Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

The Piltdown Forgery

Dawson’s forgery gained him admittance to the ranks of greater men than he — for a time. Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined: Back row (from left): F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward; front row: A. S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Ray Lankester; painting by John Cooke, 1915.

by Revilo P. Oliver

THE RENEGADE TECHNICIANS who call themselves “creation scientists” constantly scrounge about, trying to devise arguments to impair the validity of the doctrine of biological evolution, the only plausible explanation of the existence of animal life, including the various human species, on this planet. The twisting and turning of the shamans and their allies involve the lowest kind of sophistic trickery in argument, and they naturally exploit the tergiversation of biologists who, from expediency or sentimentality, want to retain ties with religion.

I noticed an instance this morning in Christian News, 25 June 1990, which reproduces photographically excerpts from a screed attacking the reasonable explanation of life on earth. The writer quotes a man named Wright as saying that two of several approaches to the question are, first, biological evolution as “the means God used to create humans,” and, second, “special creation.” Wright is then quoted as saying “the evidence simply is not good enough to distinguish between the various views held by different Christians.” So, the Christian myth-monger crows triumphantly, “If the evidence isn’t good enough, then why do Wright and other Christian biologists teach primarily the Darwinian evolutionary approach?” — instead of just retailing the story about blundering old Yahweh and his unfortunate whim to make a mud pie. That fixes scientists, doesn’t it?

I do not know Wright’s work, but I shall do him the justice to suggest what he may mean by saying the “evidence is not good enough to distinguish between the various views” of Christians, is that the notion that a god used biological evolution as a complicated device to produce human beings is as preposterous as the silly story about Adam and Eve.

Needless to say, if Wright were scientifically honest, he would have said bluntly that in the known evolution of living creatures there is no room for meddling by spooks, and that since there is no valid evidence for the existence of any of the innumerable gods imagined by primitive peoples, tales about special creation, including many less absurd than the one in the second chapter of the Jew-book, are merely fairy stories.

It is odd, by the way, that Christians always use the particularly absurd story about Adam and Eve, which was probably invented as part of the drastically henotheistic and blatantly misogynist reformation of Jewish mythology in the fifth century B.C., instead of the less absurd (and doubtless older) tale told in the first chapter of Genesis, that the human beings of both sexes were created cooperatively by the ‘LHYM (usually vocalized as Elohim or Elohiym), i.e., the gods and goddesses whom the Jews worshipped until late in the fifth century. (1)

(1. Archaeological evidence indicates that even in the fifth century, the Jews in Palestine still worshipped a goddess, ‘SRH (usually vocalized as Asherah), who was evidently the consort of YHWH (usually vocalized as Yahweh). The verbal trick by which this fact was covered up in various places in the “Old Testament” is typical, but I must not take space to explain it here. At least in their colony at Elephantine, the Jews recognized three additional deities. Obviously, the ‘LHYM were of both sexes, thus rendering the earlier creation myth in Genesis much less absurd than the second.)

The peddlers of creation-myths naturally try to use the now notorious forgery of the skull and jawbone found at Piltdown in 1912 to discredit scientific thought. Why pay any attention to silly anthropologists: they were fooled by that hoax, so they are probably fooled by all the fossils they use as evidence for biological evolution. Hurrah for Jesus and his plastic dad!

It is important, therefore, that we understand precisely what was involved in that deplorable but clever hoax.

A full account of the hoax and history of its eventual exposure is J.S. Weiner’s The Piltdown Forgery (Oxford University Press, 1955; reprinted, New York, Dover, 1980). The book has one defect. Although its author gives a delightfully ironic exposition of the theory requisite to prove Charles Dawson innocent, he weakly concludes in his summary that the case against Dawson is not conclusively established — although the evidence of Dawson’s guilt is much stronger than the evidence on which many a man has been justly convicted of murder. For one thing, there is usually only one murder, but Dawson, after perpetrating the first hoax went on to contrive others to validate the first, thus paralleling the situation dear to the writers of detective stories, in which a murderer commits a whole series of murders to prevent discovery of his guilt for the first one. Moreover, although Dawson evidently began with a few genuine but minor discoveries, he was obviously a thoroughgoing scoundrel, who perpetrated other plausible hoaxes and, in his one literary effort, was a plagiarist.

Charles Dawson, infamous forger

All this is obvious now, but in the early decades of this century much of the evidence was unavailable or overlooked, and Dawson, who had been first trained as a solicitor, was a gentleman of socially respectable antecedents, a man of considerable charm, and, when he chose to exercise it, master of a technique of scientific discourse that impressed contemporaries as forthright honesty and scrupulous scrutiny of the evidence he had himself forged, partly by the use of chemical reagents and dyes. The scientifically trained men who trusted him could not imagine that he was what he has proven to have been.

Incidentally, the fact that Dawson deceived so many genuine scientists is simply another proof that to men who are true scientists by vocation the adulteration or manufacture of data is so abhorrent that they are easily deceived by clever prestidigitators and other swindlers, whom it takes a professional magician, such as James Randi, to expose.

Dawson planted in a gravel bed at Piltdown the fragmentary cranium of a low-grade, thick-skulled human being, probably a thousand or more years old, (2) and part of the jaw of a female orang-utan, and the two in combination were taken to be evidence for the existence of a peculiar species, both simian and human, which was named, in honor of the discoverer, Eoanthropos Dawsoni. He later planted and found similar remains to validate the original hoax.

(2. Since the extant parts of the cranium were “unusually thick” (i.e., in comparison with the skulls of Europeans), it is likely they came from the skull of a Congoid, which Dawson could easily have obtained from some amateur’s collection in England or by purchase abroad. He would have wanted — indeed, needed — a skull that differed from the skulls of contemporary Europeans.)

Of Dawson’s guilt, there can be no reasonable doubt. The question is whether he had accomplices. It has been urged that Dawson had neither the requisite expert knowledge nor access to the bones that he planted. This is mere speculation. There is no body of knowledge which a determined man cannot master by diligent application, and the bones could have been obtained in any one of many ways, e.g., by purchase abroad, perhaps in France, or by abstracting them from some collection in England. An accomplice was by no means necessary, but a suitably competent one would have greatly facilitated the hoax.

A “reconstruction” of the alleged “Piltdown skull”

Suspicion will first fall on Dawson’s friend, Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward of the Natural History Museum, who helped Dawson in some of the excavations at Piltdown and sponsored him when the great discovery was announced. So far as I know, there has been no searching investigation to determine the guilt or innocence of Woodward, but I believe that the known facts, viz. Woodward’s eagerness to make a great discovery, his rivalry with (and perhaps jealousy of) Sir Arthur Keith, a more distinguished anthropologist, and his personal friendship with Dawson, whom he regarded as a protégé, make it likely that Woodward was the patsy in the fraud.

An article by Caroline Grigson in the New Scientist (London), 13 January 1990, gives a succinct summary of the fraud and presents new evidence which implicates F.O. Barlow, the Museum’s “preparator” (i.e., the technician who prepared specimens for exhibition, made casts of them, and made reconstructions under Woodward’s direction). He could have been Dawson’s accomplice, having expert knowledge and practical experience and also access to the miscellaneous collection of remains that had probably come from various sources to the Museum but had not been selected for cataloguing and exhibition. He actually made for Dawson a sketch of the kind of canine tooth the Eoanthropos would have had, and precisely that kind of tooth was discovered at Piltdown soon thereafter. Moreover, he profited handsomely from the hoax, for he set himself up in business as the vendor of casts of the remains of the wonderful Eoanthropos Dawsoni, which were in great demand from anthropologists and museums throughout the civilized world, together with casts of other anthropological material in his Museum and in others. This is not quite proof of guilt, but it is a plausible hypothesis which would explain some aspects of Dawson’s success as a scientific hoaxer.

Many were fooled; the cover of The Illustrated London News.

There have been other suggestions, including a recent one that I mention reluctantly and with great distaste. Professor Frank Spencer of Queen’s College got his name in all the many newspapers that published on 6 June 1990 a despatch from Associated Press reporting that he had “solved the Piltdown Mystery.” He accused Sir Arthur Keith of having been the prime mover in the hoax, claiming that his long research had found in Keith’s diary “information about the site and events at Piltdown…which he wouldn’t have had unless he was an inside member of the group.” There is no reason why Professor Keith, who was puzzled and disconcerted by the discovery, could not have obtained that information by questioning, as he doubtless did, Dawson and Woodward, the discoverers. Conclusive evidence is Spencer’s discovery that Keith, “who backed the theory of evolution that came out of Piltdown, had met with Dawson a year before.” I fail to see why it is incriminating that a distinguished anthropologist and generous gentleman met a younger, ambitious, and still obscure worker in the same field. And it simply is not true that Keith “backed” a theory that “came out of Piltdown.” As I shall note below, he was always dissatisfied with the Eoanthropos, which he regarded as a puzzling anomaly, and accepted it only because he did not suspect it was a forgery and adhered to the scientific principle that evidence must not be excluded because it is unwelcome and disconcerting. It is true, however that Professor Sir Arthur Keith deserves to be posthumously traduced and defamed because he was one of the wicked anthropologists who refuse to believe that God halted the evolution of anthropoids some hundred thousand years ago so that all races now extant would be equal — it being understood, of course, that Congoids are twice as equal as Aryans, and that Jews are four times as equal as niggers.

What we must understand is the significance of Eoanthropos when it was assumed to be a genuine species of anthropoids, and why it was accepted by many learned contemporaries.

At the time of the “discovery,” there were known only a very few remains of subhuman anthropoids, chiefly the Neanderthal (3) and the far more primitive “Java man” (Pithecanthropos). These correctly suggested a linear evolution from ape to human form, marked by diminution of simian characteristics and increasing size of the brain, but they were obviously only two points on a theoretical line which needed to be confirmed at other points.

(3. There have been some efforts recently to ‘upgrade’ the Neanderthals, since some skulls found in Palestine are evidently of hybrids, showing that Neanderthals could interbreed with more advanced forms of life. But it is not known whether the Neanderthals were physically capable of articulate speech and could have had a language. It has been plausibly inferred from the structure of the small bones that would have supported organs of speech that the Neanderthals, like apes, were capable only of a variety of animal cries.)

Sir Arthur Keith, who greatly added to the sum of human knowledge through his work on group — that is, racial — evolution

To educated men, there was nothing at all astonishing about the linear evolution that conformed to Darwin’s magistral The Descent of Man (1871). When our race in Greece first began to think rationally about the world of nature, including itself, and until the Christian blight fell upon it, it was obvious that we, civilized men, must have had more primitive ancestors, and a line of social and physical evolution was extended back to barbarians, savages, and even more primitive anthropoids who, like apes, had no language and no social organization. Furthermore, the anatomical similarity of men to apes was recognized even by the lower races. ‘Orang-utan’ is a Malay term that means ‘man of the forest.’ In Africa, most of the various native names for chimpanzees and gorillas involved an explicit or implicit recognition of them as ‘men.’

When our race began to recover from its addition to mental narcotics in the Eighteenth Century, the ancient sketch of human origins was naturally revived. You will remember from Boswell that Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, although a learned man, could not dispense with the emotion relief given him by the prevalent superstition, could not be reconciled with the equally learned Scottish jurist, Lord Monboddo, who maintained that men had evolved from apes and monkeys. At the very beginning of that century, chimpanzees were given the biological designation, Homo sylvestris. (4) Many travellers in the East Indies and Africa during that century constantly confused orang-utans with chimpanzees, not having had a chance to compare the two species side by side and unaware of the great difference in their habitats. (5) They furthermore confused both species of ape with the lower forms of human life in Africa and Asia; hence tales of apes that live in villages, governed by a chief, and apes that walk erect, carry clubs or spears as weapons, and can be trained to perform simple household tasks.

(4. I do not know whether it is more than a coincidence that the Latin term is a translation of ‘orang-utan,’ of which, I suppose, Dr. Tyson could have known the meaning.)

(5. Chimpanzees are gregarious and normally live in small, loosely associated groups, which, however, do not have the social organization natural to baboons. Orang-utans are individualist and solitary, except that females, when in oestrus, seek males for impregnation.)

After Darwin formulated the evolution of human species in scientific terms, and could not be suppressed by holy men, alarmed for their business, it was naturally assumed that the evolution was linear progress, from apes, which can stand erect and walk a few paces but normally proceed on all fours on the ground, are covered with dark brown or black hair, and have comparatively small brains, through a long succession of intervening species, each a little less ape-like than its ancestors and with somewhat larger brains, to modern man, who stands erect and cannot move far on all fours, has little hair, except on the head and in the pubic area, is light-skinned, and has a brain that has enabled him to master other animals and use natural forces for his own comfort and security.

Dawson’s “discovery” was sensational, as he knew it would be, because it did not fit this linear sequence. The Eoanthropos was essentially an ape with a brain that approximated the size of modern brains. If it was our ancestor, the Neanderthal and perhaps the Pithecanthropos were not. The latter species could have been earlier than the Eoanthropos, for the relative dating was uncertain, but the Neanderthals were certainly later, and therefore, if they were in the same evolutionary sequence would have been offshoots that somehow regressed to more simian form, especially in the structure of their brains.

A creature that was physically an ape but had doubled the size of its brain could not be fitted into a linear evolution, but must have branched off from that line and then evolved separately until its physique matched its brain. We are thus spared the ignominy of recognizing the brutish Neanderthals as our ancestors, and there was something special about our species after all. This view naturally strongly commended itself to men who had only reluctantly surrendered the comforting illusion that we differed from other mammals in having impalpable souls tailored to measure by old Yahweh or some less ferocious god. It salvaged some of our vanity. And that, we may be sure, is why the Eoanthropos became an article of faith with such men as Grafton Elliot Smith and other champions of Dawson’s great discovery.

More objective anthropologists, notably Sir Arthur Keith, were from the first puzzled by the Eoanthropos. There were men (see Weiner, op. cit.) who suspected that the wonderful remains had been planted by Dawson, but they were men who had no or slight scientific credentials and disliked Dawson personally, a circumstance that made their statements suspect. Dawson, perhaps with assistance from Barlow, had cunningly used reagents and dyes to give to the various bones precisely the appearance of antiquity and long inhumation that genuine remains would have had, and Sir Arthur felt compelled to consider them authentic and to take them into account in formulating a scheme of human evolution.

He trusted Dawson and Woodward as gentlemen and anthropologists, and he, a born gentleman, probably exerted himself to be more than fair to Woodward, whom he personally disliked. And, as a matter of fact, the scientific techniques that finally proved Dawson’s discovery to have been a hoax perpetrated with forged remains were not available until 1950, shortly before Sir Arthur died.

As more and more remains of prehuman anthropoids came to light, the linear evolutionary sequence was confirmed every time, and Dawson’s fabrication became an anomaly, an “enigma,” as Sir Arthur often termed it. Anthropologists in general began to disregard and ignore the Eoanthropos Dawsoni as an anomaly that could have no significant relation to the linear sequence of evolution. (6)

(6. The linear pattern is, of course, certain, although it is true that we now have the remains of several anthropoids, such as the now famous “Proconsul,” who diverged from the direct sequence into evolutionary culs de sac.)

Sir Arthur, however, was unwilling to ignore the anomaly. In his last important work, A New Theory of Human Evolution (New York, Philosophical Library, 1949), in which he sets forth his brilliant determination of the effects of social organization on the evolution of human species and subspecies, he recognized the Piltdown as “an aberrant type,” but wrote:

‘If we could get rid of the Piltdown fossil fragments, then we should greatly simplify the problems of human evolution. We should have to account for the evolution of the pent-browed type only, and the development of modern races from that type. A leading authority on such problems, Dr. Franz Weidenreich, has recently proposed that the right solution is to deny the authenticity of the Piltdown fossil remains. Here are his exact words: “Eoanthropos should be erased from the list of human fossils. It is the artificial combination of fragments of a modern-human braincase with orang-utang-like mandible and teeth.” That is one way of getting rid of facts [!] which do not fit into a preconceived theory; the usual way pursued by men of science is not to get rid of facts, but to frame a theory to fit them. That is what I propose to do.’

We must feel sympathy for Sir Arthur, a great anthropologist whom we must highly respect for his crucial contribution to our knowledge of biological evolution as it affects the several species called human. It was his very fidelity to scientific method that led him into a conspicuous and deplorable error on an essentially irrelevant detail. The great man was 87 when he realized that Dawson and his followers had “made a fool” of him for forty years. He died two years later.

There are times when one is tempted to regret that religions are just a residue of barbaric ignorance. It would be consoling to believe that Charles Dawson is now being roasted in the underworld, or perhaps, in keeping with myths of a nobler religion, compelled endlessly to manufacture forgeries to authenticate forgeries, while Sisyphus and Tantalus have the relief of pausing to deride him and all Hades echoes with laughter.

* * *

Source: Liberty Bell magazine, September 1990

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1 Comment

  1. Dr. Doom
    5 November, 2017 at 8:06 pm — Reply

    Why take the side of the Darwin cult? You do yourself no favors. God is the fount of all morality. This dolt Darwin is the Hero of the enemy. His imbecilic boasts of having apes in your lineage has built the foundations upon which all the egalitarians make their nests. Those non-Whites are your brothers they say. The apes are your family and so all life is one big happy dysgenic family of anthropoids.
    No God, no morality. No basic laws or need for traditions. Darwin is the keystone that holds all the freaks and subhumans together and allows them to undermine YOU.

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