Entry for September 13, 2008

I just finished reading, “Piltdown, A Scientific Forgery,” by Frank Spencer. Over the years I have read any number of articles and several books on this subject but this is probably the best I have run into so far. Like all who take an interest in the Piltdown Man I am an armchair detective who has his own theory as to who perpetrated the fraud although I am not a hundred percent sure of the motive.

In 1912 amateur geologist and paleontologist Charles Dawson, a solicitor who lived only a few miles from the tiny village of Piltdown located in East Sussex, south of London near the channel, found some remarkable fossils including fragments of a human, or human like, skull and jaw. After some initial debate as to whether or not they belonged together or were just found in the same vicinity by accident, the jaw and skull were assembled, missing parts filled in by skilled deduction and hailed as a new and important finding that seemed to show a hitherto undiscovered branch of early man. While there were doubters the majority view of the best assembled scientific minds within the supporting disciplines was that the find was beyond all doubt authentic and important. There is no evidence that any of them suspected a fraud. Of course this was when paleoanthropology was in its infancy without the help of technology.

But over the years surprised doubts began to gnaw away in the minds of some researchers. The rise of technology proved the imposture unsustainable, in 1953 it was proved a fraud. The jaw was that of an orangutan with teeth filed down, the skull was recent stained in a cunning way to match the stains produced by local soil conditions, the other fossils were found to be from far away.

Creationists often point to this as a case where scientists conspired to deceive the faithful by bolstering the case of evolution. This of course is in keeping with their general ignorance about science in general and evolution in particular. Would these men willingly sacrifice their own reputations in such folly? Could such men, many of whom were anything but personal friends band together for such a deceitful purpose? Of course not. And the most telling point is that the fraud was discovered, not by creationists who have no science, but by researchers only interested in the truth. Moreover, the ongoing research and discoveries in evolution never depended one whit on the Piltdown Man.

Over the years dozens of theories have been advanced as to who perpetrated the fraud. Some very ingenious and well thought out. My own thinking is that it was likely that the original finder of the spurious artifacts was the culprit. He was the man on the spot, so to say. He had a reason to be where he was when the false fossils were discovered and knew the area. Did he have an accomplice? Possibly but I reject the notion that any of the scientists involved would have conspired with him leaving themselves open to censure if it was ever discovered, they simply had too much to loose. If he did have an accomplice common sense would dictate it would be a local man, a close friend and confidant. Men seldom conspire with strangers. Were there such people in the area? Yes, they were several who shared Dawson’s scientific interests. One of them, by the way, who left post-mortem writings indicating that Dawson perpetrated the fraud! In closing I think it is a mistake to rule out Dawson just because he was not a professional. He had the skill, the opportunity and perhaps a motive for it. But as he died in 1916 of a heart-attack we will never know for sure. Still it is a good mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes, whose author, Arthur Conan Doyle, was himself, accused by a later writer of committing the fraud!

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Published in: on September 13, 2008 at 9:45 am  Leave a Comment