Rear Window: The First Englishman: Everybody fell for Mr Piltdown

Brian Cathcart
Saturday 21 May 1994 23:02

HIS SKULL was the skull of a man, but he had the jaw of an ape and big canine teeth that could serve as formidable weapons. He was proof, if not living proof, of man's descent from the apes. They called him Dawn Man, or Eoanthropus dawsoni, after his discoverer, Charles Dawson. The more theatrical called him the Missing Link, but he has gone down in history as Piltdown Man.

For four decades after his existence was announced in 1912, Piltdown Man had a place in archaeological textbooks all over the world. Reputations were made on him. No family tree of man's descent was complete without him. Academic papers by the dozen discussed him. A monument was raised over the gravel pit in Sussex where he was found.

Then in 1953, employing a combination of detective skills and modern scientific methods, researchers proved beyond doubt that he was a fake. The bones and the implements found at Piltdown were nothing more than a ragbag of archaeological leftovers, deliberately broken, filed and stained to fit the bill.

The jaw was from an orang-utan no more than a few centuries old; a Piltdown 'tool' was made, it turned out, from an elephant fossil dug up in Tunisia; another item came from a prehistoric hippo in Malta. A tooth allegedly worn flat by human chewing action had been filed with a metal file. Piltdown Man was no mere archaeological slip-up; he was a total fraud.

The discovery caused a sensation, but it had a curious and paradoxical effect upon scientists, an effect that persists to this day. Academic papers on Piltdown Man have poured forth in even greater numbers than before, there have been several books and some furious controversy.

This is because, despite a mountain of clues, no one knows who did it or why. Best of all, the list of suspects is rich in great reputations and curious characters, including the French Jesuit philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, several prominent university professors, the Keeper of Geology at the British Museum, some Sussex worthies and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

At least one of these outwardly sober, respectable people was either a brilliant prankster or a malicious, devious fraud. Which of them, or which combination of them, has proved so fascinating a mystery that at the last count there were 14 different theories.

The American writer, Stephen Jay Gould, thinks it was Teilhard - to the disgust of the philosopher's followers. The most recent author in the field, British anthropologist Frank Spencer, accuses Arthur Keith, Conservator of the Hunterian Museum. The original debunkers blamed Dawson, while the latest academic article points the finger at Dawson's friend, Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum. Conan Doyle, another friend of Dawson, was named by an American researcher, but the theory has not found wide favour. There are even some who, as Mr Gould has put it, answer the question 'Whodunnit?' with the Murder on the Orient Express solution: 'Everybodydunnit'.

On one thing almost all are agreed: it is astonishing that anyone ever fell for it. The evidence is so thin, so perfectly convenient and yet so obscure in important ways that (they say today) it could never happen again. Proper records were not kept of the dig at Piltdown, north of Lewes, and Dawson, Smith Woodward and Teilhard - who was assisting them - are occasionally muddled in their accounts of the discoveries.

More suspicious still was the economy of it all. Archaeologists are used to finding vast amounts of superfluous evidence at a site, but in this case there was just one of everything, and each item provided exactly the information required to prove the case.

There were always Piltdown sceptics. In Sussex, enemies of Dawson (who died in 1915) always suspected he was an ambitious conman. A minority of archaeologists also doubted and criticised the find, but their voices were muffled by the general approbation. In later years, as discoveries elsewhere turned Piltdown Man into something of an anomaly, the doubts grew.

Why did the world fall for Piltdown Man? Because he was what they wanted. He was exciting and new; he fitted Darwinian theory to perfection and his discoverer was an apparently respectable solicitor with a solid background in archaeology. Even more important, at a time when the French could boast Cro- Magnon Man and the Germans Neanderthal Man, Piltdown Man gave Britain a stake in the origin of the species.

Last week, after the lapse of another 41 years, it was announced that Britain really does have an ancient man of its own - Boxgrove Man. Again the material is fragmentary - there is just a piece of shin-bone - and again it was unearthed in a Sussex gravel pit - this time outside Chichester. But there, the archaeologists swear, the similarities end.

(Photographs omitted)

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