The Piltdown Man is one of the most famous human fossils ever discovered, almost as famous as Lucy. But unlike Lucy, the Piltdown Man never lived, at least not 400,000 years ago like the world’s greatest minds in paleoanthropology used to think. These scientists believed from 1912 to 1953 that the Piltdown Man was the missing link of human evolution when in fact he was a human skull found with a modified orangutan jaw by Charles Dawson in Sussex, England.
This hoax has a lot of implications for the field of human evolution to this day. One of the worst is that evolution-denying creationists still try to use the Piltdown hoax as a justification for their belief that all evolution-believing scientists, especially paleoanthropologists, are conniving fraudsters who will create evidence to prove that evolution is true. The creationists act as though the Piltdown hoax was an attempt to legitimize evolution, as if it was dying out when it was actually quickly picking up steam.
Why I read this
I want to do a thorough refutation of these creationist arguments, but I knew that it would be best to do this only after reading this book on the Piltdown Man hoax that was already sitting on my shelf anyway, so read it I did.
I first heard of this book in Donald Johanson’s Lucy, of all places. When describing the story, Johanson used The Piltdown Men as a source and said,
Published in 1972, The Piltdown Men gives a detailed review of the whole Piltdown story, running down many fascinating trails that are beyond the scope of this book to follow. It should be read by anyone interested in this extraordinary forgery. At its end the author, Ronald Millar, asked himself the same question that everybody else had been asking: who had done it, and why?
Donald Johanson, Lucy, p. 81
I figured in that case that I ought to read it!
I mainly wanted to know the details of the hoax, which should be obvious since that’s what the book was about. I was also intrigued, though, by some of its descriptions; the inside blurb reads, “Here is the story, as fascinating as a whodunit, of how the Piltdown skull came to be discovered; how the hoax was exposed and who the hoaxer may have been.” Moreover, the back cover says something similar: “But author Ronald Millar unfolds a story that reads like a thriller—and comes up with clues that point to someone else . . .”
If this story was going to be a thrill-ride of a mystery in addition to giving me the information I wanted, I was not about to complain.
Well, these sales pitches fell flat. It was about as much of a thriller whodunit as one might expect from a book about a bunch of old white men digging up fossils. That’s not to say it was bad, but I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a page-turner. The much bigger issue is that there’s far too much time spent talking about anything but the Piltdown hoax.
This is an issue that I have found in nearly every paleoanthropology book I’ve read. They must all assume that they’re the first book on the topic that you’ve read, so you need to be caught up on every discovery to be able to appreciate the story that the book is supposed to be about. The Jesuit and the Skull and Lucy were both guilty of this; why do you think Johanson was talking about the Piltdown Man in his book on his Lucy discovery in the first place?
I was patient enough when The Piltdown Men went through the discovery of Neanderthals and the painstaking details of Darwin’s and Huxley’s lives. There were even explanations of some of the feuds that likely contributed to the Piltdown hoax, like how jealous England was of France when they found so many Neanderthal skeletons and England had no human fossils at all.
I was surprised to learn that Piltdown was far from the first hoax in the field. There had been flint tools that had been faked to look ancient when they were not, and even when things weren’t planted like the Piltdown skull was, there were a lot of skulls that were thought to be much older than they were. This is not surprising given their shoddy dating methods at the time, which included licking the fossils to see if one’s tongue sticks or not. Shockingly, that was later found not to be reliable.
The problem is that while the England-France feud and some of the other fake fossil stories are relevant, most of the backstory Millar provides is not.
The details on each man’s life story, the state of human origins, and other hoaxes are supposed to act as clues to the mystery, but they’re never treated that way. Somehow they just make the story feel disjointed as though Millar is forgetting what he’s supposed to be talking about.
The blurb that I shared above describes The Piltdown Men as a story in three parts: the discovery, the exposure of the hoax, and Millar’s case for who he believes did it. Well, the discovery took about 30 of the 248 pages. All the way at the end of the book, the exposure of the hoax gets 30 pages and a contemplation of the guilty party gets the final 12 pages. It felt like such a waste that the book took so long to get to what it said it would do.
So who did it?
Most people usually accuse the amateur archeologist who discovered Piltdown Man, Charles Dawson, of being the hoaxer. But Millar and others doubt that Dawson could have done it because to conduct the hoax would have required a lot more professional abilities as well as access to orangutan jaws and teeth. Dawson being able to pull it off is unlikely, and his motive is not really there, either. Unfortunately, he died long before the hoax was discovered, so he wasn’t able to be questioned about it.
(I mean, just look at him in the picture at the dig site above. He’s just happy to be there.)
To answer your question, Ronald Millar believes that Sir Grafton Elliot Smith is guilty of modifying and planting the human skull and orangutan jaw. It came down to Smith having the means, the opportunity, and the motive. He would have had access to orangutan jaws, and he had never liked the big paleontologists and anthropologists Sir Arthur Smith Woodward and Sir Arthur Keith, who ended up being the Piltdown Man’s biggest fans.
Frustratingly, even after this whole book, the case isn’t closed. It was published in 1972, but Lucy, published in 1981, has a bit of an addendum. Johanson writes,
The story of Piltdown Man does not end with Millar. Seven years after his book was published, an extraordinary story landed on the front pages of papers in England and the United States. In 1979, the English geologist James Douglas died at the age of ninety-three. Just before his death he set down on tape his recollections of the Piltdown affair, and he found a new culprit: William Sollas.
Donald Johanson, Lucy, p. 83
Johanson goes on to explain that similarly to Smith, Sollas would have also had the means, opportunity, and motive. He hated Woodward, who had once dismissed Sollas’s technique for making fossil molds. Is making your entire field of study a laughing stock, and everlasting fodder for creationists, really worth it to get back at your nemesis?
Besides, Keith at least has embarrassed himself far beyond falling for the Piltdown hoax. He was also a big proponent of scientific racism, even giving a speech on why “racial segregation is to be recommended.” He didn’t need any help in the way of being remembered for bad science.
Woodward, at least, just had a passion for fossil fish. Then again, he did embarrass himself by writing an entire book, The Earliest Englishman (which I have and look forward to reading) all about his ideas of who the ancient man supposedly was.
Even when the book got off track, I still found it greatly entertaining most of the time. Millar’s “scholarly” writing style took some getting used to, especially being unexpected from a book from the 70’s. Many of the stories interspersed with the Piltdown story were nothing short of zany, like the time anthropologists decided the best way to date a jaw was to saw it in half, and the time that some anthropologists were camping in the jungle only to get feces flung at them from some unknown species of ape.
Racism and sexism
However, even these odd stories were mostly ruined for me by the racism that was also sprinkled through the book. I know that “scientific racism”—which I prefer to call racist pseudoscience—was accepted and not seen as wrong at that time, but it was still extremely off-putting, and it still was wrong.
What’s worse is that the author only fifty years ago, writing just after the civil rights movement, never mentioned that this was no longer an acceptable way to speak of African people or human evolution in general. It probably would have been out of place in the proper tone that he was clearly pursuing, but that’s just… too bad.
It can also be frustrating to read an entire book with probably fewer than ten mentions of various women in passing, as if they barely existed. I was careful to remember that none of these men would have been able to do any of their work without their wives at home taking care of them and their kids—essentially keeping the world turning. I can’t help but wonder, if women had been the prominent scientists of the day, would anthropology have been less competitive, would there would have been fewer frauds, or would they have at least caught the hoax sooner? But no one asked the women.