Saturday, June 09, 2007

BOOK: J. S. Weiner, "The Piltdown Forgery"

Joseph S. Weiner: The Piltdown Forgery. Fiftieth anniversary edition, with a new introduction and afterword by Chris Stringer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 0198607806. xx + 212 pp.

In the years around 1910–1916, several interesting fragments of old bones were discovered near Piltdown in England. Some of these were pieces of skulls and jawbones supposedly belonging to a previously unknown type of hominid, the ‘Piltdown man’. The skull was fairly similar to that of modern humans, but the jaw was much more like that of an ape, which suggested that the fossil belonged to just the kind of ‘missing link’ the existence of which was widely suspected by the anthropologists of the time, but of which no fossils had until then been found. It became widely accepted and lauded as an important discovery.

However, as the years went by, many new fossils of early hominids were discovered in various parts of the world, but none of them resembled the Piltdown man. It became clear that the Piltdown man cannot possibly be a missing link between modern humans and their ape-like ancestors; it could only have been a dead end, a standalone branch of the evolutionary tree, quite isolated from what had been going on elsewhere within the human family.

Little by little, even this began to seem untenable, and finally in the 1950s some experts were becoming ready to consider the possibility that the Piltdown fossils may have been forgeries. In view of this, they went to re-examine the finds, which they were anyway in a much better position to do than had been possible at the time the discoveries had first been made, given that both the knowledge of early hominid development and the technology for the study of fossils made considerable advances in the intervening 30 or so years (p. 71).

Their conclusion was that the Piltdown man is undoubtedly a hoax; one of them, J. S. Weiner, then wrote this book (first published in 1953), describing not only the results of their study of the Piltdown fossils, but also what he had been able to learn about the circumstances in which the fossils were discovered and of the people involved in those events.

This isn't a bad book, but I can't say that I was totally thrilled while reading it, either. This is probably not the book's fault but mine; I'm just not that interested in the details of this subject. Although the book is relatively short (about 200 pages), I often felt that the author was giving more details about something than I really cared to listen to. I guess I'm just not that interested either in paleontological technicalities or in the numerous people involved in the story of the Piltdown hoax — a large number of paleontologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, etc., both professionals and amateurs, make an appearance here, and I find that trying to keep them all straight would require more concentration than I was willing to expend at the time. But for someone more keen on this subject, I'm sure the level of detail would be delightful. Even I was impressed by the details on some occasions; e.g. in chapter 4 the author describes a number of chemical tests carried out on the Piltdown fossils, and shows how a jawbone and a skullcap, supposedly belonging to the same individual, gave widely different results in one test after another, which clearly indicates that they couldn't possibly both come from the same individual (p. 39).

The book also gives us some glimpses into the social aspects of how British paleontology functioned in the early 20th century. I found this rather fascinating; I was impressed by the large number of people involved in this, not just professionals but also all sorts of amateurs, dilettantes, collectors: people who had a normal job during the day, and then went, in their spare time, tinkering around with old bones and making excavations, writing up articles and presenting them to the numerous learned societies. This is charming for several reasons; firstly, because we see that at that time it was still possible for amateurs to make worthwhile contributions to science (which is probably much less likely nowadays); and secondly, because we see that people at the time were actually keen to take up this sort of work as a hobby. It seems fairly unimaginable to me that nowadays anyone would consider research into some dull, obscure, dry, pedantic subject as a suitable subject for a hobby. But I guess that in those days, when they couldn't waste their time by watching television and blogging, they nearly couldn't help doing something more worthwhile instead, such as performing paleontological research.

A worker involved in some of the early Piltdown excavation has a very curious name: Venus Hargreaves (p. 79). Despite the name, he was a man. What were his parents thinking?!

The jaw of the Piltdown ‘man’ was, as it turned out, really the jaw of an ape. There's an interesting discussion on pp. 97–8 about how the forger might have obtained it: “they could be bought from, or through, a local taxidermist, or, if not, then easily enough from one of the famous London firms. [. . .] Mr. Gerrard tells me that unmatched jaws and other odd bones were probably easier to come by in the years before World War I than now. [. . .] Odd bits of the skeleton, such as teeth and mandibles, were cheap enough in those days. Ape and human jaws could be easily come by and many geologists had them.” Ah, this almost makes one wistful for the good old days when the sun never set over the British empire and monkey jaws were easily come by, unlike now when regulations, democracy, decolonization and international wildlife protection treaties spoiled all the fun :))

At some point, Dawson (the man who would later discover the Piltdown fossils) bought the apartment that had until then been rented by the Sussex Archaeological Society for their meetings, and he “soon afterwards served upon the Secretary formal notice that the Society was to terminate its occupation of the premises by midsummer 1904” (p. 158). This is another of these charming little details — by midsummer, not e.g. by July 1, which is what we would probably do nowadays. Apparently people at the time were still aware of these traditional points of the year, the ones that are actually linked to astronomical phenomena, unlike now when we are more or less completely indifferent to them.

Incidentally, Dawson apparently had quite a wide range of interests and made a number of curious, and sometimes spectacular, finds (pp. 161–3), such as the “ ‘Toad in the Hole’ ”: “This is a petrified toad in what is actually a hollow nodule of flint [. . .] the toad when young must have got into the nodule through a small hole and found enough insects to enable it to grow until it became too large to get out again.” (P. 163.) And in 1915, he experimented with “ ‘flaming’ bullets — phosphorescent anti-Zeppelin bullets” (p. 163).

In a way, the Piltdown mystery remains unsolved; we still don't know for sure who the hoaxer was and what exactly was the motivation for the hoax. As the author discusses in the last chapter of the book and in the epilogue, it would be difficult to interpret the evidence in a way that wouldn't find Dawson guilty of participating in the hoax (pp. 177–9, 185). For example, several of his subsequent discoveries appeared just at the right time and were just of the right character to clear up some bit of doubt or skepticism that had arisen regarding the previously discovered fossils (p. 198). But it isn't clear who else was involved besides Dawson (if anyone).

This edition of the book also contains an interesting afterword, written in 2003 by one Chris Stringer. He briefly mentions various other theories about the Piltdown hoax that have been presented in the fifty years since the first publication of the book. “Indeed, the joke that the only participant shown in the fading Piltdown photographic archives not to have been named as the forger is ‘Chipper’ the goose is now close to the truth.” (P. 188.) Even Stephen Jay Gould contributed a theory (in 1979–80, “proposing that Teilhard de Chardin conspired with Dawson, initially as a joke, which then got out of hand”, p. 191).


I don't really want to read much more about the Piltdown hoax, but just in case, here are a couple of interesting-sounding books mentioned in the afterword:

  • F. Spencer: Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery. 1990.
  • F. Spencer: The Piltdown Papers: 1908–1955. 1990.

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