by Micah Hanks
Some would call it the greatest hoax of the twentieth century.
That a group of men so intimately connected with the field of paleo-anthropology might be so easily duped, because of the mixing of human and chimpanzee bone fragments, was perhaps the most shocking aspect to the scientific world. And yet, it would be close to four decades before the complete consensus on what had been dubbed the “Piltdown Man” would determine that there had been, in truth, no new discovery of an unknown primate from our ancient past, and instead merely a hoax for which the key players involved spanned from the amateur rock hound and curiosity seeker, to controversial members of the cloth.
The debacle began innocently enough in December of 1912, when Arthur Smith Woodward, at the time serving as keeper of the British Museum’s geological department, had been presented with several curious skull fragments; each had allegedly had been discovered by workmen at the nearby Piltdown gravel pit. Woodward had received the curious fragments from Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist and co-founder of the Hastings and Saint Leonards Museum Association, who had previously been dubbed “The Wizard of Sussex” for his uncanny success with discovering such rare and ancient artifacts.
Rise of an Early Fortean
Though a few of his discoveries were indeed considerable, Dawson’s reputation was hardly beyond reproach among many in the scientific community; fitting what one might call an early Fortean of sorts, Dawson had also been one of the first to claim discovery of a toad trapped within a flint nodule (it was petrified, unlike many instances where the discovery of live toads recovered from such stones would ensue in later years). Additionally, Dawson would draw curious attention for his studies of sea serpent reports stemming from the English Channel, as well as claims that he had discovered what he believed to be a nascent relative to the human species.
Woodward found this newest discovery of bone fragments presented by Dawson to be fascinating, and accompanying Dawson back to the Piltdown site, the two men would begin working together in the summer of that year, in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the fragments. And certainly, their efforts would pay off, though the proverbial crimson flag would already begin to fly as it came to pass that, despite their mutual efforts, it had been that so-called “wizard” who had been sole discoverer of the new additions to Woodward’s collection, which now included half of a lower jawbone that the two had expressed might belong to their new mystery hominid.
On November 21, 1912, The Manchester Guardian carried the story of the alleged discovery, and with what certainly appeared to be little room for doubt:
The facts are that a few weeks ago men quarrying in a deep gravel pit turned up a human skull. It was in fragments, but there was enough of it for the experts to form a conclusive judgment. It turned out to be the skull of a paleolithic man, and is by far the earliest trace of mankind that has yet been found in England. It dates certainly from the beginning of the Pleistocene period. It was found in association with the bones of one of the most ancient types of elephant. The stratum in which it lay was the beach of a very old river bed. There is no doubt at all of its authenticity.
And yet, while early articles like this seemed to betray very little question of the discovery’s legitimacy, there had been a number of questions surrounding the find from the outset, which troubled those associated with Dawson and his company. For instance, Dawson had claimed to possess the initial skull fragment recovered from Piltdown for nearly four years before finally delivering the find to Woodward. Additionally, since Dawson had no proof of the exact location from which the Piltdown skull had been obtained, archaeologists were left to ponder the nature of the subsequent discoveries, which were in every case recovered from spoil heaps located near the gravel pit itself, rather than in situ as was purportedly the case with the first skull fragment.
Of course, history would later show that the sordid affair of the Piltdown Man was indeed to be revealed a hoax, prompting the Natural History Museum to decry it as such in 1953, a good four decades after Dawson’s alleged “discoveries.” Today, even a century later, in this modern era of exactness and scientific scrutiny (which often plunges all the way down to the molecular level if needed), the precise circumstances regarding who had engineered the Piltdown hoax—a missing link, of sorts, to the origins of the deception—still remains as elusive as that long-sought and supposed ancient beast that would connect the disparate realms of ancient man and ape. There are, however, those today who still wish to know with certainty the identities of those behind the Piltdown treachery, as we shall soon see. But much the same, there are also those existing today who still wish only to further obfuscate the already shaded history of man’s origins.
Modern Hominid Hoaxes
The quest for understanding the origins of humankind has indeed been a long and rocky road. Especially in terms of hope for discovering a supposed missing link to help determine, conclusively, where modern humans could have arrived from, this particular portion of the long gravel stretch seems to remain invisible beyond the crest of a mounting hill of questions. It seems true that the more answers we find, there are only that many more questions that surface. And to further complicate the process of inquiry that will lead to eventual understanding, often within the scientific fields one will begin to find cases that have presented evidence that was dubious, obviously intended to only misdirect and confuse both academics and the mainstream alike.
The Piltdown Man fiasco is hardly the only event that highlights this kind of deception; if anything, the history of hominology has been riddled with such tomfoolery, right up to the present day. Most recently, the curious (and rather premature) release of data proposing that DNA samples have been collected and sequenced from creatures believed to exist called Sasquatches or, more commonly, Bigfoot, has set the fringe fields of cryptozoology ablaze. While the data may eventually yet still prove to be significant, we are faced with a number of troubling issues as the results of a study, undertaken by a Texas-based company called DNA Diagnostics, are apparently undergoing peer review. For instance, how do we suppose that the existence of a creature like Sasquatch, believed by some to be the modern equivalent of that long-sought missing link, can be proven through the sequencing of DNA, when at present there are no documented physical specimens of the creature known to exist to begin with? While the hopeful phenomenologist—as well as the more romantic anthropologists among us—will continue to hope that such a beast might indeed exist, we are left only with the perplexing, and often spurious bits of evidence that emerge over time which, despite their actual origins, are put forth for judgment on the grounds that they may become reliable scientific data.
Thus, with the potential for letdowns in the credibility department, debate over the existence of creatures like Bigfoot continues on in rather lackluster fashion amidst academia, as the majority of the Bigfoot hoaxes that have emerged over the years have already helped establish. While elsewhere, there seems to be hardly any room for debate over Bigfoot’s existence at all; this is especially the state of affairs amidst the weekend warriors populating reality television programs that cater to such subjects as cryptozoology in the Prime Time arena. It is, at times, a rather sharp contrast.
While questions over the existence of a creature like Bigfoot will remain a hot and contentious item in the minds of many today, the desire to understand the motivations behind such shams that have misled the scientific community over the years has inspired modern researchers to yet again review the now century-old Piltdown case; and this time, through the window of modern technology.
Thus, returning to the curious story of the Piltdown Man, what we know today is that the purported discoveries from heaps near the Piltdown gravel pit were not only planted there, but had been modified beforehand, to more closely resemble the evolutionary segue their discoverers had hoped to present before the world. For instance, portions of the Piltdown collection had been stained with some variety of iron solution in order to give the appearance of greater age than the samples could naturally have boasted. Additionally, microscopic file marks were later discovered on some of the teeth, which showed how they had been corrected to give the appearance of a creature whose diet and manner of eating had more closely resembled that of modern humans. In other words, the intention with the Piltdown hoax had either been to merely pull the wool over the eyes of the anthropology community, perhaps to make a mockery of the scientific institution altogether; or more ominously, it could just as well have been a hoax aimed at steering an emerging viewpoint toward evidence for human evolution.
Pierre Teilhard De Chardin
With this in mind, it is curious that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and friend of Dawson’s, would end up being the discoverer of the alleged canine tooth that Dawson’s party would later retrieve from the mounds at Piltdown; something that Woodward intimately felt would bolster support for his reconstruction of what Homo piltdownensis was presumed to have looked like. These animalistic canines incorporated into Woodward’s earlier reconstruction gave the Piltdown skull an appearance that was largely human already, but fitted with a lower jaw that was considerably more apelike. Based on Woodward’s representation, the argument could easily be made, taking the reconstruction at face value, that the creature had perhaps been that hallowed missing link between early humans and our primate predecessors that so many in the field of paleoanthropology had hoped to discover. Additionally, it supported theories that human evolution had taken a course that favored increases in brain development first, and only then followed by a more omnivorous diet.
Returning now to Teilhard de Chardin and his potential involvement with the Piltdown Hoax: in Teilhard we find a Jesuit priest whose written works the Roman Holy Office denounced altogether, due to the progressive viewpoints they espoused. For instance, Teilhard had challenged the concept of original sin as delivered by Saint Augustine, and had also felt that mankind’s spiritual development was a mirror of his physical growth and development. In other words, evolution had not been a subject that must exist apart from a religious viewpoint toward mankind’s origins. Furthermore, Teilhard held that the eventual future of man would trend toward possibilities that nearly escaped the imagination, an early nod toward what have emerged in modern times as “transhumanist” concepts; such would be the obvious byproducts of human cognitive development, as well as both natural and, perhaps, a somewhat enhanced evolution as augmented by the future innovations of the human species.
And thus, when brought into question before the Catholic Church, Teilhard’s progressive ideas remained in the minority, to put it nicely. Again, the fact that Teilhard had been the discoverer of an ape-like canine tooth at Piltdown—a key to the puzzle that assisted sharply in supporting Woodward’s reconstruction of a creature whose brain had begun to change prior to its diet—would also have been in keeping with Teilhard’s vision of man’s progression throughout time. This is not to say that Teilhard, if he had been guilty at all, had acted alone. But it is curious that he, of all people, would assist in the discovery of one element to the hoax that would have such a singular capacity to influence how the anthropological community might view the discovery. And despite the presence of the modified canines (recall again the microscopic analysis that revealed filing marks on some of the Piltdown teeth), the supposition that canines had existed in the Piltdown skull at all had prompted Professor Arthur Keith to first question the legitimacy of Woodward’s reconstruction, arguing that such canines would have made it virtually impossible for Homo piltdownensis to perform side to side movement of the jaw, which would have been necessary for the visible wear to have occurred as, seen on the existing molars in the lower jaw fragment.
But the final strange circumstance involving Teilhard is perhaps the most telling: within days of his discovery of a primate canine while accompanying Dawson and Woodward to Piltdown, he had relocated to France, and thus became strangely removed from any further involvement with the unfolding Piltdown drama. What could have caused Teilhard to accompany his colleagues Dawson and Woodward on that fated day, which miraculously led him to the discovery of a conveniently placed canine tooth, boasting luck the likes of which might have rivaled even Dawson’s wizardry?
Others have similarly criticized Teilhard’s motives in becoming involved in the Piltdown scandal, and while perhaps a slight majority favors this idea (thanks to biologist Steven Jay Gould’s commentary on the matter in 1979 and 1980), the notion that Teilhard had been complicit in helping foster trickery had not been entirely unanimous. Mary Lukas, writing in the May 1981 edition of America, noted her skepticism that Teilhard could have been involved at all:
For anyone who had seriously studied Teilhard’s life and work this second site accusation (Gould’s assertion) was the only charge raised by Mr. Gould that was worth examining. It was easy enough to demolish his totally fanciful picture of Teilhard’s character in the first decade of the century and thereafter. Few modern thinkers have left so large a body of confessional material behind them: some 9,000 letters going back to his boarding school days, some 200 self-explanatory essays, eight volumes of diaries, two major books on his personal philosophy. If the Teilhard of the letters and essays is not indeed the real Teilhard, then he was from age 12 a genius at fiction, whose skill at creating a highly detailed mirror image of himself would have baffled Dostoevski.
So had it been the case, rather than the sole work of a single huckster, that perhaps an anthropological conspiracy had erupted around the so-called discovery of a specimen that would help prove that mankind had in fact evolved from ancestors closely resembling apes? While the dubious nature of Charles Dawson’s discoveries remains hardly without question, the forbidding lure of such a discovery very likely succeeded in grabbing the attention of Arthur Smith Woodward nonetheless, in that such a discovery, if legitimate, could have placed him in the history books. Some would even argue, as we’ve gone over, whether there would have been enough reason that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, with his progressive viewpoints, might seek to become involved, if only for a moment. And yet, while so many instances of potential foul play may have unfolded right before history’s inescapable eyes, we cannot prove any of it, with any degree of absolute certainty, through the mere act of speculation.
Admittedly, however, if speculationfalls short, then perhaps spectroscopy will do the trick.
Modern Science Weighs In
Armed with modern methods of discerning information about the Piltdown fragments, the UK’s Natural History Museum recently released new information on their website, stating that through the use of spectroscopy and radiocarbon dating, they hope to be able to glean new insights about the likely accomplices in the hoax:
The team hope to be able to find out how many staining methods were used. If material obtained at the two Piltdown sites match up, the culprit is most likely Dawson, as only he discovered the remains from the second site…. Another Piltdown specimen is a canine tooth found by the priest Teilhard de Chardin. If if turns out to have been stained differently from the other samples, then he may have been involved in the hoax.
According to Chris Stringer, the museum’s human origins expert, the entire Piltdown affair remains, “a stark reminder to scientists that if something seems too good to be true then perhaps it is too good to be true,” as well as, “a warning to scientists to keep their critical guard up, but on the positive side it is also an example of the eventual triumph of the scientific method.” If indeed the scientific method prevails here, this instance of anthropological tomfoolery may be laid to rest. But what of the future hucksters out there, who may only intend to secure attention and glory for the moment, and at the expense of serious researchers who study human’s cousins,-either existing in the fossil record, or perhaps even believed to still reside on Earth today?
Unfortunately, the old “too good to be true” adage which Stringer evoked earlier will have to remain a mantra for those wise enough to proceed cautiously into the unknown realms of mans origins. Maybe with persistence, and a bit of luck, the payoff will be final proof that the human species, and its shadowy family tree, shall yet boast a few new additions in the coming years. But until that time, our search for the missing link must continue its course warily, maintaining a skeptical lookout for those potential missing stinks which, sadly, more often tend to crop up along the way.
Micah A. Hanks is a writer and researcher based in Asheville, North Carolina. He hosts The Micah Hanks Radio Program Sunday nights at micahhanks.com, as well as his weekly podcasts The Gralien Report and Middle Theory, which can be found at gralienreport.com and middletheory.com. Hanks is also a musician, web designer, and artist, and enjoys cooking exotic dishes at least twice a year, when time permits.