The Question of Human Origins
What does it mean to be human? What makes us different from the rest of the animals on this planet? Are we humans really just highly evolved apes? These questions have dogged us humans since we were first aware of ourselves as somehow unique from other animals.
In 1859, an English naturalist named Charles Darwin published his own ideas on the subject: his theory of evolution. Twelve years later, Darwin applied his notion of animal species changing over time to the question of human origins. He ultimately suggested that humans descended from a lineage of ape-like creatures.
At the start of the 20th century, fossil remains of human ancestors were scarce. Neanderthals were first discovered in 1856. For many years, they were believed to be a primitive intermediate species between human and ape. Neanderthals are now believed to be an extinct human species or subspecies. Also in the 19th century, fossil evidence emerged from Java, fanning the flames of controversy over a hotly debated question: Did the human brain evolve first, followed by other bodily adaptations? Or was it the other way around?
It was on this stage, in 1912, that Piltdown Man — represented by a collection of fossil skull fragments — was presented to the world as the evolutionary “missing link” between ape and man. The skull fragments were found on an old farm near Piltdown, in southern England. It was described as an ancient human ancestor which had a human-like cranium and an ape-like jaw. This mixture of ancient and modern features was proof, some said, that the first modern human feature to emerge in evolving primates was an increased brain capacity.
But years later, doubts about the discovery began to spread through the halls of academic science. Decades later, a mystery as compelling as any dreamed up by Agatha Christie remains unsolved …
The story of Piltdown Man has rather vague beginnings. He was first discovered by Charles Dawson, a solicitor and amateur archaeologist. One day in 1908, recounted Dawson, he encountered workmen on the Piltdown farm digging in a gravel pit that was once an old river bed. The workmen were collecting material needed to repair roads. Some time back, they had found a “coconut-like” object. It had been inadvertently smashed by a pick-axe, and scattered about the pit. One workman, knowing Dawson was interested in ancient artifacts, gave the amateur archaeologist a fragment of this “coconut”.
Dawson identified the fragment as a piece of human skull. An immediate search of the area yielded nothing. But the following year, another search turned up two skull fragments. Early in 1912, Dawson showed these pieces to Arthur Smith Woodward, head of the geology department at the British Museum (Natural History) in London — today called the Natural History Museum, London. Woodward was intrigued; the fossil skull fragments indeed came from an unusually thick modern human cranium.
Woodward and Dawson began an excavation of the Piltdown pit, searching for more bone fragments. On the first day of digging, Saturday June 2, 1912, they were joined by a visiting French priest and paleontology enthusiast, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who would continue to maintain an intermittent but important association with the activities at the pit.
The next pivotal discovery was again made by Dawson a few days later. While working in an area not far from where the previous skull fragment had been recovered, his hammer struck a section of well-packed bottom soil, and out flew a piece of bone. It turned out to be a section of jawbone, rather ape-like in appearance, with the chin section missing, and two molars still embedded in the jaw.
Before the dig shut down for the year, the excavators found a small fragment from the back of the skull, followed by three more pieces of the cranium. They also found fossil teeth from various ancient animals such as mastodon, beaver, hippopotamus, horse, and primitive elephant, as well as a piece of antler from an extinct red deer. These animal fossils, retrieved from the same stratum as the human fossils, seemed to confirm the antiquity of the human fossil fragments.
On December 18, 1912, Woodward and Dawson presented their discovery in a meeting at the Geological Society of London. The nine cranial fragments, announced Woodward, belonged to a modern human with a large braincase and a vertical forehead with slightly ridged brows. The jawbone piece found nearby resembled that of an ape. But embedded in the jaw were two molars that were worn in a manner characteristic of humans. Woodward believed the cranium and jaw came from the same individual, indicating a creature that was an intermediate form between ape and man. The discussion that ensued was largely about the age of the bones, and the validity of Woodward’s reconstruction of the skull. No one openly questioned the authenticity of the find.
The discovery of Piltdown Man came at a time when little was known about human evolution. In Java, an upper molar tooth, skullcap, and thighbone found in 1890 and 1891, had sparked controversy. These fossils, called Java Man, came from an individual with a primitive skull. Yet its thighbone resembled that of a modern human’s. If the ape-like skull and modern femur in fact came from the same individual, Java Man suggested that bodily adaptations such as an upright stance developed first, and that a large brain was the last modern human feature to evolve.
The evolutionary story Piltdown Man told directly contradicted Java Man. But both finds had the same problem — how could you be sure that two fossil fragments found near each other were from one individual and not a bit from an ape and a bit from a human?
Scientists who felt in their hearts that the human brain must have developed first readily accepted Piltdown Man. And it’s no surprise that many prominent British anthropologists embraced the discovery of an ancient englishman with a highly evolved brain.
More Fossils Uncovered
Excavations at the Piltdown gravel pit resumed in late May of 1913. In August, Dawson found thin slices of bone, later verified to be Piltdown Man’s nose. Then on August 30th, the French priest Teilhard de Chardin, who had once again joined the team while on break from his clerical duties, made an important find: an ape-like canine tooth, an anatomical feature that Woodward had predicted in his initial reconstruction of Piltdown Man’s skull.
In late June of 1914, a curious artifact was unearthed, this time by Woodward. He found what appeared to be a tool, carved from the fossil bone of a large animal. The tool, thought to be used for shallow digging, resembled a small cricket bat. Also that same year, they found more animal teeth, one each from an ancient rhinoceros and mastodon.
Charles Dawson died in August of 1916, taking with him the secrets of a new fossil discovery. In 1915, he had apparently confided in Woodward about finding more ancient human remains in a field near Sheffield Park, about 2 miles west of the Piltdown site. But he did not reveal the exact location of the site, and did not provide any detailed documentation of his new find. Dawson’s widow gave these bones to Woodward — two skull fragments and a molar tooth, along with the lower molar of an ancient rhinoceros. Based on these fossils, in February 1917, Woodward announced the existence of a second Piltdown Man. To many of his colleagues, this second discovery, dubbed Piltdown II, gave the original Piltdown Man more credibility.
Now that a second specimen of this same kind of human ancestor had been discovered, it erased doubts that the original Piltdown human bones had come from one individual.
In the years following the Piltdown finds, more ancient human remains were being uncovered, particularly in Africa and Asia. This new fossil evidence strongly indicated that the brain was the last part of the human body to evolve. The Piltdown skulls however, sharply contradicted this scenario, and they were increasingly being regarded as evolutionary oddballs. But Arthur Smith Woodward remained a believer in the antiquity of Piltdown Man till the day he died. His account of the discovery, published in a book titled “The Earliest Englishman”, came out in 1948, four years after his death. Had he lived another nine years, he would have witnessed the unraveling of what was perhaps the greatest scientific hoax in modern history.
The beginning of the end of Piltdown Man started at a banquet hosted by The British Museum (Natural History) in July of 1953. That evening, Joseph Weiner, a professor of physical anthropology at Oxford University, found himself seated next to Kenneth Oakley, a geologist and paleontologist at the museum. A few years before, Oakley had done some chemical testing on the Piltdown fossils, and Weiner took the opportunity to ask some questions. He inquired about the exact location of the Piltdown II fossil discovery. To Weiner’s surprise, Oakley responded, “… all we know about site II is on a postcard sent in July 1915 to Woodward, and an earlier letter in that year, from neither of which can one identify the position of Piltdown II.”
Weiner was astonished; he had always thought that the Piltdown II location was being kept a secret to protect it from curious fossil-hunters. Why had such a significant find been so poorly documented? This fundamental oversight made Weiner suspicious, and his curiosity precipitated a series of investigations.
First, he examined casts of the Piltdown I skull fragments. The one piece of evidence that would confirm that the cranium pieces and jaw pieces actually came from the same individual — a connecting piece of bone — was missing. The teeth were worn down as he expected. But on closer inspection, the signs of wear on the teeth were all wrong — the biting surfaces were sharp, not gently rounded. The two teeth were equally worn, whereas one would expect the tooth closer to the front to be more worn due to more years in use. And for these particular teeth, one would expect them to be more worn on the outside than on the inside; yet the opposite was the case.
Next, Weiner reviewed a paper about the chemical tests on Piltdown written by Kenneth Oakley in 1949, and noted something interesting. When Oakley drilled for a sample, he found pure white dentine just below the stained surface. If the fossil had indeed lain in the iron-rich soil of the Piltdown pit for centuries, the stain should have penetrated deeper into the bone.
The uneasy suspicions pointing to fraud were becoming stronger. To see if it could be easily done, Weiner tried to reproduce a fake Piltdown molar. It proved surprisingly simple to file down a modern ape molar, then stain it in permanganate, to create a “fossil”.
Weiner asked Kenneth Oakley — whose comments first aroused Weiner’s suspicions — to take another look at the original Piltdown teeth. Oakley called Weiner back on August 6th, 1953 to inform him that when he reaxmined the teeth, he saw signs of abrasion caused by filing.
As a result of this startling revelation, Piltdown I and II were subjected to a new round of tests. On November 20, 1953, a museum bulletin titled “The Solution of the Piltdown Problem”, by Weiner, Oakley, and LeGros Clark, was issued, announcing that Piltdown Man was a carefully executed and elaborate fraud. The Piltdown I jaw and molars, it turned out, did not belong to a human, but came from an ape. The ape molars had been filed down to mimic wear and tear that is characteristic of human molars. The Piltdown II molars had been fabricated as well, filed down by someone using a metal tool. Under a microscope, fine scratch marks could be seen on the biting surfaces of the molars and canine, as if someone had applied an abrasive to the teeth.
Chemical analyses helped confirm that the human cranium fragments were around 600 years old and the ape jaw was around 500 years old. To complete the fraud, the perpetrator went far beyond combining fragments of ape and human skulls and filing teeth to simulate wear. Paints and chemicals were used on the fragments to create stains and mineral deposits. Animal fossils from Europe and Africa were modified to look more ancient and were buried along with the hominid remains to make them appear older too. Flint tools were antiqued and thrown in for good measure.
Perhaps the oddest find, the “cricket bat” tool, was actually a fossil elephant thigh bone that had been carved using a metal blade, and stained to look ancient. It seemed somewhat ironic that “the First Englishman”, as Piltdown I was called by Woodward, had been found with an artifact resembling a cricket bat!
By the time the fraud was exposed, the Piltdown find had already diminished in importance to historians and anthropologists. Piltdown had been considered significant for a few years after the initial “discovery” because the fossil record was so scant at that time. But the situation was quite different by the 1950s when, says Dr. Eric Meikle of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, “the accumulating fossil record had left Piltdown an isolated anomaly which played little part in the scientific study of human fossils.”
Two big questions followed the exposure of the Piltdown fraud: who did it? And why? The culprit had to be well versed in primate anatomy and fossils. To skillfully plant the fossils, he must have been familiar with activities at the excavation sites, and known the Piltdown investigators well.
Just about everyone associated with the Piltdown discovery came under suspicion. Many were quickly dismissed, but a few have endured on the list of prime suspects. Despite many thorough investigations, the culprits have never been definitively identified. To this day, the Piltdown fraud remains a topic of spirited debate, from papers, essays, and books promoting theories of guilt or innocence of the major Piltdown players, to internet discussions by aficionados of this classic scientific mystery.
Was it the Prominent Anthropologist?
Sir Arthur Keith, director of the Hunterian Museum at London’s Royal College of Surgeons, and a renowned anatomist and anthropologist, was a prominent figure in the study of the Piltdown fossils. Keith, it has been suggested, might have been one of the few people granted brief access to the bones before the official announcement. Although there were open disagreements with Woodward over its reconstruction, Keith had accepted Piltdown as genuine.
Keith had never been seriously considered a suspect until 1979, when an Australian science historian, Ian Langham, came across several peculiar entries in Keith’s diaries archived at the Royal College of Surgeons. Three days after Woodward’s Piltdown announcement, an anonymous article describing the discovery appeared in the British Medical Journal, containing details that could only be known to the excavators. Keith’s diaries indicated he was the paper’s author. It had been submitted two days before the announcement, and Langham wondered how Keith could have known such details before Woodward’s presentation.
In another diary entry, dated January 4, 1913, Langham found a puzzling account of a trip Keith had taken with his wife to the Piltdown site. It was odd, he thought, that after a long journey to Piltdown, the trip was terminated because Keith could not find the excavation site! Could this diary entry have been a deliberate ruse to give the impression that Keith had no knowledge of the pit location?
After Langham’s death, his work on Piltdown was continued by another historian, Frank Spencer, who shared Langham’s belief that Keith was the culprit, and Dawson a co-conspirator. Critics of their theory however point out that details in the article could have been obtained from sources in Woodward’s inner circle, and that information from the meeting could have been added just before the journal went to press. But to this day, Keith remains on the list of leading suspects.
Was it the French Priest?
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a young French priest and paleontology enthusiast, was present at the Piltdown excavation site during several major discoveries. His clerical duties had brought him to England, where he befriended Dawson. Later in his professional career, de Chardin was to become involved in the discovery of Peking Man, an important collection of early human fossils (Homo erectus) found in China. He was to also become well-known for his philosophical ideas on religion and evolution.
For many years, de Chardin was not seriously considered a suspect. But in 1980, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, published an essay accusing him as a co-conspirator with Charles Dawson. While reviewing Piltdown documents, Gould was struck by a statement made by the priest in correspondence with Kenneth Oakley after the fraud was exposed. In the letter, de Chardin mentioned that Dawson had showed him the second Piltdown site in 1913. But that site had actually been reported to Woodward two years later, in 1915. It was unlikely that de Chardin had the dates mixed up because in 1915, he was serving as a stretcher bearer in France during World War I.
This slip, said Gould, suggested that de Chardin and Dawson could have planned the hoax. Gould further speculated that Piltdown was a joke that got out of hand, becoming so quickly accepted without question by most British paleontologists that a confession would have ruined de Chardin’s career. Other investigators have disagreed, explaining de Chardin’s alleged slip as an innocent mistake. They suggested that Dawson had actually taken him to see the Barcombe Mills site where a set of human fossils had been found in 1913, not the Piltdown II site at Sheffield Park. Although no other evidence has been found linking the priest to this fraud, he still remains a major suspect to this day.
Was it the Disgruntled Zoologist?
At the time of the Piltdown discoveries, Martin Hinton was a low-ranking employee at the British Museum (Natural History)’s zoology department. It seemed unlikely that he would risk his career and reputation to carry out the hoax, and was not seriously considered a suspect until May 1996. That’s when Professor Brian Gardiner of King’s College, London, accused Martin Hinton as the perpetrator in an article written in the British scientific journal Nature.
Gardiner claimed that proof of Hinton’s guilt was in a canvas trunk that belonged to Hinton, found about 20 years ago at the Natural History Museum. In it were pieces of bone chemically treated and carved in a way similar to the Piltdown fossils. Hinton had been well-known as a practical joker, and may have orchestrated the hoax to get back at his boss, Arthur Smith Woodward, over a pay dispute. Hinton’s defenders, however, have pointed out that the stained bones could have simply been tests done for Kenneth Oakley and other scientists involved in the Piltdown fraud investigation, to determine how the fossils had been stained by the hoaxer. Moreover, he probably did not have the time and opportunity to carefully plant the fossils and bones around the pit, an activity that would have required a detailed knowledge of the excavators’ schedules over three summers.
Was it Piltdown’s Lead Investigator?
Many questions have been raised about the possible role of Arthur Smith Woodward in the fraud. He was, after all, the lead investigator, and an active participant at the excavation site. Woodward, who held tight control over the accessibility of the fossils, had been criticized for not granting many opportunities to other researchers to personally examine the fossils. (He had, however, made casts of the specimens widely available for study.)
It seems surprising that someone so intimately involved in the Piltdown matter would not have suspected that something was amiss. No evidence has ever been found linking Woodward to the hoax, and many Piltdown researchers believed that he was perhaps the biggest victim in the entire incident.
However, Gerrell Drawhorn of the University of California at Davis thinks otherwise. In a paper presented at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in April 1994, he pointed out that Charles Dawson alone could not have acquired some of the paleontological specimens planted at the Piltdown site. Drawhorn reviewed the possible origins of some specimens: the hippopotamus and mastodon tooth, the “cricket bat” elephant femur, and orangutan jaw fragment. All were fossils that Woodward could have acquired in the course of his professional activities. Of particular interest was the unusually thick human skull. Joseph Weiner, in his investigation of the fraud, noted that such a skull could have originated from a population in Patagonia, South America. Coincidentally, in 1899, Woodward had received several such skulls from an Argentine anthropologist, and may have even collected some during a trip to Patagonian archaeological sites.
If Woodward was involved in the hoax, why did he do it? Drawhorn suspects that the prestige of being associated with as important a find as Piltdown could have helped Woodward position himself as the leading candidate for the directorship of the British Museum (Natural History).
Was it the Man who Found Piltdown?
Many events surrounding the Piltdown discoveries seem shrouded in mystery, like the vague circumstances of the initial Piltdown find, the odd way in which some fossils were found, and the exact location of Piltdown II. All these events had one person in common: Charles Dawson. When the fraud was exposed, he immediately came under suspicion as the hoaxer. He had, investigators argued, the means, the motive, and the opportunity.
Charles Dawson was an accomplished amateur paleontologist, with a knowledge of chemistry, anatomy, and geology. His many paleontological and anthropological discoveries had made him well-known among museum collectors. But despite his many scientific contributions, the ultimate scientific prize, fellowship in the Royal Society, was beyond his reach. Perhaps, charged his accusers, a ground-breaking discovery, like the missing evolutionary link between ape and man, could be his ticket into this exclusive scientific club.
Shortly after the fraud was exposed, Dawson was widely fingered as the perpetrator. His family vigorously denied the accusations, even threatening legal action, and steadfastly maintained that he was an honorable man who could have never dreamed up such a devious scheme. Some felt that he did not have the knowledge and means to carry out so elaborate a hoax.
Joseph Weiner started digging deeper into Dawson’s past. What he found disturbed him, and ultimately led him to believe that Dawson was the culprit. There had been other accusations of fraud against Dawson by some collectors. In one case, he had apparently stained flints to make them look older, trading them for other valuable specimens. There was evidence of fraud in the discovery of several ancient artifacts (outlined in the book “Unraveling Piltdown” by John Evangelist Walsh). Perhaps most damaging of all was a well-documented case of blatant plagiarism by Dawson in his 1910 publication of the history of Hastings Castle, in which he lifted the written words of another historian and passed it off as his own.
Dawson had the means to acquire specimens from Europe through contacts and fossil dealers. And he had opportunity; besides making many of the major discoveries himself, under vague and undocumented circumstances, Dawson was present during every other significant discovery at the Piltdown site.
The perpetrator of the hoax must have had easy access to the Piltdown site to not arouse the suspicions of nearby tenants at Barkham Manor, who were very protective of the site. He must have had an intimate knowledge of the excavation schedule in order to plant fossils for “discovery”. To many Piltdown investigators, Dawson was the obvious culprit. But, if so, did he act alone?
How did the Culprits get away with it?
Why would anyone go to such great lengths to perpetrate this damaging hoax? According to Dr. Eric Meikle, there are two commonly cited explanations for the hoax: “1. A joke which got out of hand, practical joke, or hoax meant to bring ridicule on someone (most obviously Smith Woodward, or perhaps the scientific establishment in general). 2. Personal advancement through fame, prestige, etc. The second seems most likely, especially given Dawson’s complete history of fakery and deception. The only question remaining is whether he acted entirely on his own or if someone else was involved.”
Even more important than who perpetrated the fraud is the question of how so many people were taken in by it. The scientists and historians investigating the case for nearly 40 years have tried to understand the collection of circumstances that led to the acceptance of Piltdown Man. The idea that one of their own could undertake such a malicious, deliberate, and damaging forgery seemed almost unimaginable. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once suggested that it may have been a combination of wishful thinking and cultural bias. The notion that the brain — center of human thought and reasoning — evolving before any other feature of modern humans, seemed an aesthetically appealing concept. And, perhaps, the discovery of a missing link between ape and human, found in England, must have been a great source of national pride for the London scientific community.
The real Piltdown perpetrators have taken their secrets to the grave. The clues to their identities and their motivations can only be sought in the records and evidence left behind. And so far, no one has been able to present the compelling evidence needed to close this case. It’s quite likely that Piltdown Man’s true origins may forever remain a mystery.
For More Info:
- Unravelling Piltdown
John Evangelist Walsh
Random House, New York 1996
- Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery
Oxford University Press London 1990
- Piltdown: Evidence of Smith-Woodward’s Complicity
Gerell M. Drawhorn, UC Davis
Poster paper, American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting on April 1, 1994
- The Panda’s Thumb
Stephen Jay Gould
W.W.Norton and Company, New York.
- Box of bones “clinches” identity of Piltdown palaeontology hoaxer.
Nature, vol 381, 23 May 1996, pg 261.
- Excerpts from The Descent of Man, by Charles Darwin
Internet Modern History Sourcebook
- Piltdown Man Homepage
edited by Richard Harter
- Piltdown Hoax
The Skeptic’s Dictionary
- Fossil Hominids
- Neandertals: A Cyber Perspective
by Kharlena Maria Ramanan
- The Origin of Modern Humans: Multiregional and Replacement Theories
- More Paleoanthropology Links can be found at: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/links.html