Friday, 31 August 2012

The Dietary Delicacies of the Oxford Omnivores

           When Gideon Mantell discovered the teeth of Iguanodon in 1822, most palaeontologists and anatomists disagreed with his identification (including, initially Cuvier) and one, William Buckland, thought that they were either from a wolf-fish or maybe a mammal that had drowned in Noah’s flood. 

Buckland's Megatherium

He urged Mantell to be cautious in publishing his findings, advice which Mantell followed, but Buckland went on to publish a description of another dinosaur himself, becoming the first person to describe a dinosaur, the Megalosaurus, in print, (a fragment of a fossilised femur found in a quarry in Cornwall in 1676, had been described by Robert Plot in 1677, in his The Natural History of Oxfordshire, and was thought to come from a human giant – in 1763, Robert Brookes examined the bone and named it Scrotum Humanum – can you guess why?). 

Scrotum Humanum - R Plot - The Natural History of Oxfordshire 1677

The Very Reverend Dr William Buckland was odd, to say the very least. He caused quite a stir with his explicit lectures on the mating habits of reptiles – The Times felt he should restrain his enthusiasm ‘in the presence of ladies’ and Charles Darwin dismissed him as a ‘buffoon’ – and he always wore his academic gown when out digging for fossils. The hallway of his Oxford home was lined with the skulls of animals; monkeys, a bear (in a mortarboard) and a hyena, amongst other animals, had the run of the house (the hyena ate the family’s guinea pig). His wife, Mary,  was a talented illustrator and shared her husband’s enthusiasm for nature – one night, the pair got up from their bed and she prepared a flour and water paste whilst he went off to fetch the family tortoise, in an experiment to prove that the gait of the Cheirotherium was testudinal (… it was). 

The Very Reverend Dr William Buckland

But strangest of all was Buckland’s diet. He was a committed zoophagist – an eater of animals. All animals. In Buckland’s opinion, the Creator had placed the creatures of the world at Man’s service, to feed and clothe him and to be his companions, and it was Man’s duty to eat the rich bounty of foods provided by the Almighty for his sustenance. And eat them he did – from elephant trunk soup, panther chops, horse tongue, porpoise head, crispy mice in batter, kangaroo ham and eland steaks to accidentally grilled giraffe (… there had been a fire at London Zoo). He found the taste of mole to be the worst, until he tasted bluebottles. 

Once, while touring a church, the local vicar showed him ‘martyr’s blood’ dripping from the rafters – Buckland dropped to his knees and began to lap at the miraculous liquid, which was, he announced between laps, bats’ urine. On a visit to Nuneham House, he was shown a silver casket holding what was reputed to be the heart of King Louis XIV of France. Before anyone could stop him, Buckland announced, “‘I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” before snatching it up and swallowing it. 

Frank Buckland and dinner guest

His son, Francis (known as Frank), continued and even extended his father’s culinary experiments – he was rumoured to regularly visit sympathetic staff at Winchester Hospital, with whom he exchanged trout and eels for pieces of human anatomy. He founded the Acclimatization Society, which was dedicated to finding new food sources, and he became famous for the varied menus he offered at his home in Albany St, London. 

Frank Buckland with what could be his lunch

Frank Buckland went on to become an eminent naturalist in his own right and became H.M. Inspector of Salmon Fisheries in 1867, introducing many important innovations in fish farming. 

William Buckland, despite Darwin’s misgivings, made some important archaeological finds, including the discovery of the oldest human skeleton in Britain and first human fossil ever excavated, the so-called Red Lady of Paviland. 

Goat's Hole Cave, Gower

In 1823, he descended into the Goat’s Hole Cave on the Gower Peninsula, Wales, where he unearthed the bones of an Upper-Palaeolithic man who lived about 33,000 years ago. The bones were stained with red ochre deposits from the clay in the cave, and the colour and accompanying beads, ivory rods and seashells lead Buckland to initially identify the body as that of a female prostitute from the Roman period of occupation (Buckland believed that no humans could be older than Noah’s flood), although later examination has shown that the skeleton is that of a young male, aged about twenty-one years of age. It was the oldest ceremonial burial in Europe, the age confirmed by a series of radiocarbon datings. Subsequent excavations in the cave have discovered over 4,000 flint tools and fragments, bones, teeth, bone needles and bracelets. 

The 'Red Lady' of Paviland
He wasn’t above the odd practical joke – and not least from beyond the grave. After his death in 1856, it was found that the plot that he had identified as his desired final resting place in Islip graveyard, when the superficial soil had been removed, was solid Jurassic limestone. The rock had to be blasted with gunpowder in order to make the grave – a geologist of Buckland’s calibre would surely have known what lay beneath the soil. 

A student of Buckland's wrote:
If with Mattock and Spade his body we lay,
In the common Alluvial soil,
He'll start up and snatch those tools away
Of his own Geological toil
In a Stratum so young the Professor disdains
That embedded should be his Organic Remains.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Evolutionary Escapade of the Tennessee Teacher

                       John Washington Butler was a farmer from Tennessee, who was also a State Representative and head of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association. Alarmed by newspaper reports that children were denying the literal truth of the Bible after being taught evolutionary theory in science lessons, he introduced legislation that forbade teaching 
“… any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” 
The Butler Act became effective in the state of Tennessee from March 21st 1925, and quickly came to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which offered to support anyone prosecuted under the Act. George Rappelyea, a mining engineer from Dayton, Tennessee, together with Walter White, county superintendent of schools, and Sue K Hicks, a local attorney (and, incidentally, a man – his name may have inspired the song ‘A Boy Named Sue’), hatched a plot to bring a test case to court, hoping the resultant publicity would bring much-needed revenue to the town of Dayton. 

John Thomas Scopes

They persuaded a local supply teacher, John Thomas Scopes, who was a sports coach and sometimes covered maths and science classes, to plead guilty to teaching evolution in a high school class, not least because the required text-book in Tennessee classrooms, Civic Biology by G W Hunter, included a chapter on evolution, thereby necessitating teachers to break the law. Scopes, although initially reticent, soon became an enthusiastic participant in the case and incriminated himself, being arrested (but never detained) and charged for teaching evolution, in violation of The Butler Act, to a high school class on April 24th 1925. 

William Jennings Bryan

Both prosecution and defence teams set about recruiting members – the prosecution included the brothers (and friends of Scopes) Herbert and Sue Hicks, Tom Stewart (later a US Senator) and William Jennings Bryan (known as The Great Commoner, he was a three-times Democratic presidential nominee, former Secretary of State and fervent Presbyterian). 

Clarence Darrow

For the defence were Clarence Darrow, Arthur Hays and Dudley Malone. The trial, in the court of Judge John T Raulston, began on July 10th 1925, and became famous across the world as reporters descended on Dayton to cover the case, which became popularly known as ‘The Scopes Monkey Trial’ (so named by H L Mencken). Dayton attracted preachers, lawyers, students, politicians and academics and its streets began to resemble a media circus, with food stalls, souvenir salesmen and sideshows, by far exceeding the expectations of Rappelyea and his associates. A banner, hanging on the side of the courthouse read ‘Read Your Bible Daily.’ 

Bethlehem Globe July 10th 1925

As the first session began, Judge Raulston quoted from The Butler Act and the book of Genesis, and warned the jury that they were trying Scopes for violating the Act, and not the merits of the Act itself. Darrow’s intention was for Scopes to be found guilty, so that he could appeal the decision to a higher court, and throughout the trial he clashed with Judge Raulston, whom he considered to be biased against his client. Such was the crush in the courtroom that Raulston, fearing for the safety of the floor, and with the temperature reaching in excess of one hundred degrees, he moved the proceedings outside. 

Bryan called four witnesses on the first two days, students who confirmed that Scopes had taught evolution on the day in question (although it seems that Scopes was not in the school on that day…) and the prosecution rested its case. Darrow tried to have the case quashed on the grounds that the Butler Act was unconstitutional, but Raulston ruled that this argument was inadmissible, so Darrow changed tack. He tried to have twelve expert witnesses – academics and theologians – called but again Raulston blocked him, although he allowed their written testimonies to be admitted, largely in anticipation of future appeals. 

Darrow (left) and Bryan

In another twist, Darrow called Bryan to the stand – the two had once been friends but over time a deep antagonism had developed between them – and Darrow said he only took the case because “…for years, I've wanted to put Bryan in his place as a bigot.” Darrow spent two hours cross-examining Bryan, probing at his knowledge of, and belief in, the Bible – were Adam and Eve the first humans, where did Cain’s wife come from, did all languages stem from the Tower of Babel, was Jonah really swallowed by a whale, was the world created in six days? Bryan began by stating his unswerving belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but as the questioning continued he began to admit that some things were not to be taken literally – ‘Ye are the Salt of the Earth’ didn’t really mean that people were actually made out of salt, and the six days of creation were not actually six lots of twenty-four hours but “My impression is they were periods [that] might have continued for millions of years.” Darrow’s trap was sprung and Bryan had walked right in; his unswerving belief was not quite as literal as he had claimed. 

Dayton 1925

Then, in a master move, Darrow demanded an immediate verdict, without offering a closing statement for the defence. Under Tennessee state law, this prevented Bryan from making a corresponding statement for the prosecution – something that Bryan had intended to use to deliver his grandiloquent summing up, which he had spent the previous seven weeks writing and practicing, an hour-and-a-half-long closing argument that he hoped would be “… the mountain peak of my life's effort.”   

Judge Raulston and family  - (not related to monkeys, allegedly).

On July 25th 1925, the jury took nine minutes to find Scopes guilty, and Judge Raulston imposed a fine of $100. An appeal was launched, which overturned the original verdict on a technicality – for fines in excess of $50, the jury and not the judge should have decided on the amount – but Darrow’s hopes of taking the case further were crushed when the Chief Justice of Tennessee nullified Scopes’s indictment and threw the case (which he called ‘bizarre’) out of court. 

In April 1967, Tennessee repealed the Butler Act, over forty years after the Scopes trial. 

Five days after the end of the trial, William Jennings Bryan took a post-prandial Sunday afternoon nap from which he didn’t wake up, succumbing to the diabetes that had troubled him for years, which created a leadership vacuum in the fundamentalist camp that remained largely unfilled. 

Scopes was offered a further contract at Dayton High School, on condition that he did not teach evolution again, but he declined and took up a graduate scholarship at the University of Chicago, where he qualified as geologist, going on to work for the United Gas Company. He died in 1970, aged 70. 

Darrow, who had already announced his intention to retire before he took the Scopes case, withdrew from legal practice (apart from the Massie trial in 1931), and died in 1938 from pulmonary heart disease. He is regarded as one of the greatest American civil libertarians. 

The debate about evolution continues in America, and from time to time threatens to break out here in Britain. Suffice it to say that Charles Darwin appears on our money, in recognition of his remarkable contribution to mankind.

Two Pound coin

Ten Pound note

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Dubious Discovery of the Nebraska 'Nasher

                     It would, I think, be safe to say that whilst they may not be au fait with the details, the majority of people will at least be familiar with the name of Piltdown Man. It would also, I further contend, be equally safe to say that far fewer are familiar with, or are even aware of, Nebraska Man. 
The story starts with in run up of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial (more of which another day), when William Jennings Bryan, who would be the lead prosecutor in that trial and was the leading opponent of Darwinism in 1920s America, was offered space in the New York Times of Sunday, February 26th 1922, in which to further advance his arguments. In his article, Bryan quoted at length from an address delivered before the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Toronto on December 28, 1921 by Professor W Bateson, another sceptic of Darwinism, entitled Evolutionary Faith and Modern Doubts

Henry Fairfield Osborn

The following week, the newspaper offered Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, an eminent palaeontologist, the right of reply, and as Osborn mischievously wrote  
“… realising that quotations from the highest scientific authorities in the world would not have the slightest influence upon him or his followers, I referred him to the writings of St. Augustine, also to the Holy Scriptures,” 
with especial regard to the Book of Job xii:8 – ‘Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee,’ adding that if he did, he might not lose his religion but might just become an evolutionist. 

New York Times September 17th 1922

Just nine days later, Osborn received a fossil tooth from Harold J Cook, a farmer and geologist from Snake Creek, Nebraska -the home state, Osborn gleefully pointed out, of W J Bryan himself. Osborn identified the small, water-worn tooth as the upper second molar of an as-yet unidentified primate, to which he gave the genus and species names Hesperopithecus haroldcookii - Hesperopithecus means Ape-man of the Western World – and was claimed as the first higher primate to be discovered in North America. There was some initial scepticism - Arthur Smith Woodward, of Piltdown fame, wrote in Nature June 10th 1922, that the tooth might equally be the lower molar of an ancient bear and that, “There is, indeed, some reason to suspect that Hesperopithecus has received an inappropriate name.” 

Nature August 26th 1922

Osborn responded with an article, also in Nature (August 26th 1922), entitled ‘Hesperopithecus, the Anthropoid Primate of Western Nebraska,’ in which he made the case for his identification of his subject. He draws parallels with the distribution of Upper Miocene and Pliocene Strepsicerine and Hippotragine antelopes, arguing that primates might follow a similar distribution – on the map, the discovery place of Hesperopithecus is marked with an ‘X’. 

Enlarged Map from Nature August 26th 1922

Photographic illustrations of the Nebraska tooth in comparison to chimpanzee, pithecanthropus and North American Indian molars show their similarities and differences, and he concludes, 

Comparison of teeth - from Nature August 26th 1922

I have not stated that Hesperopithecus was either an Ape-man or in the direct line of human ancestry, because I consider it quite possible that we may discover anthropoid apes (Simiidae) with teeth closely imitating those of man (Hominidas), just as we have discovered in the true Piltdown man (Eoanthropus) teeth closely imitating those of the chimpanzee,” 
which, in addition to showing a commendable scientific reticence, also illustrates how the influence of Piltdown befuddled and bedevilled the study of palaeoanthropology.  Osborn had plaster copies of the tooth made, which he distributed to universities in North America and Europe, and opinions flooded in from numerous interested parties. In 1925 and 1926, parties of fossil collectors travelled to the Snake Creek beds and abundant new specimens were discovered. Unfortunately, these new examples were enough to prove that they came from a species called Prosthennops – which just happened to be an early extinct relation of the modern peccary. That’s right – the Ape-man of the Western World was actually a pig!


 Retractions and corrections followed – but not from Osborn, who simply didn’t mention Hesperopithecus ever again. There is a certain schadenfreude to be savoured here, as Osborn was one of the most pompous, self-satisfied individuals ever to grace a field over-populated by pompous, self-satisfied individuals – this was a man who, in the selfless interest of encouraging potential palaeoanthropologists, published a book listing his many publications and illustrated with photographs of his numerous awards and medals. 

Bibliography of the Published Writings of H F Osborn 1916

Of course, the anti-Darwinists loved all this – they couldn’t have wished for more in the wettest of their damp dreams. The case of the Nebraska Man still crops up on the web-sites of the cerebrally-challenged as ‘proof’ of the vacuity of science and its methods, without realising that this is precisely how science works. A find is made, a hypothesis follows, which is tested and reviewed, and if the claims are found to be wanting, they are rejected and a better model prevails, which, in turn, remains open to criticism. If something is wrong, no matter what it is, and if a better explanation can be made, then minds are changed and hands held up. I have yet to see this happening in the screeds of the deity-disturbers – but then again, I try to avoid anything written in coloured Comic-Sans.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Unearthly Unearthing of the Cardiff Carving

                       It was forty years before the Piltdown hoax was finally debunked but the fake known as the Cardiff Giant fell apart in a matter of weeks. I have mentioned the blow to American national pride caused by the remarks of the Comte de Buffon previously here, and the subsequent search for the remnants of large American land animals, and one explanation of the enormous bones found at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky in the 1740s was that they were the remains of giants who had perished beneath the deluge of Noah’s flood. Cotton Mather, in his vast Biblia Americana, wrote,  
“The Giants that once Groan’d under the Waters, are now Found under the Earth, and their Dead Bones are Lively Proofs of the Mosaic History,” 
echoing Job 26:5 
Behold the giants groan under the waters, and they that dwell with them.” 

Joseph Priest, in his American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West (1835), described the excavation of Indian graves in which were “… found several sculls [sic] leg and thigh bones, which plainly shows that their possessors were persons of gigantic stature.” 
One evening in 1866, George Hull was in Ackley, Iowa, chasing up his brother-in-law who was late in paying for a consignment of cigars, when he got into an argument with Rev Mr Turk, a Methodist revivalist, about the veracity of the Biblical tales of giants, particularly Genesis 6:4 “Now giants were upon the earth in those days,” which Rev Turk insisted was literally true, whereas Hull, an atheist, denied it, saying it was metaphorical at best. Hull settled on the idea of making a giant of his own, “I thought of making a stone giant, and passing it off as a petrified man,” and found a large block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, which, he told the quarrymen, was to be made into a statue of Abraham Lincoln in New York. 

The block was transported to Chicago, where German sculptor Edward Burghardt was commissioned to carve the giant. In a bid to add an aged patina, the figure was stained and a gallon of sulphuric acid was poured over it, and Hull hammered darning needles into a block of wood, which he used to pummel the appearance of pores onto the surface of the stone. In November 1868, the finished piece, over ten foot long and weighing over 3,000 lbs, was shipped to Hull’s home at Binghampton, and from there to his cousin’s farm at Cardiff, New York. 

The Cardiff Giant and a strategically placed branch

William C ‘Stub’ Newell secretly buried the figure behind his barn, and on October 16th 1869, he engaged Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols to dig a new well at the point he indicated. When they were three feet down, they struck stone and seeing a foot, one of them shouted out, “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” 

Lifting the Giant

Hull and Newell erected a tent over the ‘petrified man’ and charged visitors 25c a head to see the marvel. Word spread and wagonloads of sensation seekers arrived, so two days later the price of admission was upped to 50c. 

The Cardiff Giant and friends

Although Hull had sworn all involved to secrecy, he found out that Cousin ‘Stub’ had let word slip so, knowing that the truth would soon come out, he sold his part-share to a syndicate of local businessmen for the sum of $23,000. On November 5th 1869, the Cardiff Giant was unearthed and shipped to Syracuse, where one eminent churchman declared “…we have here a fossilized human being, perhaps one of the giants mentioned in Scripture,” although others were not so easily beguiled - Yale palaeontologist Othniel C. Marsh pronounced, “It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug.” 

Phineas T Barnum

The showman Phineas T Barnum became interested in the Giant and offered to buy it from the syndicate for $50,000, and when they declined to sell, Barnum sent an undercover artist to make a surreptitious wax model of the figure. 

The Dimensions of the Cardiff Giant

From this, and using the measurements taken from advertising flyers, Barnum had a plaster reproduction of the Cardiff Giant made, which he exhibited at his museum in New York. David Hannum, leader of the syndicate, expressed his opinion on the popularity of Barnum’s copy with the words, “There's a sucker born every minute,” a phrase often attributed to Barnum himself and happily appropriated by him later. The syndicate sought a court injunction to stop Barnum’s exhibit, only to be told by the judge, “Bring your giant here, and if he swears to his own genuineness as a bona fide petrifaction, you shall have the injunction you ask for.” On December 10th 1869, George Hull confessed all to the press and on February 2nd 1870, the court ruled that both Giants were fakes, and Barnum could not be sued for displaying a fake of a fake. 

The Cardiff Giant

The Cardiff Giant was sold to a publisher from Des Moines, who sold it in 1947 to the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is now exhibited in a reproduction of the original tent raised on ‘Stub’ Newell’s farm in October 1869.

Roll Up, Roll Up

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Dodgy Diggings of the Fake Fossil Finders

Charles Dawson
             Amongst the army of amateur archaeologists of the past was one Charles Dawson, a country solicitor from Lewes, Sussex. As a boy Dawson had been encouraged by his father in his fossil hunting and his later proficiency in finding usual and curious artefacts led to The Sussex Daily News to call him ‘The Wizard of Sussex’. He found a partial skeleton of an iguanodon in Sussex that he named Iguanodon dawsoni in his own honour (the first iguanodon had been found by Gideon Mantell), named a type of fossil spike-moss Selaginella dawsoni after himself, and added Plagiaulax dawsoni – a previously unknown species of mammal – to his list of eponymous finds. 

Map showing the location of Piltdown (lower left)

In 1908, workmen at a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex gave Dawson a fragment of what they thought was a fossilised coconut. He thought it was actually part of a skull and returned to Piltdown several times, where he found more pieces, including part of a jaw. 

The original site of the Piltdown finds

He consulted Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum and President of the Geological Society, and on December 18th 1912 a paper entitled ‘On the Discovery of a Palaeolithic Human Skull and Mandible in a Flint-bearing Gravel overlying the Wealden (Hastings Beds) at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex)’, was read to a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society. 

Original Description - The Geological Magazine 1913

Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson's dawn-man) - popularly dubbed ‘Piltdown Man’ - caused an immediate sensation – it was claimed that this was the oldest fossil hominid yet found in Europe, and the combination of the human-like parietal bone and the ape-like mandible pointed to it being the long sought after ‘missing link’ – and it was, importantly for national prestige, English (unlike the Neanderthals from Germany, say). Along with the skull, were bones from elephant, mastodon, deer, horse, hippopotamus and beaver, together with flint eoliths (what at the time were thought to be early stone tools but are now considered to be the result of glacial erosion). In a further search for more fragments, Dawson returned to Piltdown in August 1913 with Woodward and a French priest and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and in a spoil heap Teilhard found a canine tooth that fitted perfectly into the skull. 

Piltdown Jaw - Symphysial flange marked with 'S'

The lower symphysial border of the jaw was not rounded (as in humans) but had a thin, inwardly curved flange, as found in apes, and the molars were flattened by mastication, although Professor Arthur Keith of the Royal College of Surgeons pointed out that the newly-found canine would have protruded over the molar line, making the side-to-side motion of chewing impossible. Other specialists aired their doubts about Piltdown Man but the general consensus of opinion was that the skull represented an unknown member of the family of man, dating from about 200,000 years ago, and later called by Woodward ‘The First Englishman’. 

Digging at Piltdown (Dawson on the left)

In the winter of 1915, Dawson gave Woodward some fragments of a second skull found at Sheffield Park, only a mile from Piltdown; they were the inner supraorbital part of a frontal bone, the middle of an occipital bone, and a left lower first molar tooth, all seemingly from the same individual and conforming to the Eoanthropus dawsoni type. The odds of twice finding pieces of bone from a separate man and ape in the same place were astronomical – they had to have come from the same individual, and confirmed the existence of Piltdown Man. Woodward presented these fragments and an account of their discovery to the Geological Society in January 1917. However, Charles Dawson died from septicaemia on August 10th 1916, and no further finds were ever made at Piltdown. 

Charles Dawson obituary - The Geological Magazine 1917

The repercussions of the Piltdown finds were immense; in the introduction to the bibliography of his Man and his Forerunners, Professor Hugo von Buttel-Reepen wrote, “General treatises on Pleistocene Man published before 1908 are now almost valueless.” 

Grafton Elliot Smith in Nature 1913

Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, in a letter to Nature (October 2nd 1913) wrote, 
So far from being an impossible combination of characters, this association of human brain and simian features is precisely what I anticipated in my address to the British Association at Dundee … some months before I knew of the existence of the Piltdown skull, when I argued that in the evolution of man the development of the brain must have led the way,” 
a happy coincidence that hase led some to suspect Elliot Smith of planting the bones at Piltdown to be found by Dawson or some other fossil hunter at a later date (which is highly speculative – how can you anticipate where someone is likely to dig?). 

British Museum Guide (including Piltdown Skull)

On the precedence of Piltdown Man, African fossils of australopithecines were ignored as the possible ancestors of Homo habilis, which added to the confusion in the study of human origins. However, as further remains were discovered in Africa, Asia and Australia, the anomaly of Piltdown Man led many researchers to simple ignore him and leave him out of their reconstructions of the tree of life. 

In 1943, it was proposed that fluorine tests be carried out on the bones, and when these were eventually done in 1949, they pointed to Piltdown Man being much more recent than had previously been thought. In 1953, at a conference on human origins, Kenneth Oakley, a geologist at the British Museum, met Joseph Weiner, a South African anthropologist at Oxford University, and their conversation turned to Piltdown. Later, unable to sleep, Weiner rethought their discussion and he had what he called a ‘repellent’ thought –what if Piltdown Man was a hoax? In association with Oakley, and with Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Weiner re-examined the original Piltdown fossils (much of the previous work on them had been done from plaster reproductions), and subjected them to comparative and chemical testing. 

Reconstruction of the Piltdown Man

It soon became apparent that Piltdown Man really was a fake – the cranium was human, but was only about five hundred years old and was possibly of Australian origin, the jawbone was from a sub-fossil orangutan (which Oakley suspected had been stolen from the British Museum), and the canine found by Teilhard was from a modern ape (it had been coloured by painting it with Vandyke Brown artist’s oil paint). The bones had been dyed using potassium dichromate to give the impression that they had spent hundreds of centuries in the Sussex soil; the molars (from a fossil chimpanzee) had been filed flat using a steel file, and the features of the bones  that would have provided a positive species’ identification had judiciously been broken off. 

The Piltdown Skull - The Geographical Magazine 1913

Since the publication of Weiner, Oakley and Clark’s unmasking of the hoax in Time 1953, there have been umpteen books, articles and films on the whys and wherefores of the Piltdown fraud –who was to blame, and why did they do it? Some are preposterous – Arthur Conan Doyle’s name has been raised, largely on the evidence that he liked a joke and lived in the area! Some are speculative in the extreme – Woodward, for example, in spite of the fact he was dictating a book on the discovery on his deathbed in 1948. 

My money is firmly on Charles Dawson. He ‘found’ the first fragments and was present when other people found other pieces. He had ready access to antiquities in a number of museums. As the ‘Wizard of Sussex’ he had tasted fame and heightened reputation, and probably wanted more of the same, maybe on a national, or even international, level. But the clincher, I believe, has come from the re-evaluation of some of his other ‘finds’ – at least thirty-eight of them have since proved to be faked, from the teeth of Plagiaulax dawsoni (also filed and shaped), a cast-iron ‘Roman’ statue, some stamped Pevensey ‘Roman’ tiles (proved by thermoluminescent testing in the 1970s to be less than a century old), to an extremely dubious ‘flint mine’. Piltdown Man was just another hoax in a long list of self-aggrandising hoaxes.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Dastardly Doings of the Palaeolographical Professor

Owen's birthplace - Thurnam St, Lancaster

                          You might imagine that Richard Owen would have been one of history’s Good Guys – he had the advantage of being born in Lancashire, which automatically blessed him with one of life’s greatest benefits, and in later life he championed the opening of the Natural History Museum at Kensington to the general public, when the general consensus of the scientific community was that entry to museums should be solely reserved for specialist scholars. 

The young Richard Owen

When, as a teenager, he was training as an anatomist in Lancaster, he started a collection of mammal skulls – dogs, deer, mice, cats and so on – and when he was present at the post mortem of a black prisoner who had died in Lancaster Gaol, he determined to procure the dead man’s skull to add to his collection. Armed with a stout brown paper sack and swathed in a heavy black cloak, he returned to the dissection room in Hadrian’s Tower at Lancaster Castle after dark, got the keys and a lantern from the turnkey and locked himself in, using the instruments in the room to detach the head. Hiding his grisly trophy in the sack beneath the folds of his cloak, he tipped the wink to the turnkey and made his way out of the prison and into the night. 

Now, at the bottom of the hill below the castle, there was a cottage that had once belonged to a former slaver, who had died in a bar fight, and where his widow and daughter still lived. That night, by the light of the fire, they were telling tales of the slave trade, when suddenly there was a thump at the door, which burst open and there, in the glow of the firelight, they saw the whites of a black man’s eyes staring up at them. They screamed and tried to run, when a man cloaked in black erupted into the room, snatched up the black man’s head and disappeared into the dark. The Devil, it seemed, was abroad in Lancaster that night and had come for his own. In reality, Owen had slipped on the slick ice on the cobbles and dropped his prize, which had rolled down the hill and in through the cottage door. Owen ran after it, grabbed it from the floor and departed as quickly as he had arrived, running for home as fast as his legs would bear him. 

R Owen - Memoir of the Pearly Nautilus 1832

Owen went on to study medicine at Edinburgh and London, but his work at the Royal College of Surgeons confirmed his interest in scientific research and he went on to become Professor at the Hunterian museum. He published numerous academic studies on comparative anatomy and built a formidable reputation throughout Europe as an expert on palaeontology and fossil identification. His first published work, Memoir of the Pearly Nautilus (1832), was an instant classic, and over the next fifty years he went on to make enormous contributions to all areas of anatomy and palaeontology. He was the automatic choice to study the fossils brought back from South America by Charles Darwin on The Beagle in 1836, and it was Owen’s identification of the mammals as rodents and sloths related to existing smaller species still found on the pampas that lead Darwin to re-evaluate his earlier speculations that they were related to the larger African mammals, an important step in his formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection. 

The Sydenham dinosaurs - Punch 1855

One of Owen’s odder projects was as advisor on the construction of the model dinosaurs (a word first coined by Owen) for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (better known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition). In collaboration with the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, thirty-three life-size dinosaurs were produced and were moved to Sydenham when the Crystal Palace was moved there, Owen famously hosting a dinner party for twenty-one distinguished guests inside the unfinished model of the iguanodon on New Year’s Eve 1853.

Dinner in a Dinosaur

 The figures were built from concrete and steel and fell into great disrepair over the years until they were restored, starting in the 1950s and given Grade 1 Listed Status in 2007, in spite of being now regarded as out of date and wildly inaccurate. All well and good then – Owen sounds like he really was one of the Good Guys. 

Dreams brought on by the Sydenham dinosaurs - Punch 1855

Except – he wasn’t. 
As we have seen in his treatment of Gideon Mantell, he was not above claiming the credit for the work of others – he wrote that it was he and Cuvier who had discovered the iguanodon, rather than the real discoverer - Mantell. 

Iguanodon with its thumb on its nose.

He also identified the horny thumb of the iguanodon as a horn, and it was placed on the head of the iguanodon figures at Sydenham, as well as having the creatures depicted as bulky quadrupeds rather than the more gracile bipeds they actually were (and as which Mantell had identified them).   

R Owen - Description of Certain Belemnites 1844

In 1844, Owen presented a paper to the Royal Society on fossil belemnites for which he was presented with the Society’s Gold Medal in 1846, but he forgot to mention the work of an amateur biologist, Joseph Channing Pearce, who had discovered the belemnite (a type of Mesozoic marine cephalopod) in 1842, and had presented his own paper at a meeting of the Society at which Owen had been present. In the scandal that followed, Owen was voted off the councils of the Royal Society and the Zoological Society, but his plagiarism didn’t stop there. He used illustrations from Mantell’s works and passed them off as his own, and only grudgingly apologised when he was found out. 

Richard Owen - from Vanity Fair 1860

Owen was initially on good terms with Charles Darwin but their relationship soured over the years and Owen was the only person whom Darwin was known to hate. In a repeat of his ‘anonymous’ memoir of Mantell, Owen published an ‘anonymous’ review of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) in the Edinburgh Review (1860) which was highly critical of the book and the theory, but fulsome in its praise for Professor Owen and his works (from which he freely quotes), but adds with grudging praise that some of Mr Darwin’s observations on the varieties of pigeons are the ‘real gems’ of the opus. 

In preview copies of The Origin, Owen had noted that Darwin’s use of the terms ‘I think’ and ‘I am convinced’ were unscientific but urged him to retain them as they added to the overall charm of the work, then, when the book was published, he vocally attacked Darwin for using such unscientific terms as ‘I think’ and ‘I am convinced’. In retaliation, Darwin wrote, “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last days of my life.” In a letter to Asa Gray dated June 8th 1860, he wrote “… no one fact tells so strongly against Owen, considering his former position at the College of Surgeons, as that he has never reared one pupil or follower.

R Owen - Review of Darwin's Origin in Edinburgh Review 1860

In 1857, Thomas Henry Huxley (popularly known as Darwin’s Bulldog) was leafing through Churchill’s Medical Dictionary when he noticed that a certain Richard Owen was listed as Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the Government School of Mines, which was something of a surprise to him, as that was a position he held himself. He asked the editor of Churchill’s how such a mistake could possibly have been made, and was told that the information had come directly from Professor Owen himself. 

Richard Owen in later life.

His lugubrious appearance in later life cannot have helped his cause – Bill Bryson calls his ‘a face to frighten babies’ – but he was almost universally disliked. His own son, William, who inexplicably committed suicide at the age of forty-nine, bemoaned his father’s “… lamentable coldness of heart.”  One critic described him as “… a most deceitful and odious man,” and after his death, an Oxford professor remembered him as “…a damned liar. He lied for God and for malice.” As always, make up your own minds but in my opinion Professor Sir Richard Owen FRS KCB was an utter bounder and a frightful cad. So there.

Richard Owen with his lunch grandaughter Emily