Science in Christian Perspective


James 0. Buswell, III, M.A.

Piltdown Man

Students of Human Paleontology the world over sighed a collective sigh of relief when it was announced in November, by the British Natural History Museum after nearly forty years of controversy and speculation, that the jaw of the famous fossil man from Piltdown was a hoax.

Although the skull cap is genuine and human, chemical tests showed that the jaw was that of a modern ape, perhaps an Orangutan, and that it had been treated with potassium bichromate and iron salt, which made it look the color and age of the skull cap. The teeth also, it was announced, had been filed down to appear more plausibly human.

The Museum bulletin published by J. S. Weiner, K. P. Oakley, and W. E. LeGros Clark, said, "The faking of the mandible is so extraordinarily skillful and the perpetration of the hoax appears to have been so entirely unscrupulous and inexplicable as to find no parallel in the history of paleontological discovery."

Now, at last, Eoanthropus Dawsoni, Dawson's Dawn Man, can be set aside as merely one more of the many late Pleistocene fossils of early Homo Sapiens.

Discovered in 1911 by Charles Dawson, a lawyer and antiquarian of Sussex, the finds proceeded to cause great controversy among paleontologists for many years because of the seeming enigma of the association of a very ape-like jaw with a very modern human skull. Whether or not Mr. Dawson created the hoax, or whether it was one of the workmen in the area who planted it there, is not known at present. Whoever it was, certainly knew his chemistry and anatomy sufficiently well to keep some of the best scientific minds guessing for more than a generation.

Some advanced an explanation of "assymetrical evolution" claiming that in this case the human brain developed faster than the jaw, and that the jaw could not have been that of an ape since apes have never been found anywhere in Britain. The fragments were painstakingly assembled and reconstructed by Sir Arthur Keith into the composite assemblage displayed in most natural history museums throughout the world.

Keith and others believed that the stratigraphy and associated gravels indicated an age of between 200,000 and 500,000 years, making it contemporaneous with Sinanthropus and Pithecanthropus.

Authoritative opinion recently has been much more conservative in its estimate. Upon reexamination of the site, and the application of Fluorine tests on the remains, the latest consensus was that Piltdown was "now considered to be comparable in age the Fonte'chevade skulls...probably at least 50,000 years."1 

While many conceived of Piltdown as the "first Englishman" and the most ancient of European fossils, there were others who believed all along that the jaw was that of an ape form in the same deposit with a human skull, and, on morphological grounds, refused to accept the conclusion that the whole thing was human. Kroeber,2 never one to jump to conclusions anyway, decided that " . . . the claim that the Piltdown skull beluags to a distinct genus Eoanthropus is to be viewed with reserve. That the jaw and teeth pertain to an early human form seems equally doubtful. Miller3 in l932, Saller 4 and Hrdlicka5 independently in 1930, Frederichs6 in 1932, have all denied that the skull and the jaw can have come out of the same body."

Weidenreich7 in 1946 was of the opinion that the mandible was "without any doubt, the jaw of an anthropoid." He concluded that "both skeletal elements cannot belong to the same skull. All that has been known of early man since the discovery of the Piltdown fossils proves that man cannot have had an ancestor with a lower jaw of a completely simian character."

Most recent texts have tended to agree with this opinion. Beals and Hoijer"I state that " . . . the skull fragments must be regarded as those of a relatively late Homo sapiens form, accidentally associated with the jaw of an older chimpanzee-like animal."

The significance of the discovery of the fraud will be chiefly historical, and will not substantially change the present beliefs with regard to the antiquity of modern man. The Swanscombe and Font6chevade (Cherente) skulls are still incontestable examples of modern type man geologically older than the Neanderthal race.

From this brief survey of the Piltdown puzzle, it can be understood why paleontologists generally will review the recent report of the British Museum with a feeling, somewhat, of relief, that one of the more perplexing riddles of man's prehistory is finally solved.

1. Oakley, Kenneth P., "Dating Fossil Human Remains", in Antheopology Today, A. L. Kroeber, and others. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953, pp. 46-47.

2. Kroeber, A. L., Anthropology, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948, p. 90.

3. Miller, G. S., Jr., "The Jaw of Piltdown Man", Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 65, 1915.

4. Saller, K., Leitfaden der Anthropologie, Berlin, 1930.

5. Hrdlicka, A., "The Skeletal Remains of Early Man", Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 83, 1930.

6. Frederichs, Heinz F., Schddel und Unterkiefey von Piltdown, ("Eoanthropus Dawsoni Woodward") in neuer Untersuchung. Nebst einem Vorwort von Franz Weidenreich. Ztschr. f. Anat. u. Entwcklngsgesch., 98~ 199-262, 1932.

7. Weidenreich, Franz, Apes, Giants, and Man, Chicago, 1946, pp. 22-23.

8. Beals, Ralph, and Harry Hoijer, An Introduction to Anthropology, New York: Macmillan, 1953, p. 138.
Shelton College

Ringwood, New Jersey
2, 1953