The Thinker

A Study of Human Evolution 1980 ed.

S. L. Washburn and Ruth Moore

[357] The record of the fossils fits what Darwin had predicted. There was, however, a long period in which Darwin's influence waned, and alternative theories were widely believed. One of the most influential of these theories, especially supported by the anatomists Elliot Smith and Arthur Keith, was that the evolution of the brain had separated ape and human. This theory dominated evolutionary thinking from about 1900 until the late 1940s when the pelvis and limb bones of Australopithecus were discovered by Robert Broom.

The idea that the large brain was early and primary in human evolution laid the background for one of the most successful forgeries in the history of science. In 1912 Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward announced the discovery of Piltdown, a remarkable human skull. The braincase was large and modern, but the jaw resembled that of an ape. There was immediate controversy as to whether the two could have belonged to the same individual. Elliot Smith pointed out that this was what should have been expected–that it proved the brain had evolved long before the human face attained its modern proportions. The debate appeared to be settled by Dawson's discovery of a second Piltdown "fossil," a fragmentary find that included a piece of skull and a tooth, supposedly confirming the combination of features seen in Piltdown 1.

[158] Some years before, in 1890, the Dutch physician Eugene Dubois had unearthed a fossil of a very different kind of early creature from a riverbank in Java. A jaw fragment and a molar tooth had looked near human, but the cranium was low and flat, not at all as high as that of a human. The suggestion that a human ancestor could have had so low a skull and so receding a forehead outraged both lay and scientific worlds. The dissenting uproar was so great that Dubois withdrew some of his Java finds from scientific exhibition and locked them in a strongbox for nearly thirty years.

Under the circumstances, the Java finds did not generally upset the theory of how humans evolved. The Piltdown forger did not redesign the forerunner he was creating; he still gave us the kind of ancestry many 3 expected. Although many scientists worried about an apelike jaw with so high a head, it was difficult to quarrel with what appeared to be the actual record from the English ground. 4

Even in 1925, when Dart announced the discovery of the Taung skull, the old theory still prevailed. Part of the refusal to accept the six-year-old australopithecine stemmed from the continuing belief that this could not be the way it had happened. A human brain might go with a subhuman body, but surely it could not be the other way around. The first verdict was that the South African creature was an ape.

Only as the discoveries began to come in from Sterkfontein and Kromdraai and reports belatedly issued from the laboratories did fact overcome belief. Then the unwelcome truth emerged–-humans had begun the long upward climb with a brain no larger than the ape's. Later studies showed that the human brain remained apelike in size long after the human line separated from the apes.


3 J. S. Weiner, The Piltdown Forgery (London: Oxford University Press, 1955).

4 A. Smith Woodward, The Earliest Englishman (London: Watts and Company, 1948).


University of California, Berkeley August 18, 1981

Dear Professor Blinderman:

Many thanks for your letter of July 3I relative to Piltdown. Apparently several people are continuing to work on the problem!

Subsequent to writing the note for Natural History I have learned from Ashley Montagu that he was the person who told Teilhard about the forgery. This was at a meeting of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York. Ashley says that Teilhard reeled backward and raised his hands in the air. He says that Teilhard was either the best actor in the world or the thought of forgery came as a complete surprise .

I have also learned that there are letters from Father Teilhard to his family in which he wrote about the joys of fossil hunting in England. It is inconceivable that he should have written to his own family about the delights of finding fossils if he were forging them at the same time. I have not, however, seen the original letters.

You might get in touch with a man doing a great deal of research an the Piltdown matter currently:

Mr. Peter Costello

15 Wellington Place

Dublin 4, Ireland

Sincerely yours,



S. L. Washburn

Professor of Anthropology Emeritus