Three suspects behind the Piltdown Man fossil hoax

The “Piltdown Case” relates to an English hoax or joke in which someone at Piltdown in Sussex buried an unusual human skull (stained brown) with a modified orangutan jaw (also stained brown), to look as if the relatively modern specimens represented a fossilised “ape-man”, apparently associated with the fossilised bones and teeth of animals known to have existed more than a million years ago. This Piltdown Man “fossil” was discovered in 1912, and announced with much acclaim at the end of the year in London as Eoanthropus, the “Dawn Man”, otherwise referred to as “The Earliest Englishman”.

Many people have been suspected as fraudsters, especially Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist who lived near the site of Piltdown, but more than a century later the case is still not closed. 

In addition to Dawson I have been interested in the possible role of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French palaeontologist, Jesuit priest and philosopher who had taken part in excavations at Piltdown in 1912, and who had visited the site again the following year, when he picked up an isolated orangutan canine tooth. De Chardin had discovered the specimen in an area which had already been thoroughly searched, which has raised suspicion. 

I am not claiming here that De Chardin was the “principal perpetrator”, but he does deserve attention. In particular, one may ask whether he was aware of the joke in which he was an accomplice. 

De Chardin was reluctant to talk much, if at all, when he was asked questions at the time of the Piltdown Exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, after the exposure of the hoax in 1953. Perhaps there was a very good reason as to why he did not want to say anything in detail to anyone within his lifetime. Evidently something had gone wrong with the hoax in 1912 after it was taken seriously by Smith Woodward, the head of the geology division at the Natural History Museum. 

De Chardin said that he knew the identity of the hoaxer. This important piece of information came from Louis Leakey through the late Phillip Tobias, both distinguished palaeontologists who worked in East and South Africa, respectively. Yet De Chardin did not reveal the identity of the hoaxer to Kenneth Oakley, a palaeontologist and chemist at the museum in London, who probed him with questions at the time of the Piltdown Exhibition. Suspiciously, De Chardin was reticent and agitated. This is what I understood to be the case from Oakley when we met in South Kensington near the Natural History Museum in 1977.

When De Chardin wrote to the famous French prehistorian Abbé Henri Breuil in 1953, he said that Oakley had contributed greatly through his work involving chemical analysis of the Piltdown bones, exposing the forgery, but there remained a “psychological problem”. This could imply that the Piltdown Case weighed heavily on his mind. One may even ask: did it bother his conscience?

It is necessary to look very closely at a specific part of De Chardin’s letter to Breuil (translated from French), referring to what he had told Oakley:

“I have difficulty in accepting a hoax on the part of Dawson (a close friend of Smith Woodward!). And as fantastic as it seems, I admitted [to Oakley] rather that someone threw, innocently, from the cottage nearby, some ‘collection’ in the ‘Pit’ of Piltdown.” 

Although De Chardin claimed that he knew who was responsible for the Piltdown hoax, and although he was making an “admission” to Oakley, he was still not revealing the identity of the principal perpetrator.  

In a 1953 letter to Oakley, De Chardin wrote:

“Would it have been impossible for some collector who had in his possession some ape bones, to have discarded specimens into the pit? The idea sounds fantastic. But, in my opinion, no more fantastic than to make Dawson the perpetrator of the hoax.” 

(Natural History Museum archives, DF116/31/4).

In the South African Journal of Science and in Evolutionary Anthropology I have presented a scenario in which De Chardin knew that a certain Edgar Willett was the main perpetrator. Willett was a retired medical man, trained in Oxford. He had been a curator of a museum at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, had a knowledge of anatomy and had access to unusual human skulls. In early retirement he lived near Piltdown. Notably, he had assisted with excavations at the Piltdown site in 1912. By 1913 he had apparently become a member of an “inner circle”. Dawson was his “associate”, to use a term given by Frank Spencer, a historian who documented most of the archival material relating to the Piltdown forgery. 

An obituary of Willett in The Lancet states that he had a strong interest in archaeology and natural history, publishing on flint artefacts in the journal of the Sussex Archaeological Society. He had found artefacts with Dawson at Piltdown, and he knew De Chardin.

After a period when no fossils had been found, the orangutan canine was picked up by De Chardin on 30 August 1913. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the very day when he joined the excavation that year. Joseph Weiner, an Oxford-based South African anatomist who contributed to the exposure of the hoax, wrote in 1954 that “the canine seems to have puzzled Smith Woodward somewhat, even though it conformed closely to his expectations”.

In my scenario, De Chardin “discovered” the stained or painted orangutan tooth in order to tactfully expose the hoax, and to let the esteemed Smith Woodward recognise that “Piltdown Man” was a joke. Wasn’t it too good to be true? But, despite using the term “incredulous” to describe the discovery, Woodward, a fossil fish expert, was deceived by the primate tooth.  

Of particular interest is the source of the canine. In 2016 Isabelle de Groote, Chris Stringer and their colleagues were able to demonstrate from DNA that the tooth must have come from the Sarawak region of Borneo. An expedition to that area was undertaken by Alfred Everett in 1875, sponsored by, among others, Charles Darwin and three members of the Willett family, including Edgar and his father Henry (Sherratt, 2002). The expedition brought back orangutan material, most of which went to the Natural History Museum, but it had been agreed in advance that “duplicates” could go to collectors. It would seem entirely probable that such “duplicates” would go to sponsors of the expedition.  

Tom Harrisson (curator of the Sarawak Museum) informed Oakley that some orangutan specimens collected by Everett would have gone to “dealers” (De Vries, H  and Oakley, KP, 1959). Thereafter such material would have been distributed to private collectors.

This brings us to the question as to whether Willett was the “collector” to whom De Chardin referred in his correspondence with Breuil and Oakley. As someone who claimed that he knew the identity of the principal perpetrator, and as a priest whose honesty would be expected to have been unquestionable, De Chardin was most certainly suggesting to Breuil and Oakley that a collector other than Dawson had planted ape material in the Piltdown pit.  

Dawson is known to have been a serial forger, but quite possibly he was hoist on his own petard by virtue of one or more jokers who were aware of his fraudulence. Willett, as an associate of Dawson, could have been in a prime position to know what the amateur archaeologist was up to with regard to the preparation of forgeries. The historian John Farrant has recognised that there were at least 20 of them. Willett could have considered the possibility of turning the tables, and may not necessarily have acted alone. As a budding palaeontologist, was De Chardin an advisory accomplice? The two of them had excavated together, and the wealthy Willett had offered the use of his car to facilitate transport to and from the site.   

Almost immediately after he had heard that Smith Woodward had announced Eoanthropus as a genuine fossil, De Chardin wrote to his friend and fellow theologian Felix Pelletier, with whom he had collected fossils in Sussex. He told Pelletier that they must do nothing. Instead, they must wait for criticisms (as if they would be expected). Moreover, De Chardin said to Pelletier that Marcellin Boule, a highly respected French palaeontologist, would not be “taken in” (Spencer, 1990).

Remarkably, in an essay on human evolution published in January 1913 in the Jesuit journal Études, De Chardin wrote that: “There was a time when prehistory deserved to be suspect and the subject of jokes.” Even more remarkable is the fact that De Chardin makes no reference to Piltdown Man in the essay, even though the “fossil” had just been announced.

In 1920 De Chardin wrote his only publication on Piltdown, in which he mentions that the condyle hinge-joint of the orangutan jaw was broken “as if on purpose”. Without this critical condyle, it would not have been immediately obvious that the ape jaw did not articulate with a human skull. In 1920, nobody at the time had as yet suspected a forgery, but in this short phrase (“broken as if on purpose”) we see the hint of a hoax. The late Stephen Jay Gould, a palaeontologist at Harvard, considered this as a smoking gun, indicating De Chardin’s single-handed complicity. I do not go so far. Instead I consider that Piltdown Man was intended as a simple joke that went wrong, too quickly, and that De Chardin was not the sole agent. 

De Chardin had “admitted” to Oakley that some collector (other than Dawson) could have thrown part of a collection of bones into the Piltdown Pit, but De Chardin went further to suggest that it was done innocently. Innocently? Use of this word provokes suspicion of an extended joke, one that persisted as far as 1953. Allegedly, at that time Jesuits were allowed to lie, provided it was a joke (Davis, 1958).

People who knew De Chardin had pertinent things to say. Before his death in 2012, Tobias told me that De Chardin was “something of a joker”. The late Revil Mason (a South African archaeologist who was also based at Wits University) told me that he had a great sense of humour. Archival records in the Natural History Museum in London (DF 116/23/10 and DF 116/31/37, DF 116/31/38) reveal further evidence, including a transcript of a conversation with Robert Essex, a science master at a school near Piltdown. He said that De Chardin was “an anthropologist of no mean standing, but on the top of all that, he loved a joke, greatly”. And, most striking of all, Mary Stanton (knowledgeable about Jesuit ways of life) said that De Chardin’s letter to Oakley reflected an “authentic Jesuit flavour of evasion softened by a jocose approach”. She went on to say: “What more exquisite joke than to fool the over-enthusiastic and gullible Mr Dawson?” 

Willett can be recognised as a potential principal perpetrator with whom De Chardin interacted, but a third person can also be identified. Martin Hinton was a disgruntled member of staff of the Natural History Museum, who also had a sense of humour. He had secretly stained bones of the kind found at Piltdown (Gardiner and Currant, 1996; Gardiner, 2003), and like De Chardin, he claimed to know the identity of the principal perpetrator, but did not want to let on. Both Hinton and Willett had worked in museum circles in London.

In my scenario the Piltdown saga was intended as a joke that went wrong, involving at least three people: Willett principally, aided by De Chardin and Hinton. The motive was to hoist Dawson (a serial fraudster) on his own petard. At least potentially, Willett had access to the necessary materials, including unusual human skulls (from the museum which he had curated in London), orangutan jaws and teeth (from Borneo), and fossils of a diversity of animals (from his father’s extensive antiquarian collections in Brighton). The wealthy Willett in early retirement had the means, had free time on his hands and the necessary background in anatomy from Oxford. De Chardin had a basic understanding of palaeoanthropology. Hinton contributed his experience from experimenting with the chemical staining of bones and teeth at the Natural History Museum. 

As such, I like to think that we have come closer to the identification of at least three suspects who acted at the initial Piltdown pit. In a spirit of fun, Willett (a sportsman) may have mischievously added a “cricket bat” (carved from an elephant bone, perhaps from his father’s collections). Furthermore, he could have continued operations at a second site (Piltdown II) where human and orangutan material was furtively planted together to convince and to fox palaeoanthropologists — for 40 years. 

Unfortunately, due to the hoax the acceptance of genuine fossils from South Africa was delayed, including the famous Taung Child skull of Australopithecus africanus, described as a new species in 1925 by Professor Raymond Dart of Wits University, and now known to be about 2.5-million years old. This remarkable fossil represents a distant human ancestor of humankind, with a small brain but human-like teeth, in contrast with Piltdown Man’s large skull and ape teeth.  

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the Trustees of the Natural History Museum in London for the opportunity to examine the archives relating to Piltdown. I am also grateful to the Teilhard de Chardin Foundation and the Jesuit Archives in Paris for access to material in their care. I thank Hein Gerstner and staff of the Sarawak Museum including Lily Sia Yieng Ching, Zakirah Binti Mohamad Taufek, Norraha binti Abdul Rahim, Nur Azmina binti Drahman and Tazudin Mohtar for kind assistance in Borneo. I greatly appreciate the many people with whom I have had animated discussions about the Piltdown Case over the past 30 years. 

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Francis Thackeray
Professor Francis Thackeray (now retired) is a South African palaeoanthropologist and an honorary research associate of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He served as the director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand from 2009 to 2013, and as head of the department of palaeontology at the Transvaal Museum (now the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria). He obtained a PhD in anthropology from Yale.

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