The Piltdown Nasal Turbinate and Bone Implement:. Some Questions

Science June 18, 1954

M. F. Ashley Montagu

[884] Now that the Piltdown mandible has been estab lished as that of an anthropoid ape (1) and the larger cranial bones shown to have originated from three different sources (2, 3), some questions and doubts seem to be in order concerning the remaining Piltdown skull bones and artifacts. When I examined the original Piltdown bones in 1951 (4), 1 was astonished to find that, among the human bones recovered at Piltdown, substantial portions of a turbinate were represented Dawson (5, p. 85) described the discovery of the turbinate as follows:

"While our labourer was digging the disturbed gravel within 2 or 3 feet from the spot where the mandible was found, I saw two human nasal bones lying together with the remains of a turbinated bone beneath them in situ. The turbinal, however was in such bad condition that it fell apart on being touched, and had to be recovered in fragments by the sieve; but it has been pieced together satisfactorily by Mrs. Smith Woodward."

Woodward in the same paper (5, p. 87) observed

"The remains of a turbinal found beneath the nasal bones are too much crushed and too fragmentary for description, but it may be noted that the spongy bone is unusually thick, and has split longitudinally into a series of long and narrow strips."

I have not studied this turbinate, so that I can say nothing useful concerning its anatomical characteristics, but what strikes me as most remarkable about this bone is its very existence. I do not recall any instance in the annals of paleoanthropology of this extremely fragile bone ever having been recovered in a fossil hominid. Indeed, the delicacy of the turbinates is such that these bones are among the first to crumble even in comparatively recent burials. In view of the doubt that at present surrounds the whole Piltdown find, it seems necessary to explain the presence of the turbinate bone.

Is it possible that the turbinate does not in fact [885] naturally belong with the other skull bones? If it does not, how does it come to be together with the other Piltdown bones? If it does naturally belong with the Piltdown bones, then it may be regarded as casting considerable doubt upon the antiquity of the Piltdown skull, or else as representing a unique example of the preservation of this delicate bone in a fossil hominid. The third alternative is that the turbinate belonged to the chimpanzee owner of the mandible.

Marston has several times drawn attention to the probable significance of the turbinate. In his Swanscombe report, Marston (6) pointed put that if the turbinate belonged to the Piltdown skull, then the horizon of Piltdown is to be judged from the turbinate bone. Later, he wrote (7, p. 275)

". . . since the frail turbinate bone and nasal bones belonging to the Piltdown skull had been preserved and recovered, their preservation is incompatible with the period represented by the fauna which includes the broken teeth of Mastodon. Stegodon, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, nor with the so-called associated flint implements which are [sic! battered and abraded during the distribution of the Piltdown gravels. The Piltdown remains therefore belong to a later period from the deposits in which they were found."

Referring to Dawson's account of the finding of the turbinate, Marston (8, pp. 293-294) writes.

"Now the turbinal bones, because of their frailty, are the first bones of the skull to disintegrate even in protective burials. Mr. Dawson has here stated clearly that it and the nasal bones were found when digging the disturbed gravel. This supports the view that the turbinal and nasal bones fell away from the skull when the skull was broken up by the workmen at least six years before, The pit was a shallow excavation by the roadside not more than five feet in depth. These bones, the turbinal and nasal, fell to the floor of the pit. The great spread at Piltdown has generally been considered to have been deposited by running water, i.e., to have been fluviatile, but solifluxion phenomena cannot be excluded from any of the four strata of which they consist. Solifluxion meaning the flow of semi-solid material in thawing out from frozen conditions. Now it is obvious that if the nasal and turbinal bones had fallen from the skull at the period of the distribution of the gravel spread and had thus become naturally geologically separated from the skull, under fluviatile or river conditions they would have been carried down-stream, and under solifluxion conditions where the semifrozen sludge is churned up and festooned, these frail bones would have been pulverized out of existence. Hence it would appear probable that the skull to which the nasal and turbinal bones belonged found its way into the Piltdown gravels after and not during the period of distribution of the gravel-spread by fluviatile action."

Marston’s argument seems to me unanswerable.

There are several other points. Dawson stated that he "saw two human nasal bones lying together with the remains of a turbinated bone beneath them in situ." This is very curious. The nasal bones, unless they are united at the internasal suture, are likely to become separated from each other as soon as they are detached from the skull. If these bones were not so united how does it happen that they were found together? Even more curious is the finding of the turbinate beneath the nasal bones "in situ." Neither the ethmoidal nor the inferior turbinates are in any way attached to the nasal bones. They were found in disturbed gravel; how then is it possible that these bones came to lie together in the manner described? It is highly improbable that they came to lie together naturally, for reasons such as those already given by Marston. A more likely explanation is that the person who placed the mandible in the pit also put the nasal and turbinate bones together. This reveals some book knowledge of human anatomy but clearly that of a person who has never really studied the skull in detail. The nasal bones might have passed, but the turbinate in itself and in relation to the nasal bones was a mistake.

The "in situ" is more than strange, for Dawson distinctly says that the laborer was digging disturbed ,gravel when he, Dawson, saw the nasals and turbinate. How anything can be "in situ" in disturbed gravel is a puzzle. Perhaps Dawson meant the "in situ" in an anatomical sense to refer to the relation of the turbinates to the nasal bones, in which case he would again have been in error.

Finally, there is the matter of the "bone implement" found at Piltdown. 'We know that there were no flint implements associated with the Piltdown skull fragments. The "doubtful artifact" that was recovered from the same seam of gravel as the Piltdown bones has been shown by Oakley and Weiner (9) to have been a fake. In 1915, Dawson and Woodward reported the discovery of a "bone implement." This was made from part of the femur of a fossil elephant and, according to Dawson and Woodward (10, pp. 144, 147), the bone, although found

"about a foot below the surface in dark vegetable soil, beneath the hedge which bounds the gravel-pit, and within 3 or 4 feet of the spoil-heap whence we obtained the right parietal bone of the human skull, . . . originally occurred in the lowest layer of the Piltdown section."

Oakley (11) has pointed out that, while there can be no doubt that the terminal facets on this bone are human work,

"On the other hand. they do not bear close comparison with the scratchy cuts made by a flint knife or primitive chopper. It is possible that the bone was picked up in a fossilized condition and hacked with an even-edged chopper or heavy metal knife during late prehistoric or more recent times."

These points had already been made at the Geological Society meeting at which Dawson and Woodward presented their paper. Reginald Smith suggested (10, P. 148) that

"The possibility of the bone having been found and whittled in recent times must be considered; and, if it were not shaped in its fossil state, it had evidently never been used for any purpose such as grubbing for roots, as the cuts were unscratched, and must have been made with an even-edged chopper."

[886] A. S. Kennard pointed out (10, p. 149) that "From the differences between the cut portion of the bone .and the natural surface, he considered it possible that the bone was not in a fresh state when cut."

I think it highly probable that when this alleged "bone implement' is carefully studied it will be found that the terminal facets were produced by a sharp metal blade probably of the Sheffield steel variety; in short, that this "bone implement" is quite as much fake as the mandible.


1. J. S. Weiner, K. P. Oakley, and W. E. Le Gros Clark, Bull. Brit. Museum, Geol. 2, 141 (1955).

2. S. L. Washburn, American Anthropologist 55, 759 (1953).

3 W. L. Straus, Jr., Science 119, 265 (1954).

4. M. F. Ashley Montagu, Am. J. Phys. Anthrop. 8,1 (1951).

5. C. Dawson and A. S. Woodward, Quart. J. Geol. Soc. London 70, 82 (1914).

6. A. T. Marston, J. Roy. Anthrop. Inst. 67, 839 (1937).

7. – in Special or Dental Anatomy and Physiology, T. W. Widdowson, Ed. (Dale, London, 1939), p. 275.

8. Brit. Dental J. 88, 292 (1950).

9. K. P. Oakley and J. S. Weiner, Nature 172, 1110 (1953). Note added in proof: Oakley [Proc. Geol. Soc. London, No. 1508, xlvi (1954)] has also shown that other flints recorded as implements recovered from the Piltdown gravel were probably artificially stained.

10. C. Dawson and A. S. Woodward, Quart. J. Gear. Soc. London, 71, 144 (1915).

11. K. P. Oakley, Man the Tool-Maker (Brit. Mus. (Nat. Hist.), London. ed. 2, 1950, p. 70