And as time went on, continuing finds by Dawson up to his death in 1915 seemed x to set the seal on Piltdown's status.

After much debate, the great trio of British paleoanthropology found themselves in substantial agreement. Skepticism remained elsewhere, however, expressing itself primarily in doubts that the Piltdown cranium and lower jaw could have belonged to the same individual. But the antiquity of the large-brained cranium went generally unquestioned, and the combined influence of Smith Woodward, Keith, and Elliot Smith, together with the conversion of many early skeptics by a new reconstruction (Smith's) which made more concessions to the apelike form of the jaw, ensured that Piltdown became the standard by which other hominid fossils were to be measured.

This was unfortunate. As the years passed, fossil evidence accumulating from various parts of the world began to make the Piltdown specimen appear increasingly anomalous. Questions were raised about the dating of Piltdown, and the skull became less and less a standard of comparison. It was not, however, until after the Second World War that Kenneth Oakley applied a fluorine test to the Piltdown material. Buried bones take up fluorine from the surrounding deposits, and do so at a rate proportional both to the concentration of fluorine in the deposit and to the length of time they are buried. Since [80 fluorine concentrations vary from place to place and over time this propensity cannot be used as a means of absolute dating, but measurements of fluorine in fossils recovered from the same deposits can show whether or not they have all been buried there for the same amount of time. Oakley had previously demonstrated that the Galley Hill skeleton was much younger than the mammal fossils found in the same deposits; now he proved the same thing for Eoanthropus. This left a significant but as yet unstated problem: the combination of a manlike cranium with an apelike jaw was hard enough to swallow in the remote past; in no way could they be combined in a very recent hominid such as Oakley had shown Piltdown to be. Apes had not roamed Europe for many millions of years, so how had these unnatural bedfellows found their way into the same deposits?

To Joseph Weiner, an anatomist from Oxford, there could be only one answer: deliberate fraud. Together with others, he reexamined the Piltdown specimens. Without doubt, the "fossil" was a plant. The jaw, they found, was definitely that of a recent ape, broken to eliminate those parts which would immediately have given away its identity. The teeth had been filed down for the same reason. The cranial vault was that of a modern human, albeit several centuries dead. The specimens, the (imported) associated fossils included, had all been stained to match the characteristics of the deposits. At last, in 1953, over forty years after its appearance, the chimera of Piltdown was laid to rest. But historically, Piltdown remains important, largely because for so long it impeded the acceptance of genuinely ancient fossil hominids which told a very different story. One of these was Australopithecus.