Piltdown Man forgery
At a meeting of the Geological Society of London, in December 1912, the fossil remains of what was claimed to be a new type of early human, Eoanthropus dawsoni, or ‘Piltdown Man’, were unveiled to the world.
It appeared that irrefutable evidence had been found at last for the sought-after ‘missing link’ between man and ape.
It was not until the 1950s that Piltdown Man was proved to be a forgery.
Contribution and collaboration
Staff of the Natural History Museum (previously the British Museum (Natural History)), the Geological Society, and the British Geological Survey (previously H.M. Geological Survey) were all involved with Piltdown — from discovery to unmasking. Some have been implicated in the forgery itself.
Archivists at the Natural History Museum, the Geological Society and the British Geological Survey pooled their resources to create a web-based exhibition telling the story of Piltdown Man’s discovery.
The Piltdown Timeline reveals the history of the forgery and the identity of individuals that have been accused of complicity or culpability in the affair.
The Piltdown story provides a cautionary lesson of how scientists can get things wrong and how science, when applied correctly, can reveal error and malpractice.
Further reading and detailed bibliography
If you want to find out more about Piltdown then the following books would be a good place to start:
Russell, Miles, The Piltdown Man forgery: Case Closed (The History Press, 2012)
Spencer, Frank, The Piltdown Papers (Oxford University Press, 1990)
Walsh, John, Unravelling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution (Random House, 1996)
Weiner, J S, The Piltdown Forgery (Fiftieth Anniversary edition, with a new Introduction and Afterword by Chris Stringer, Oxford University Press, 2003)
For a more detailed study of the whole Piltdown story, BGS Historian David G Bate has compiled a large annotated bibliography.
Piltdown, Sussex, England, is marked by the red dot. © BGS/NERC
‘A Venerable Orang-outang’, a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine (1871) Public domain
Neanderthal Man cranium from Gibraltar. © Natural History Museum (Image: 011896)
Java Man from Sangiran, Java. © Natural History Museum (Image: 045086)
Heidelberg Man (Homo heidelbergensis): from Broken Hill Mine, Kabwe, Zambia.© Natural History Museum (Image: 045086)
‘A most elaborate and carefully prepared hoax’
Those who had believed in the authenticity of Piltdown Man had been victims of ‘a most elaborate and carefully prepared hoax’.; The question remained: who had carried out such an audacious fraud?
Presented here in the order in which they were publicly identified, are: Charles Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, W. R. Butterfield, Venus Hargreaves, Grafton Elliot Smith, William J. Sollas, Martin Hinton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Samuel Woodhead, John T. Hewitt, Lewis Abbott, Frank Barlow, Arthur Keith, Chipper the goose (in jest!), Arthur Smith Woodward, and C. P. Chatwin.
|1953||Charles Dawson (1864-1916)||Dawson was a solicitor at Uckfield in Sussex, and a noted antiquarian and amateur geologist, being made a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1885 and of the Society of Antiquaries in 1895. He made many donations of Wealden fossils to the Natural History Museum. Dawson was ambitious for recognition and fame and fully expected the Piltdown discoveries to secure him fellowship of the Royal Society, an aspiration that was ultimately denied him. When the fraud was exposed in 1953, Dawson became an obvious suspect. He had been the motivating force behind the excavations and was always present when finds were made. After he died from septicaemia in 1916 there were no further discoveries. Since 1953 many of Dawson’s antiquarian ‘discoveries’ have been shown to be either fraudulent or suspect.||Insert Image here|
|1954||Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955)||Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a palaeontologist. He was studying at Hastings when he first met Dawson in 1909. Dawson invited him to the excavation at Piltdown in 1912, and in 1913 Teilhard discovered the canine tooth. He was still alive when the hoax was uncovered, but when questioned was reluctant to talk about it, which in 1954 aroused suspicion in the minds of the investigators. Those who have implicated Teilhard include Louis Leakey and Stephen Jay Gould, both of whom believed it possible that he had worked in collusion with Dawson. Leakey had no clear evidence to back up his suspicion, while Gould’s accusation was based on incomplete information. More recently the case against Teilhard has been revived by Francis Thackeray, who believes that Teilhard perpetrated a prank that went too far.|
|1972||William Ruskin Butterfield (1872–1935)||Butterfield was curator and librarian of Hastings Museum during the period of the Piltdown discoveries. In 1972 Guy van Esbroeck, in his book Pleine lumière sur l’imposture de Piltdown, accused Butterworth of being the Piltdown forger in collusion with Venus Hargreaves, the labourer employed at Barkham Manor. His argument is that Butterworth was greatly put out on learning through a chance remark from Teilhard de Chardin, in 1909, that Dawson had quietly appropriated a series of bones of the dinosaur Iguanodon from a Hastings quarry and presented them to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. It is claimed that he carried out the ‘hoax’ in revenge. This theory seems to ignore the fact that Dawson had already made his first find at Piltdown probably in the previous year.|
|1972||Venus Hargreaves (dates unknown)||Hargreaves was the labourer who did most of the digging at Piltdown. Apart from van Esbroeck’s assertion that Hargreaves assisted Butterfield by planting the fraudulent Piltdown assemblage (previous slide), Francis Vere had earlier intimated in his book The Piltdown Fantasy (1955) that the forger required an accomplice who worked at the site, by which he presumably meant Hargreaves.|
|1972||Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937)||Elliot Smith, born at Grafton in Australia, was Professor of Anatomy at University of Manchester, 1909–19, and University College London, 1919–37, and had a special interest in the anatomy of the human brain. In The Piltdown Men (1972) Ronald Millar accused Smith of perpetrating the forgery in order to provide support for his views on human evolution. The case made against him is convoluted and entirely circumstantial. Millar regards it as suspicious that Smith allowed Woodward to reconstruct the Piltdown skull incorrectly, as Smith was an expert on prehistoric human skulls. One is prompted to ask why, if implicated in the fraud, did Smith assist Woodward in his continuing attempts to look for further evidence at Piltdown long after Dawson’s death? Kenneth Oakley (in a private communication to Charles Blinderman) regarded Millar’s accusation as ‘absurd’, a view shared by many others.|
|1978||William Johnson Sollas (1849-1936)||Sollas was Professor of Geology at Oxford. In 1978 he was accused of complicity in the Piltdown forgery by his former assistant at the university, Prof. J. A. Douglas (died 1978). Douglas was convinced that Sollas had directed the hoax through Dawson in order to revenge himself on Smith Woodward, who he regarded as a bitter enemy. Douglas’s evidence consisted of nothing more than his memory of the arrival of a package for Sollas containing potassium ‘bichromate’, and of Sollas borrowing apes’ teeth from the university’s Department of Human Anatomy. According to Douglas the whole thing had ‘started as a joke and then got out of hand’. It has been suggested that Douglas may have harboured a grudge against Sollas, who un-obligingly retained his professorship to the age of 87 before yielding the Chair to Douglas.|
|1978||Martin Hinton (1883-1961)||Hinton worked as a volunteer in the Natural History Museum from 1910-15. From 1921 to 1936 he worked in the Zoology Department retiring in 1945. In 1953, Hinton wrote to The Times saying that he and others at the Museum had always believed the jaw to be that of a chimpanzee. In the following year he told the BBC that the forgery had been an inside job but would not name the forger, who was still alive. In 1978 a trunk bearing Hinton's initials was found at the Museum. Inside were bones and teeth, stained and carved in the same way as the Piltdown fossils and artefacts. It has been argued that Hinton could have sourced the orangutan jaw from the collections at the Museum, in which case it seems odd that he always professed the jaw to be that of a chimpanzee!|
|1983||Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)||In 1983, American archaeologist John H. Winslow put forward the theory that Doyle had carried out the hoax. Doyle lived about seven miles from Piltdown, knew Dawson and Smith Woodward and was a qualified doctor, so could have had the scientific knowledge. He visited the Piltdown excavation in 1912 and is said to have been there on other occasions. His motive for the hoax, according to Winslow, was to fool the scientific community in revenge for their crusade against spiritualism, of which Doyle was to become a committed supporter. Doyle is also described as ‘a man who loved hoaxes, adventure, and danger’. Yet the case brought against him is based entirely on supposition.
At the same time the discoveries at Piltdown were being made, Doyle was writing The Lost World, involving the discovery of dinosaurs and apemen on a plateau in South America. Of the latter, Lord John Roxton, a character in the novel, is made to say: ‘Missin’ Links, and I wish they had stayed missin’. A map of the plateau is claimed by Winslow to resemble the Weald in Sussex, with the centre corresponding to the gravel pits at Piltdown, while the figure of Professor Summerlee, described in the novel as an expert in the field of comparative anatomy, acerbic in manner and with a thin goat-like beard, is claimed to be based on Arthur Smith Woodward. Thus, Winslow concludes that ‘the Piltdown hoax was inspired by, or developed hand-in-hand with, the plot of The Lost World.’
|1985||Samuel Allinson Woodhead (c. 1872-1943)||Woodhead accompanied Dawson to make an unsuccessful search of the Barkham Manor pit in 1908, and also undertook an analysis of a small fragment of the Piltdown skull at Dawson’s request. He was present at the excavations on a number of occasions. From a letter written by his sons, it seems that Woodhead suspected foul play by Dawson but would not speak of the matter. Two other, earlier letters state that Woodhead not only was present when the Piltdown jaw was found but himself discovered the canine tooth — this recollection appears in reality to relate to the finding by Woodhead of a beaver tooth in October 1913. The case against Woodhead was put forward by Peter Costello in November 1985 but seems to be based on a distorted reading of the above-mentioned letters.|
|1986||John Theodore Hewitt (1868-1954)||The revelation by Costello concerning Samuel Woodhead’s supposed involvement in the Piltdown fraud (previous slide) prompted a recollection from Mrs Elizabeth Pryce, a summary of which appeared in the March 1986 issue of the journal Antiquity. In 1952–3 she had been a neighbour of J. T. Hewitt, Professor of Chemistry at Queen Mary College, London, who revealed that ‘he and a friend had made the Piltdown Man as a joke’. Long before this, in 1898, Hewitt had disagreed with Dawson over the significance of a natural gas discovery at Heathfield in Sussex. Dawson got Woodhead to undertake an independent analysis, the result of which supported Dawson’s argument and was subsequently proven correct. It appears that Woodhead and Hewitt later came into contact as fellow council members of the Society of Public Analysts, possibly in late 1911. From this connection, Peter Costello quickly constructed a scenario in which Hewitt obtains the faked Piltdown assemblage while Woodhead salts the site in order to make a fool of Dawson. Apart from Hewitt’s supposed ‘confession’, there is no real evidence to back up his story. It may be noted that Hewitt was described by his obituarist as having had ‘a strong sense of humour.’|
|1986||Lewis Abbott (1853-1953)||In his eminently readable book, The Piltdown Inquest (1986), Charles Blinderman examined the principal suspects and concluded that ‘Lewis Abbott has the best credentials to be the Piltdown hoaxer.’ Abbott was a jeweller at Hastings who established a reputation as an amateur prehistorian and supporter of the existence of primitive pre-Palaeolithic (Pliocene) man. He was thus a firm and vociferous believer in the authenticity of the much disputed ‘implements’ called ‘eoliths’, all of which were credited to ‘Pliocene Man’. Abbott was inclined to be bombastic and self important and was quick to claim credit for recognising the significance of Dawson’s discoveries at Piltdown. Abbott genuinely believed in the reality of Piltdown Man, and it is hard to see how his own self-seeking ambition could have been advanced by planting the Piltdown assemblage to the obvious advantage of Dawson.|
|1990||Frank Oswell Barlow (1880-1950)||Caroline Grigson, curator of the Odontological Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, suggested in 1990 that Frank Barlow, a preparator the Geology Department at the Natural History Museum, could have been Dawson’s accomplice. Barlow was responsible for making the Piltdown casts, from the sale of which he derived some financial benefit. Why, for example, did he not notice or draw attention to the evidence of artificial abrasion on the teeth? He could have supplied the Piltdown jaw from un-catalogued material held at the museum. Dawson may have sought Barlow’s advice on the preservation and hardening of fossil material. Yet any suggestion of connivance between them amounts to mere speculation, having as its basis the commonly held view that Dawson was incapable of creating the forgery alone.|
|1990||Arthur Keith (1866-1955)||At the time of the Piltdown discoveries, Keith was Conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. He played a large part in the often heated debate surrounding the interpretation of the Piltdown finds, and he was still alive when the forgery was made public in 1953. In 1990 Frank Spencer accused Keith of being the Piltdown forger in his book Piltdown: a Scientific Forgery. The accusation was later reinforced by Philip Tobias. Yet the evidence against Keith is easily dismissed, being either of an inconsequential nature or based on incomplete information. News of the forgery came as a grave blow to Keith, who wrote a few weeks before his death lamenting that he had been so completely deceived by the ‘honest’ countenance of Dawson, a man for whom he had had the greatest respect.|
|1990||‘Chipper’ the goose (fl. 1912-1913)||At least two writers have suggested, presumably in jest, that Chipper the goose was involved in the Piltdown fraud. Chipper was a frequent and somewhat threatening presence around the site and features in several photographs taken during the Barkham Manor excavations. It has been suggested, for example, that Chipper’s ferocious antics provided an appropriate distraction that enabled the forged items to be dropped surreptitiously onto the rain-washed spreads of gravel! The legacy of Piltdown, along with its increasing list of suspects, continues to grow ever more bizarre—yet it has its lighter moments!|
|1994||Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944)||In 1994 American physical anthropologist Gerell M Drawhorn put forward the theory that Smith Woodward may have colluded with Dawson on the forgery. Woodward’s motive was to enhance his reputation and improve his chances of being appointed Director of the Natural History Museum. While ambition alone is hardly sufficient to implicate Woodward in the forgery, it might have blinded him to any misgivings he should have entertained over some aspects of the Piltdown evidence - notably, for example, Dawson’s reluctance to identify the precise location of Piltdown II. Yet Woodward continued to dig at Piltdown for many years after his retirement, dictating his last book The Earliest Englishman shortly before his death.|
|2003||Charles Panzetta Chatwin (1887-1971)||Chatwin progressed from boy attendant at the Natural History Museum (1902–11), to Librarian at the Geological Society (1913–19), lecturer in palaeontology at the University of Liverpool (1919–20) and palaeontologist at the Geological Survey (1920–47). In 1975, Kenneth Oakley (one of the team that exposed Piltdown in 1953–55) privately named Chatwin as a possible conspirator, though his views were not made public until 2003. Chatwin’s motive would have been his dislike of Smith Woodward. Oakley came to believe that Chatwin had marshalled Hinton and others from the Museum, with the connivance of Dawson, to perpetrate a vengeful prank on Woodward, though what benefit Dawson was supposed to have derived from the exposure of this prank is left unexplained. Oakley met Chatwin in the 1950s and asked him about the Piltdown forgery. Chatwin apparently said ‘No, I am not talking about that’ and hurried off.|
Piltdown Man and popular culture
The Piltdown forgery has also found its way into popular culture via TV, theatre, film, literature and music.
Film and Television
In the first episode of Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1958) the palaeontologist Matthew Roney (Cec Linder) who is excavating the remains of ape-men in Knightsbridge says that if he is wrong. A pub in Piltdown used to be called the ‘Piltdown Man’ in his conclusions, ‘They‘ll stick me alongside the Piltdown forgeries as a horrid warning.’
In the ITV science fiction thriller Undermind, (1965) one character refers to a scandal involving a compromising diary as ‘the biggest hoax since the Piltdown Man’.
In 1987 the BBC series QED produced Murder on the Bluebell Line starring Hugh Fraser as Sherlock Holmes and Ronald Fraser as Doctor Watson. In this docudrama Holmes and Watson investigate the Piltdown forgery and the possible suspects including Arthur Conan Doyle.
In 2009 a script for a proposed film The Wizard of Sussex was produced. This is described as a satire that centres on Charles Dawson and his discovery.
In 2009 the Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced the play ‘Fake’ which was based on the forgery. This is set in 1914 at a meeting at Arthur Conan Doyle’s house that includes Dawson, Woodward and Teilhard de Chardin and in 1953 when the forgery is revealed.
Literature and poetry
The discovery of Piltdown Man may have been one of the things that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World (1912).
It has been suggested that Rudyard Kipling’s short story Dayspring Mishandled (1928) may have been influenced by Piltdown. It concerns a forged Chaucer manuscript.
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson (1956) was partly inspired by Piltdown. The novel features the archaeological excavation of the tomb of an Anglo-Saxon bishop. An idol which is uncovered is later revealed to be a fake. The book was adapted for television in 1992.
Mask of the Jaguar by Jessica North (1981) is centred on a priceless Mayan jaguar mask of jade, bone and gold. At one point two ch aracters discuss a discovery in England that ‘fooled experts for years until new scientific tests unmasked the fraud’ and ‘the little man who must have perpetrated it―a respected, scholarly gentleman who had nothing―absolutely nothing!―to gain.’
Skullduggery by Peter Marks (1987) is a fictional treatment of the forgery and features, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward, Teilhard de Chardin, Kenneth Oakley, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde.
The novel The Piltdown Confession by Irwin Schwartz (1994) is narrated by Charles Dawson, features Teilhard de Chardin and Conan Doyle and includes a murder mystery.
In 2018, Nick Flittner published Piltdown Man: The Man Who Never Was, a poem that tells the story of the forgery from various points of view including those of Arthur Smith Woodward, Charles Dawson, Venus Hargreaves, J S Weiner and even Piltdown Man himself!
The Pilgrimage of Piltdown Man by Mike O’Leary (2019) is described as “…the story of Link, a cryptid, a knitted-together Piltdown Man...”
In the early 1960s there was a rock and roll instrumental group called The Piltdown Men. They were from California and their singles included ‘Brontosaurus Stomp’ and ‘Goodnight Mrs Flintstone’.
On Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ (1973) he is listed as playing ‘Piltdown Man’ which refers to some unintelligible vocalisation he does on the album.