In “Piltdown Man: British archaeology’s greatest hoax”(The Guardian Observer February 5 2012), Robin McKie reports on a serious attempt, on the fraud’s centenary, to find out who perpetrated it.
The British have always done mysteries best, and there is no shortage of famous suspects: Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle figures, as does Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist (and you know what they say about Jesuits …. ) Today’s high-tech methods, applied to the artifacts, may shed a bit of light.
No, sorry. This is not a film. Not yet. But imagine the possibilities …
The news of the Piltdown find, first released in late 1912, caused a sensation. The first Englishman had been uncovered and not only was he brainy, he was sporty. A sculpted elephant bone, found near the skull pieces and interpreted by scientists as being a ceremonial artefact, was jokingly claimed by many commentators to be an early cricket bat. The first Englishman with his own cricket bat ? if nothing else it was one in the eye for French and German archaeologists whose discoveries of Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals and other early humans had been making headlines for several decades. Now England had a real fossil rival.
Trouble was, Piltdown Man didn’t make any sense in relation to other discoveries, and it seems that no one had done a systematic third-party investigation. Finally,
… the Piltdown Man began to look so out of kilter with other fossil discoveries that a team led by geologist Kenneth Oakley, anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark and anthropologist Joseph Weiner took a closer look and in 1953 announced that Piltdown’s big braincase belonged to a modern human being while the jawbone came from an orangutan or chimpanzee. Each piece had been stained to look as if they were from the same skull while the teeth had been flattened with a metal file and the “cricket bat” carved with a knife.
You know how they say “Science is self-correcting?” This “cheap fraud” took forty years to be detected.
McKie tells us that over thirty people have been accused of perpetrating the hoax. Meanwhile, it became a cult:
By 1915, Dawson’s dawn-man [Piltdown Man] had become established scientific fact. The painting, Discussion of the Piltdown Skull, by John Cooke, presents its discoverers in an almost holy atmosphere. Keith is seated while Smith Woodward stands behind him in front of table with pieces of skull on it. Also standing, with a picture of Charles Darwin behind him, is the benign figure of Charles Dawson. “The way the painting is structured suggests Darwin is passing on his mantle to Dawson,” says Russell. “The former had the theory, the latter had provided it, it is being suggested.”
We want a film. We practically demand one.
McKie thinks that the reason the British paleontologists fell for it was in part that they were lean on finds, relative to Europe:
Hence English researchers’ willingness to accept the Piltdown finds. They may have been crudely made but the finds gave scientists what they wanted: evidence that England had been an important crucible in the forging of our species. “No one did any scientific tests,” says Russell. “If they had, they would have noticed the chemical staining and filed-down teeth very quickly. This was clearly not a genuine artefact. The scientific establishment accepted it because they wanted it so much.”
But we will spoil no more for you.
Except this: We think that the film should at one point show all those characters together, exactly like the portrait …
Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista
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