The Hoax

The Science Fraud of the Century and its Solution
By John Evangelist Walsh
Random House, 304 pp.

For true connoisseurs of obstinately unsolved mysteries, the Ripper murders pale in comparison to the Piltdown forgery.

The Ripper committed crimes of unspeakable violence. But we are hip deep in such crimes, and always have been. The Piltdown forger got away with that rarest of things, a crime of intellect directed at intellect. He made fools of the finest minds of his generation, and did so with such aplomb that almost a century later his identity is still the subject of heated debate.

Although it won’t be for much longer, I’m willing to bet. Along comes John Evangelist Walsh’s Unraveling Piltdown, which arrays all the suspects in the drawing room, interrogates the various theories, and then points to the guilty party with such an arsenal of evidence you can almost hear the thud of the case closing. If detective Walsh is wrong, I’m a half-man, half-monkey’s uncle.

First the facts. It was the early 1900s, and Darwinism was on the front burner.

Tantalizing skeletal remains kept cropping up, showing how humankind had an ancestry. A sloped brow here, an ancient pre-human tibia there. None, however, on the sceptred isle of Britain – something of a drawback if you happened to be a professional paleoanthropologist in Britain. Then, on Feb. 15, 1912, an astonishing discovery came to light. A solicitor and antiquarian named Charles Dawson wrote from Sussex to Arthur Woodward (later Sir Arthur), chief of geology at the Natural History Museum in London. On the estate of Barkham Manor near Piltdown Common, Dawson reported, workmen digging in a gravel pit had come across what seemed to be a fossilized skull, millennia old.

With that, the Piltdown affair was afoot. Dawson showed Woodward what the workmen had discovered. There was no doubt in the scientist’s mind that this was a major find. A systematic excavation of the gravel bed was aided by a young French priest studying at a local seminary. He was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who would become a renowned paleontologist and a controversial thinker about human evolution.

They found all sorts of pertinent fossils. But the clincher was the partial jaw bone. The skull showed a large cranial capacity while the jaw was decidedly ape-like. Here, at last, was the “missing link” – hard evidence of the transition phase from hominid to homo sapiens. The troubling thing about the Piltdown specimen, to the professionals, was how it reversed received wisdom. It suggested that an enlarged brain came first, and only then a softening of bestial anatomy. The rest of the fossil record indicated otherwise.

Among the first dissidents was Arthur Keith, director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. He argued that this jaw and this skull could not have come from the same individual. Though the canine tooth was missing, Keith pointed out that an ape-like canine would have prohibited the lateral movement of the jaw that allowed the human-like wear of the molars.

Behold! The Piltdown quarry shortly yielded precisely the missing canine, perfectly formed so as to discredit Keith, who came to accept the legitimacy of the find. Between 1912 and 1915, the Sussex countryside habitually coughed up just the bone fragments necessary to keep the hoax alive.

It stayed alive for 40 years – a conundrum in the annals of paleontology. After the Second World War, newly developed fluorine tests showed there was something seriously amiss with the accepted dates of the Piltdown bones, but it wasn’t until 1953 that Joseph Weiner of Oxford realized the specimen wasn’t a conundrum, but a fraud. Close examination revealed that the bones had been stained, aged, painted and filed.

Unraveling Piltdown tells this part of the story splendidly. It only gets better in the second half, when it turns to the identity of the culprit. Here, Walsh strides through the chapters like Sherlock Holmes. Other investigators may have gone before him, but he manages to make them all look like Dr. Watson.

So who dunnit? Was it Charles Dawson, the lawyer who first brought the bones to wider attention, and whom Weiner suspected, but couldn’t bring himself to accuse outright? Was it Arthur Woodward, to whom Piltdown brought status and reward? Was it the hired labourer, “Venus” Hargreaves, who was in a position to plant the artifacts, and who might have enjoyed seeing his betters make fools of themselves?

Perhaps it was Arthur Keith, the anatomist who first attacked Woodward, then relented? A matter of protesting too much? No, wait. What about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Didn’t he live only a short distance from Piltdown, and didn’t he express an interest in the dig? As a former physician, he would have had the expertise to alter the bones. As a devotee of spiritualism, he would have had the motive to ridicule the scientific establishment. Hmmmnn.

In 1980, Stephen Jay Gould pointed the finger at Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit apprentice. Gould’s case is elaborate, but Walsh punctures it so thoroughly it deflates like a cheap balloon.

So who dunnit? I’m not talking. I will give you a clue, however. It’s just who you most suspect, therefore least suspect, therefore most suspect. In short, the butler did

Globe and Mail November 2, 1996