News and views from the heart of England - Issue 4    © David Smith 2018

Comments welcome: david.plugpress@btinternet.com

Piltdown Man

 

On the southern edge of Ashdown Forest, an area of heathland and mediaeval hunting forest in East Sussex, lies the village of Piltdown. The village is a collection of small hamlets on a hillside, and its name is derived from PILT (from pæll - meaning purple dye), and DOWN (a hill or mountain). When I was a student for a year at Brighton Polytechnic, I often used to spend weekends at home in Kent, where I played my cricket, and I would travel back down to the south coast on a Sunday evening. One of the routes I used on my way back to Brighton took me across Ashdown Forest, and I would sometimes drive through Piltdown.

Piltdown’s main claim to fame is the famous hoax of the Piltdown Man. In 1912, an amateur archaeologist called Charles Dawson – who originated from Preston, but who lived and worked in Lewes - found a section of a human-like skull in gravel beds near the village, and contacted Arthur Smith-Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum. Together they discovered more bones and artifacts at the site, and they connected them to the same individual. The fragments they found included bits of a skull, a set of teeth, primitive tools, and a jawbone.

Smith-Woodward reconstructed – perhaps assembled would be a more accurate word - the bone fragments and suggested they came from a human ancestor dating back 500,000 years. The discovery was announced at a Geological Society meeting, and it was given the Latin name of Eoanthropus dawsoni. Woodward proposed that the combination of a human like cranium and an ape like jaw supported the popular notion in Britain that human evolution began with the brain, and that the fossil represented the so-called ‘missing link’ between apes and humans. In Britain at that time, scientists believed that the development of a large modern brain had preceded an omnivorous diet. The Piltdown skull appeared to confirm this theory. There was also a widespread European expectation that the earliest humans would be found in Eurasia, and there were suggestions that British scientists wanted a British discovery to set against fossils found in other parts of Europe. Many British scientists accepted the Piltdown discovery as ‘the earliest Englishman’. Nevertheless, controversy surrounded the discovery and reassembly from the beginning. As time passed, scientists increasingly considered the Piltdown find inconsistent with human evolution demonstrated by the fossil record found elsewhere. In 1953, forty one years after its discovery, the Piltdown Man was finally proved to be a forgery, a hoax. The fossil was actually a composite of three distinct species: a mediaeval human skull, a 500 year old lower jaw of an orang-utan, and chimpanzee fossil teeth. The hoaxer had artificially aged the bones by staining them with an iron solution and chromic acid, and the teeth had been filed to give a shape more suited to a human diet.

The forger has never been identified, although suspects included Arthur Conan-Doyle (later cleared), and Charles Dawson himself. It was discovered that, among Dawson’s antiquarian collection, at least 38 of his specimens were fake. One, a hybrid reptile/mammal allegedly found in 1891, had teeth that had been filed down in the same way as the later Piltdown Man, and many others showed the same application of stain, packing of crevices with local gravel, and fixation of teeth with dentist’s putty. One archaeologist wrote "Piltdown was not a 'one-off' hoax, more the culmination of a life's work”

Front page

Extinctions

GCHQ internal memo

Town Council meeting

Where is our vehicle?

Dark ages?

He won’t hurt you

TV Subtitles

AGM

 

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