The Piltdown Hoax

Discovery: In 1908, in the Piltdown Quarry, Sussex, a quarry laborer found fragments of skull and gave them to Charles Dawson, an amateur geologist and archaeologist. By 1912 Dawson had identified two skulls which appeared to belong to an apparently primitive hominoid and ancestor of man; it was believed to be the missing link between ape and man. The find caused a sensation.

The find at Piltdown had long been awaited for. In 1856 the first Neanderthal fossil discovery was made and the race was on to find remains of human ancestors. Finds were made in Europe and Asia, but none in Britain until Piltdown.

The discovery included:

2 human skulls
a canine tooth
a tool carved from an elephant tusk
fossil teeth from a number of prehistoric animals

Exposure: In 1949 the Piltdown fossils were dated. This established them to be fairly modern although in some quarters they were still accepted as genuine. Not until 1953 at an international congress of paleontologists did the idea of fraud came about. Through examination of the fossils revealed that what Dawson found was:

2 human skulls dated as medieval, 620 years old
1 orangutan jawbone, around 500 years old, probably from Sarawak
elephant molar, genuine fossil, probably from Tunisia
hippopotamus tooth, genuine fossil, probably from Malta or Sicily
canine tooth
Pleistocene chimpanzee fossil

Suspects: The identity of who perpetuated the hoax is unknown but there are several suspects: Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward, the initial finders of the first two skull fragments; Lewis Abbot, owner of the Hastings jewelry shop; Hargreaves the laborer, who did most of the digging at the site; Martin Hinton, curator of the British Museum at the time of the fraud; and recently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle lived close to Dawson and was himself an amateur bone hunter. His interest in paleontology was stimulated by his discovery of several fossilized dinosaur footprints and bones close to his house in Crowborough. Dawson and Woodward met with Doyle to examine these discoveries. Doyle always took walks around his neighborhood. The excavation site was near his home so there is little doubt that he often walked by and peered at the progress of the excavation. Since most of the remains were found on or near the surface, it required no great feat on the part of the hoaxer to insert them into recently exposed cuts or toss them onto the soil heaps where their discovery would be assured. Doyle was an ardent spiritualist and he wanted to discredit the science profession for exposing his friend and psychic Henry Slade. So perhaps he faked the evidence of something they truly wanted to believe in showing them that they know less than they thought they did.

The case against Doyle becomes more convincing in light of associations that can be established between him and the actual remains found at Piltdown:

The Jawbone: Doyle's neighbor Cecil Wray was a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society and his brother was head of the Malay museum and specialized in excavating caves. One of his museums had recently purchased a large collection of animal specimens from Borneo. Orangutans live only in Borneo and Sumatra.

The Skulls: Doyle had made the acquaintance of the leading phrenologist in London, the American Jessie Fowler, who had an immense number of skulls in her collection. Like Doyle, Fowler was in the practice of selling her skulls.

Elephant Tooth: several fossil mammal remains have been identified as coming from the Mediterranean. The likely sites include Malta and a fossil in the Ichkeul of Tunisia. Whoever was the hoaxer had to have access to such exotic materials. In 1907, Doyle visited archeologist Joseph Whitaker, one of the few scientists who had frequently been to the Ichkeul region. A few months later, while honeymooning, Doyle spent two months in the eastern Mediterranean. In all probability they went ashore at Malta, a British port, in late November or early December on their return voyage. Coincidentally, the Daily Malta Chronicle announced on November 16th the discovery of the fossilized remains of a hippopotamus by a workmen excavating a limestone fissure on the island. One of the planted items at Piltdown was a hippo tooth whose form and chemical content indicate it came from a limestone chamber in one of the Mediterranean islands, Malta being regarded at the most likely.

Elephant Teeth: Two years later, Doyle and his wife cruised the western Mediterranean. They visited Cartrhage, not far from Ichkeul where several of the fossil elephant teeth are known to have come from.

[A similar hoax had been perpetrated by Charles Waterton many years before Piltdown. Waterton, while in South America, claimed to have come across and killed an apeman. A picture of the apeman showed the humanlike face and apelike head and shoulders of the creature, which were called "Nondescript." Because of the apeman's weight, he could only carry the head and shoulders out of the rain forest and home with him. He put the apeman on display, but what he actually had done was taken the head and shoulders of a red howler monkey and shaped its facial features to give it a humanoid appearance. He also had the reputation of combining the parts of two totally different animals into a single creature.]

The Lost World:

Consider a few touch points between Doyle's fictional adventure story and the Piltdown hoax:

The statement by one of the characters that "if you are clever and you know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph."

The observation that the practical joke "would be one of the most elementary developments of man."

In the story, a tribe of shaggy, red-haired, nest-building apemen is discovered not too far from where Waterton's red-haired Nondescript apeman was supposed to have lived.

The description of the apemen appears to be closely allied with the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra. There are also several references to early man and the missing link in the story.

The plateau that makes up "the lost world" is described as an area "as large perhaps as Sussex, [which] has been lifted en bloc with all its living contents." A map of the basin-topped plateau shows it to bear a fairly close resemblance to the horseshoe-rimmed basin known as the Weald in southeastern England. The Weald, which includes most of Sussex and parts of Surry and Kent, is where Piltdown Man was found.

But consider the possibility that the Piltdown hoax was inspired by The Lost World. On Aug. 15, 1910 at a time when the Piltdown site had yielded nothing but a single skull fragment and no public announcements had yet been made, Doyle outlined his plans for The Lost World. He completed the novel in December of 1911. It was published in April of 1912 and in December of 1912 Dawson and Woodward made the first announcement of their discovery. Hmm.

-- Sidira Sisich

Introduction to Literature