"Piltdown and Peking"

Peking Man 1974

Harry L. Shapiro

[44] [Davidson] Black received his medical degree at the University of Toronto in 1906, but, because of his interest in biology, he reversed the usual course of events by returning to the university for further study in comparative anatomy and completed his work there in 1909. With this training, he began his career by teaching and research at the School of Medicine at Western Reserve the same year.

In the light of his future scientific preoccupation, his visit in 1914 to the laboratory of Elliot Smith in Manchester, [45] England, may have been highly significant as the initial stimulus in the development of his interest in fossil man. Smith, in those days, was one of the leading authorities in neuroanatomy, and it was no doubt this fact that attracted young Black, who was already launched on a research career in this field, with several publications to his credit. Black found Smith in the middle of the fascinating problem of restoring the famous Piltdown skull. This fragmentary fossil skull had been discovered by Charles Dawson, an amateur collector, in 1911 at Piltdown, Sussex, England, and had been an object of considerable controversy from that moment. To begin with, the fossil was found in a stratum about which there was the usual disagreement. Some authorities placed the new discovery as far back as the late Pliocene. More conservative estimates settled on early Pleistocene, some 400,000 to 500,000 years ago. No hominid fossils as old as this had ever before been found in England, which alone might well have created enough excitement. But one of the initial problems was the restoration of the complete skull from the fragments that were found, consisting of the left side of the lower jaw, containing teeth, and four or five pieces of the skull vault. The jaw was very primitive– apelike in fact–but the rest of the skull was unquestionably that of a man, or a hominid. The contrast between these two skull sections was striking, but it could be rendered more or less so by the way the vault fragments were fitted together. Obviously, the more disharmonic, the greater the question that they actually belonged to the same individual. If they did, then of course the interpretation of the manner in which human evolution had occurred would be profoundly affected. For a well-developed, manlike skull vault with a large brain capacity to be associated with a very primitive jaw with apelike teeth and masticatory function would suggest an anatomical relationship of those two aspects of the skull that seemed contradictory. It was in fact this discrepancy in the Piltdown skull, as well as the presumed disharmony be[46]tween the femur and the skull of Pithecanthropus, that influenced Professor Earnest Hooton of Harvard in developing his theory of asymmetric evolution.

The initial reconstruction by Professor Smith Woodward, a geologist, produced a skull that minimized but by no means eliminated the discrepancy. It had a cranial capacity of about 1100 c.c., which is well below the average for modern man but distinctly greater than the cubage for the most primitive man known at that time, Pithecanthropus. This reconstruction was immediately challenged by the leading English authority on human evolution, Sir Arthur Keith. Keith was an anatomist who had a rich experience in the study of the fossil remains of early man. Working from his more detailed knowledge of the anatomy of a skullcap, he reconstructed and restored the original form of the Piltdown skull and dramatically presented his results at a meeting of experts in the field. This new version was a far more developed type of cranial vault, differing much less than Woodward's from Homo sapiens, and of course emphasizing the inherent disharmony with the associated apelike jaw.

One aspect of this problem of skull reconstruction was its effect on the interpretation of the brain enclosed within it. The only way any knowledge of the evolution of the brain may be obtained is from the size of the skull vault and from the internal surface where the imprint of the contours of the brain is preserved in the bone. These unfortunately do not tell us about the significant developments taking place inside the brain. But since the brain does not fossilize and the cells are all lost, the remaining scraps of evidence are all that survive and thus take on added importance. For this reason Keith's reconstruction, which differed materially from Woodward's, sparked a vigorous, and even at times bitter, controversy between two groups of adherents. To test Keith's claims as an expert, it was suggested that he try out his reconstruction technique on a similar assemblage of fragments broken off from a skull that was well-documented but unknown to him. He consented to the test and produced a [47] reconstructed skull that agreed admirably with the original. Naturally, the brain casts made from Woodward's and Keith's versions of the Piltdown skull differed considerably and influenced the deductions to be drawn from such evidence. Elliot Smith, as one of the leading neurologists in England, had become involved very early in the dispute and sided on the whole with Woodward. He was in the midst of it all when Black visited him in the summer of 1914. Stevenson, who knew Black intimately and was his associate in anatomy at the Peking Union Medical College, was convinced that this first-hand introduction to the problems associated with the unraveling of human evolution had played a major role in determining Black's future career and scientific interests. In Stevenson's words,

. . . under the spell of the tremendous fascination of this problem was born the greatest of the several personages of Davidson Black–namely, Davidson Black the Anthropologist. Here was the call from the unknown for which his restless spirit had been waiting. A call that came at once as a challenge and an opportunity; one of those rare opportunities that come only to those prepared.... All of his previous interests and experiences immediately and naturally fell into their self-appointed places in this broad foundation of correlated qualifications that guided his approach to the new problem now uppermost in his mind.

Despite Stevenson's exuberance, there is a solid justice in his appraisal of the effect produced by Black's immersion in the excitement of one of the most bitterly fought controversies in the history of human paleontology. Fortunately, Black was unaware of the major flaw in the whole issue. The Piltdown fossil was a fake–the only one, to my knowledge, that has ever been perpetrated. This was discovered many years later, in 1955, when K. P. Oakley and J. S. Weiner, two distinguished British anthropologists published their findings on a reexamination of the specimen. By that time, test[48]ing for the amount of fluorine absorbed by bones and fossils buried in the ground had become an established method of determining relative age. Thus, if two separate fossils lying in the same stratum have equivalent values for fluorine content, it can be assumed they are contemporaneous. If, however, the fluorine contents are significantly different, it can only mean that they are not coeval in that stratum. When the elephant and hippopotamus teeth found in association with the Piltdown man remains were tested, it was found that the former contained far more fluorine–which, of course, contradicted the assumption that the Piltdown fossil was as ancient as they were. In fact, the tests indicated that the Piltdown fragments were modern. This led to further studies of the jaw, which was clearly shown to be a chimpanzee's, dyed with chemicals and otherwise treated to give an impression of great age.

The publication of Oakley and Weiner's Piltdown Man caused a sensation, but it did belatedly justify some of us who had for a long time regarded the specimen as improbable, not to say incredible. It brought back to prominence a paper written by G. Miller of the Smithsonian Institution back in 1915, in which he had suggested that the jaw was that of an ape. And it confirmed Weidenreich's strong conviction that the "early man" was a "chimaera" and should not be taken seriously. Thus Piltdown man, or Eoanthropus dawsoni, disintegrated.

It is not, under the circumstances, an unreasonable question to ask how such distinguished and knowledgeable experts as Keith, Woodward and Smith–men of undisputed authority–could have been taken in by what now appears to have been an obvious fraud. And why were so many, if not all, equivalent authorities in other countries so readily persuaded? But these are not easy questions to answer. Clearly, the discrepancy between the jaw and skull was apparent from the beginning. Perhaps scientists sometimes lose sight of objective goals when they are subtly influenced by personal identification with the objects of their interest [49] and moved by a sense of nationalism and local pride. Keith was quite frankly exultant at the discovery in England of a fossil that outdated anything that had been found in France or elsewhere in Europe, and this feeling was shared by other English scientists of the time. A similar chauvinism found expression in the efforts of the Argentinian Ameghino to claim hominid identity for fossils he uncovered in his country. Nor is a trace of it altogether absent in France, where a rich array of the relics of early man have been uncovered.

The issues can become intense when the discoverer or sponsor of a fossil is involved, and it has led to much unnecessary confusion. Again and again, a new discovery is hailed as unique and given its own special name to save it from being lost in a general category and assigned to an undistinguished anonymity. There is a difference between a Eugene Dubois, the discoverer of Pithecanthropus, or a Raymond Dart, announcing the new Australopithecus, and the host of forgotten names of those who found the dozens and dozens of Neanderthal remains.

But it still puzzles me that Woodward and Keith did not recognize that the bones of Piltdown man were not petrified and true fossils. Both of them had had enough experience with genuine fossils to distinguish them from relatively recent unpetrified bone.

Fame carries enormous prestige. It would have taken a courageous anthropologist even outside England to question the authority of Sir Arthur Keith. Some did, but many did not.

But back in 1914, when Black had fallen under the spell of the Piltdown controversy, he was unaware that the "fossil" was flawed evidence as far as human evolution was concerned. The turning of his interests became clear after the First World War, when he was free again to resume scientific work. In his publications after settling in China, one can trace an increasing commitment to anthropological research and to the problems of human evolution. . . .