Letter: Piltdown: the simple answer

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Sir: You report (21 March) on a meeting at the Linnean Society which discussed, once again, the possible instigator of the Piltdown forgery. What past and current theorists fail to understand is that there were only two individuals who actually found the bones at Piltdown and that the same two individuals demonstrated the bones to the scientific public at the Science Museum.

These two were Charles Dawson, a local solicitor and keen amateur fossil- hunter, and Arthur Smith Woodward, the keeper of palaeontology at the Science Museum, London. No middle-man was involved. The problem has always been: who planted the bones?

Sir Arthur Keith, a previous suspect, was drawn into the Piltdown affair when invited, by Smith Woodward, to view the bones at the Science Museum. At that time, 1912, Arthur Keith was a curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London. He was a world authority on primate and human anatomy, whereas Smith Woodward specialised in fossil fish and had no special knowledge of human anatomy.

Keith had mixed feelings, from the beginning, about the true nature of the jaw bone; he detailed the simian character of the Piltdown jaw bone on numerous occasions in his Antiquity of Man. Immediate recognition was complicated because key parts of the bone were missing. Smith Woodward, on the other hand, was never in any doubt about the bone being human.

I was present that day in 1953 when Weiner and co descended on the Buckston Browne Research Farm with a "doctored" chimpanzee jaw bone. To my amazement, Arthur Keith gave in immediately. So why did he not respond like that in 1912? He was a young man then and very ambitious, whereas Smith Woodward was at the top of the scientific establishment. Even so, had Arthur Keith stated categorically that the jaw bone was that of a chimpanzee, that would have been the end of the affair.

The other point Piltdown theorists do not take into consideration is the site where the jaw bone was "found". It was "found" in some untouched remnants of the original gravel some four feet six inches down at the bottom of the pit. Hinton or others, now accused of the forgery, would have required the foresight of Tiresias to have arranged the planting of the bone in such a site, and then waited confidently for Dawson to come along and start digging at the precise point at the bottom of the pit. The more plausible explanation is that Dawson carried the bone into the pit. Dawson was an established stainer of fossils. This reduced the forgery to two individuals - those who found the bones and presented them to the scientific community.

W J DEMPSTER FRCS

Lockerley, Hampshire

Comments