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Folklore, Belief, and the Piltdown Man Hoax

A newspaper article with a drawing of a man with a forward jutting jaw and sketches of the jawbones beneath.

The Fossil Man of Sussex,”news of the “discovery” of the Piltdown skull as it was reported in the United States press. Dakota County Herald. (Dakota City, Neb.) February 14, 1913, p. 2.

Amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson and palaeontologist Sir Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum (now the British Natural History Museum) announced the startling discovery of an ancient human ancestor in Sussex in December 18, 1912. The skull of what Dawson named Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson’s dawn man), which came to be popularly known as the Piltdown Man, was accepted by many, although, even early on, questions were raised. It is one of science’s most notorious hoaxes.

My father taught biology and natural science at Gallaudet University and I grew up with the story of the Piltdown man hoax. So I was excited to learn that recently a group of researchers from many science disciplines led by Isabelle De Groote completed a painstaking eight-year study of the Piltdown skull, purportedly found in many pieces in Sussex, England in the early years of the twentieth century. They concluded that only one person had the ability to cobble together the skull from a fossilized human cranium and a stained orangutan jaw, place the broken fragments of that creation in a gravel pit and then orchestrate the gradual “discovery.” That person was Charles Dawson, who had named the find after himself.[1]

The skull was not formally declared a hoax until 1953, when the bones were examined and dated using a method assessing fluorine content. The skull was ancient, but the jaw dated from the time of the discovery. There had been several suspected culprits and the hoax became a legend in the human sciences, as there were famous people associated with the case. Anthropologist Arthur Keith, a proponent of the idea that humans originated in Europe, was one suspect. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived near the location of the find and it was suggested that he might have been the hoaxer. The Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin found one of the teeth and so was another suspect. It was also thought that the hoaxer might be someone in the British Museum who had a grudge against Woodward, but Woodward himself was not a suspect.

The success of the Piltdown hoax was largely due to the way the skull and the location of the “find” fulfilled the cultural beliefs, desires, and expectations of European palaeontologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists of the early twentieth century.  It was commonly supposed that there was one line of human ancestor species emerging from Africa or Asia with different advocates for each place of origin.  These proposed places of origin flew in the face of European pride and some thought that there must have been a European origin for the emergence of modern man. The Piltdown man suggested England as the location of the development of humans, which inspired national pride and clouded scientific inquiry.  No two hominin species were thought to have lived at the same time, so the Piltdown man was automatically assumed to be an ancestor of modern man.

There was a deep cultural belief in a “great chain of being” that placed man above all other creatures and some people above others with divine beings above man. This idea, expressed earliest in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, influenced European religion, science, social status, government, and law. There was also a common belief among many Europeans and European Americans in a physiological basis for race and in the superiority of Europeans.  These ideas influenced science, and so the Piltdown skull was thought to support a European origin of humans. The relatively large size of the skull was not questioned because it supported the idea of a superior human species or race in Europe. In folklore and anthropology, ethnocentrism is understood as a normal cultural behavior that can out of hand. The ethnocentric idea of European racial superiority based on “science” fueled imperialism and discrimination.

But parallel to the excitement of the Piltdown “discovery,” Franz Boas, who is called the father of both modern anthropology and academic folklore in the United States, was vigorously arguing that so-called physical characteristics of race described in physical anthropology of the 19th century were variable, and that changes in nutrition and education changed many of the perceived differences.[2]  By the late 19th and early 20th centuries the physical characteristics of race had become a highly debated idea in academic fields and was largely abandoned in the human sciences during the 1930s and 1940s.

A newspaper clipping showing an image of a chimp on the right, an ape-like animal standing upright, and a person from Papua New Guinea in traditional hunting dress.

A Man Ape Who Walked Erect,” New York Journal, Sunday, September 18, 1898, p. 7. This news article on the claimed discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus,  popularly called “Java Man,” in 1891 and 1892 in Indonesia by Eugène Dubois shows some common ideas about human ancestors at the end of the 19th century that likely inspired the Piltdown hoax. Dubois wanted to prove the origins of humans in Asia, not Africa, and the cranium he found was said to be an ape-like animal that walked erect, here called a “missing link.” The comparison of images also shows the disturbing ideas about race held by some at that time, as the drawing of Java man is compared to a chimp on the left and a man from Papua New Guinea on the right, marked “the lowest type of man.” Java man is now understood to be Homo erectus, a species that originated in Africa with features and abilities much closer to modern man than was once thought. Of course, the people of Papua New Guinea are fully modern humans, as are all humans alive today.

Some of those who challenged the Piltdown find were wise enough not to charge outright deception on the part of those who found pieces of the skull.  The British Museum was involved, after all, giving the find by an amateur, Dawson, credibility among more seasoned researchers.  But several people thought there was simply a mistake, that an early human skull had been inadvertently paired with the jaw of an ancient ape found in the same location.[3] The skull seemed too large for an early human ancestor. The jaw did not fit and the living being would not have been able to chew,  some pointed out.  But such questions were usually dismissed by those who believed in the skull.  This shows how powerful belief can be — the most obvious flaws in the find were not given the credit they deserved by those who believed in the skull’s authenticity.

Many faulty assumptions were played upon by Charles Dawson in the Piltdown man hoax and led to the failure of many to adequately question the skull, but these ideas changed as anthropology and paleontology developed during the 20th century.  Today the evidence places human origins in western or southern Africa, the idea of a single line of descent has given way to a complex history of many early hominin species including some that lived at the same time, and race is understood as a phenomenon of human social behavior with no basis in human physiology. DNA and migration research shows that Europeans migrated out of Africa into central Asia before turning westward to populate Europe.

The claimed Piltdown discovery entered popular consciousness in various ways. One 1913 British article reprinted in the Virginia Times Dispatch on March 2,This Man Lived 400,000 Years Ago,” attempted to draw moral conclusions from the appearance of the Piltdown skull, “In that time the chief task of those that followed the primeval man has been to push in the jaw and push out the forehead. That process is now going on IN YOU. Savagery and hatred push the jaw out. Thought, benevolence, intellectual activity push out the forehead.”

One of the lasting beliefs at the time of the hoax was expressed as a need to find clear transitional fossils between apes and humans, popularly called a “missing link.” The belief in a missing link between human ancestor species and other great apes is first found in the writing of Darwin’s predecessor, Charles Lyell. The “missing link” idea caused artists of the day to depict early man as having rough fur and jutting jaws like that of a chimpanzee in popular publications. The missing link idea of the 19th century, abandoned by science, took off as a cultural idea, which is with us even today. The idea of an upright walking ape that exists somewhere in the wild, called sasquatch or bigfoot in the U.S. and the yeti in the mountains of Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, is a group of legends that, in the modern era, are informed by the idea of a missing link, with furry depictions not unlike those that were once drawn of early human ancestors. Some believe that sasquatch might be a relative of humans — a “living fossil.” The idea also influences popular media. When fossilized bones of a new species thought to be related to humans were found in the Bloubank River valley in South Africa in what appears to be an intentional burial site in a deep cavern in 2013, many newspapers dubbed it the “missing link.” Paleoanthropologists continue to explain in interviews that this is an outdated concept and that much research remains to be done on this species.

The missing link between humans and apes, perhaps, has a certain romantic appeal, and so it has persisted in folk and popular culture. But with studies of ape and human DNA, especially the mapping of genomes, the link between humans and our ape cousins has clearly been shown not to be missing at all, but found in every cell in the human body. Humans share 98.8% of our DNA with our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, whose ancestral lines are thought to have diverged from a common ancestor between six and seven million years ago.

The Piltdown hoax has a good deal to teach us about the hazards of cultural beliefs as we pursue scientific discovery. In science it is important to see what is really before us, rather than what we want to see. But all of us exist within a culture and carry ideas of that culture in everything we do. So it is important for researchers to be aware of our own cultural biases and rigorously test hypotheses in order to discover what is true, rather than what we want to be true.

Notes

  1. De Groote, Isabelle, et al.  “New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created ‘Piltdown man,’” in The Royal Society Open Science, .
  2. See Franz Boas, “New Evidence in Regard to the Instability of Human Types” (1916) and “Some Criticisms of Physical Anthropology,” (1899) reprinted in Race, Language, and Culture. 1940. pp. 76-85 and 165-71.
  3. For an example see  Gerrit S. Miller’s The jaw of the Piltdown man (with five plates), (monograph) Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 65 (12): 1-31. 1915. (Full text available as PDF.)

Resources

Becoming Human, an online presentation from the Institute of Human Origins.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers (Library of Congress)

De Groote, Isabelle, et al.  “New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created ‘Piltdown man,’” in The Royal Society Open Science, .

New York Journal and Related Titles, 1896 to 1899  (Library of Congress)

Web, Jonathan, “Piltdown review points decisive finger at forger Dawson,” BBC News, August 1o, 2016.

What Does it Mean to be Human?  An online presentation from the Smithsonian Institution.

One Comment

  1. Patricia Atkinson
    August 30, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Thanks so much for this illuminating and entertaining essay. I, too, was captivated early by the Piltdown hoax.

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