Piltdown 2003

by Professor Chris Stringer

Chris Stringer is a Merit Researcher on hominids in the Department of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, London. This article was written for the 50th anniversary of the uncovering of the Piltdown Man hoax.

Over the last few weeks Andy Currant, Robert Kruszynski and I have been engaged in a flurry of activity related to the 50th anniversary of the exposure of 'Piltdown Man' as a forgery, an exposure that solved one of the greatest puzzles in science. November 21st 1953, was the day of publication of an issue of the Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) containing a paper by Joseph Weiner, Kenneth Oakley and Wilfrid Le Gros Clark. To great accompanying media interest and even questions in the Houses of Parliament, the authors described their investigations into the important fossil human remains of 'Eoanthropus dawsoni' (The Dawn Man of Dawson), found at Piltdown in Sussex. Their conclusion was stunning: the ape-like Piltdown mandible was a forgery! Over the next two years Oakley and colleagues conducted even more wide-ranging analyses that showed the whole Piltdown assemblage of bones and artifacts was fraudulent.

The notorious Piltdown affair probably had its roots in the discoveries of 'Java Man' in 1891 and 'Heidelberg Man' in 1907. These specimens were claimed to be missing links between apes and humans, and they may have planted the idea of creating an even more spectacular find on British soil. Charles Dawson, a solicitor and amateur fossil hunter, claimed that sometime before 1910, a workman handed him a dark-stained and thick piece of human skull that had been found in gravels at the village of Piltdown in Sussex. By 1912, Dawson had collected more of the skull from around the site, and had contacted his friend Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum. Together these two began excavations at Piltdown in 1912, and soon found more skull fragments, fossil animal bones, primitive stone tools, and a remarkable fragment of lower jaw. Amid great excitement, they announced the finds to a packed session of the Geological Society in London at the end of 1912, and named a new type of early human, Eoanthropus dawsoni). Although the skull and jaw pieces were awkwardly broken, Smith Woodward reconstructed them into a complete skull that combined a modern-looking braincase with very ape-like jaws. On the basis of the associated animal bones and artifacts, Smith Woodward and Dawson argued that Eoanthropus was more ancient than Heidelberg Man equivalent in modern terms to an age of about a million years.

Not everyone welcomed Piltdown Man. Some experts, particularly in the United States, were sceptical of the match between the skull and lower jaw, and suggested that they represented separate human and ape fossils that had become mixed in the gravels. However, in 1913 and 1914, more finds were made at Piltdown, including a canine tooth intermediate in size between that of apes and humans, and a unique carved artifact made from a large piece of elephant bone that because of its shape became known as the "cricket bat". In 1915 the last Piltdown finds were made. A molar tooth and some skull pieces closely matching the first finds were supposedly found by Dawson in a field two miles from the original site. Eoanthropus became generally accepted as a primitive human fossil, especially in Britain, since it matched the expectations of some scientists that the brain had evolved to a large size early in human evolution, while other features (such as the jaws and teeth) may have lagged behind. However, as other finds of early hominins were made in Africa and Asia during the 1920s and 30s, Piltdown Man was pushed into an increasingly peripheral position in the story of human evolution, since nothing else resembled it.

New chemical and physical dating techniques were developed after 1945, and these began to be applied to the fossil record, including Piltdown Man. The first results suggested that the skull and jaw material, unlike the fossil animal bones from the site, were not very ancient, which made it seem even more puzzling. Then in 1953, their suspicions aroused, Oxford scientists Joe Weiner and Wilfrid Le Gros Clark asked Kenneth Oakley, then of the BM(NH) Geology Department (precursor to the present Palaeontology and Mineralogy departments) , to apply even more stringent tests to Piltdown Man. On the basis of these investigations the 'fossil' was finally exposed as a fake. The Piltdown site had been salted with bones and artifacts from various sources, most of them artificially stained to match the colour of the local gravels. The 'missing link' itself consisted of parts of an unusually thick but quite recent human skull, and the jaw of an unusually small orang-utan with filed teeth!

So who was responsible for this hoax, which fooled some of the most outstanding British scientists for 40 years? At least 25 men (no women, so far) have been accused of being involved in the forgery, ranging from Dawson and Smith Woodward through to the eminent anatomists Sir Arthur Keith and Sir Grafton Elliot Smith. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who lived in Sussex and played golf at Piltdown, has been added to the growing list of suspects.

Charles Dawson, the amateur antiquarian at the centre of the Piltdown discoveries, has been a prime candidate for the forger since 1953. He was the first person to seriously search for, and report, fossils from the Piltdown site and was present when all the main finds were made there. He is the only individual who can definitely be associated with the final 'discoveries' at the second Piltdown site, and subsequent to his final illness and death, no further significant discoveries were made at either Piltdown location. Given Dawson's centrality to the story, why should any other suspects be entertained beyond the most obvious one? There are various reasons why other individuals have fallen under suspicion, particularly the fact that Dawson was too obvious a culprit and would have known he would be the main suspect in the event of exposure. Given his profession and his ambitions (e.g., election to the Royal Society), he had too much to lose, it is argued. Some workers also consider that Dawson simply did not have the knowledge and access to materials to create a forgery that deceived some of the best scientific minds of the time. Thus, a covert expert may have secretly collaborated with Dawson in producing the faked fossils, or Dawson was the gullible victim of the scheming of others.

An alternative candidate for the forger has recently come to the fore Martin Hinton. At the time of the Piltdown discoveries, he was a knowledgeable volunteer in Smith Woodward's department at the BM (NH), and later became Keeper of Zoology. In the mid-1970s an old canvas traveling trunk with Hinton's initials on it was found when loft space was being cleared above the old Keeper of Zoology's office. Among the items unpacked by Andy Currant were mammal teeth and bones stained and carved in the manner of the Piltdown fossils. Separately, similar items were forwarded to Andy and Brian Gardiner of Kings College by Hinton's scientific executor, the palaeontologist Bob Savage. In Brian's recent Linnean Society publication, he argues that the staining procedures in Hinton's materials were the same as those used in the Piltdown assemblages and that Hinton was the forger. The motive might have been revenge following a quarrel about departmental payments due to Hinton or perhaps Hinton, like several others, had taken a personal dislike to Smith Woodward. Shortly after the exposure of the forgery, Hinton indicated in conversations, interviews and correspondence that he had long had suspicions about Piltdown and may even have known who was behind it. Hinton certainly had the geological knowledge and access to materials to produce the forgeries, whether in league with Dawson or not (Brian believes that Hinton duped both Dawson and Smith Woodward).

But there are now several additional reasons to suspect that Dawson was not merely the innocent victim of the malice or trickery of others. As mentioned already, he was the only figure present throughout the main events, and the strange "discoveries" at Piltdown II can only be laid at his door. My re-examination of the Piltdown II molar, with Louise Humphrey and Christopher Dean, reinforces the view that it is from the same orang jaw that was used for Piltdown I. If true, this means that Dawson must have had the rest of the original jaw in his possession. Additionally, there is now plenty of other evidence, some of it still emerging, that Dawson was not the straightforward solicitor and honest amateur scientist he portrayed himself as being. He seems to have been involved in a chain of actual or likely forgeries, at least one suspect property deal, and gross plagiarism of the work of others.

Therefore, I think that Dawson was behind most of the forged material, with his motive being scientific and personal ambition and, as Andy argues, creating material that closely matched Woodward's preconceived ideas and scientific agenda. But what about Hinton? Andy and I agree that his attitude towards Piltdown both before and after the exposure was suspicious, and the contents of the trunk show he was experimenting on how to fake fossils but was this to create his own forgeries or to show how Piltdown could have been done? This brings us back to the extraordinary 'cricket bat', the last significant find at Piltdown I. Could Hinton have made and planted this object, which stands out so much from the other finds in its brazenness, to warn the forger(s) that the game was up? Then, to his horror, this bizarre piece was heralded as the world's oldest bone implement - after which he could hardly own up to his involvement. Under this scenario, Piltdown II follows as Dawson's reaction to the contamination of the original site. But Dawson fell ill and died before he could properly develop a new Eoanthropus somewhere else.

Of course, there is no signed confession or 'smoking gun', and the above speculations will certainly not be the last word on this fascinating whodunit.

Chris Stringer, Dept. of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum, London
http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/staff-directory/palaeontology/cv-5508.html

Websites and references

There are many websites dealing with Piltdown, and the three linked sites listed below provide the most comprehensive coverage at present. Spencer's two 1990 books contain the best archival sources, while Walsh's 1996 book is, at present, the most up-to-date published review of the saga. A new book on Dawson by Miles Russell will be published shortly, and more revelations about him will be published by Mike Pitts in the December issue of British Archaeology.

Piltdown Man (talk.origins archive)

Piltdown Man Home Page

An annotated bibliography of the Piltdown Man forgery

Gardiner, B. 2003. The Piltdown forgery: a re-statement of the case against Hinton. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 139: 315-335.

Russell, M. (in press) Piltdown Man: the secret life of Charles Dawson. Tempus: Stroud

Spencer, F. 1990. Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery. NHM/Oxford University Press

Spencer, F. 1990. The Piltdown Papers: 1908-1955. NHM/Oxford University Press

Walsh, J. 1996. Unraveling Piltdown: the science fraud of the century and its solution. Random House: New York.

Weiner, J. & Stringer, C. 2003. The Piltdown Forgery (50th anniversary edition). Oxford University Press: Oxford.


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