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.

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