Virginia Woolf once wrote that human nature suddenly changed in the year 1912. Such things tend to be at the whim of later generations of critics, but there’s no doubt that the idea of an acceptable form of public entertainment underwent a rude shock in the years just before the outbreak of World War I. In classical music, it was the era of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, and of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, while on a more kinetic note what the Times of London called “the rhythms of the jungle” enlivened that city’s West End stage, when a revue called Hullo Rag-time! bounced off the Vorticist-frescoed walls of the Hippodrome theater for the first of 451 sold-out performances. “It was as if,” the author J.B. Priestley wrote, “we had been still living in the nineteenth century, and then suddenly found the twentieth glaring and screaming at us. We were yanked into our own age, fascinating, jungle-haunted, monstrous.” Later social historians have written of ragtime’s primitive rhythms and of its dancers’ mad gyrations as somehow symbolic of a restlessness and dislocation in Western society, if not as prophetic of the coming war. Stanislavski and Craig’s seminal symbolist production of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre also occurred in 1912. Works by Marcel Duchamp, Jacob Epstein, and Edvard Munch were all on display. Jackson Pollock was born. The Sarah Bernhardt vehicle Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth had its New York premiere, thought by some to have been a key moment in the development of the American movie industry (which also produced the first Keystone Cops pictures in 1912). Thomas Mann published Death in Venice. An exasperated yet receptive review in the Times read, “This strange, dark, Apollonian vision has both mythological and narrative verve, [and] treats of an artist’s abject capitulation to his senses. It may be seen as an essay in living decomposition.”
To much of the press in late 1912, however, the greatest shock to the established order wasn’t the advent of Cubism, or such eye-catching developments as the works of Mondrian and Picasso, or the fashion for negro dance bands, accompanied by uninhibited young women in Scheherazade skirts. Nor was it the arrival on the London stage of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with its shocking use of the word bloody. The subject of most editorial comment wasn’t a public entertainment at all, though it may be argued that, over time, it became one. Rather, it was a meeting of immaculately dark-suited and apparently sober-minded men held at the Geological Society of London on December 18, where a 48-year-old lawyer and amateur paleontologist named Charles Dawson claimed to have discovered bone fragments at a gravel pit near his home at Piltdown in southern England, and that these had “terrific significance” for our understanding of human evolution. At the same meeting, Arthur Smith Woodward, curator of the geological department at the British Museum, announced that a reconstruction of the fragments had been prepared, and that a resulting “human-like” skull, thought to be some 600,000 years old, was all but indistinguishable from that of a modern chimpanzee. Dawson and Woodward went on to claim that “Piltdown Man” represented no less than an evolutionary missing link between apes and humans, a thesis much of the more uncritical element of the press was happy to accept.
“The remains leave no possible doubt but that they represent not only a fossil man, but a man who must be regarded as affording us a link with our remote ancestors, the apes,” wrote the Illustrated London News. Under the headline “Darwin Theory Is Proved True,” the New York Times similarly concluded that Eoanthropus damson (Dawson’s dawn-man) established the case for direct human descent from simians. Nature authoritatively stated,
The fossil human skull and mandible described by Mr. Dawson and Dr. Woodward is the most important discovery of its kind hitherto made in England. The specimen was found in circumstances which seem to leave no doubt of its geological age, and the characters it shows are themselves sufficient to denote its extreme antiquity.
The press consensus was not merely the familiar first flush of enthusiasm for the new and sensational. Some 13 years later, in June 1925, Time wrote of “the Fundamentalist attack on the teaching of Organic Evolution” and admiringly quoted, at length, the Yale University paleontologist Richard Lull, a champion of the “Neo-Darwinian synthesis” view of man’s history. “If one accepts evolution as a fact, not a theory—and Prof. Lull insists that all informed scientists do—what is the religious consequence?” Time asked. “It means rejection of the doctrine of the Ark, of a literal seven days of creation, of a direct creation of man and the higher animals.” It’s perhaps redundant to add that several academics competed to retail Piltdown Man to schoolchildren, as in George William Hunter’s textbook A Civic Biology, and that it became an issue both in the 1925 Scopes Trial and that case’s subsequent appeal.
Like many of man’s great breakthroughs, the apparent discovery of the genetic missing link was both a long time coming and shockingly sudden. Scientific confidence in Piltdown depended in large measure on Charles Dawson’s profound confidence in himself, and on his untiring promotion of a whole series of stunning archeological finds that followed in quick succession from his original announcement. In 1915, Dawson claimed to have found three fragments of a second skull at Sheffield Park, about a mile away from the original excavation. These, too, were presented as evidence of an ancestral creature who had a human cranium and an ape’s jaw. Scholarly papers were published, and much of the British press again fell over itself to promote Dawson’s claims, which they presented alongside their reports of the incarnadine shambles of the Gallipoli landings. The 1915 painting A Discussion of the Piltdown Skull, by John Cooke, presents its subject in an almost holy atmosphere. A group of eight grave-looking men lean over a table, pondering the bone relics on it. Charles Dawson is seen with a picture of Charles Darwin behind him. “The way the painting is structured suggests Darwin is passing on his mantle to Dawson,” says the British archaeologist Miles Russell, of Bournemouth University. “The one had the theory, the other had proved it, it is being suggested.”
Across the Atlantic, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, examined the Piltdown and Sheffield Park finds, declared that “without question” both were genuine, and that the Sheffield Park bones were “exactly those which we should have selected to confirm [the] original type.” Osborn at least had the advantage of physically inspecting the relics, which were kept securely locked in the British Museum. Most of his peers came no closer to Piltdown Man and his companion than the plaster molds of the two skulls that the museum helpfully provided for them. A degree of wishful thinking appears to have overcome any paucity of hard and fast evidence, and the one skeptic of any note, the British surgeon and anatomist Arthur Keith, having retracted his initial endorsement of Piltdown, was shouted down by Woodward at the next Geological Society meeting as being a “pitiable old fool” warped by “rabid ambition.” Keith later recalled, “such was the end of our long friendship.” In August 1916, Dawson himself died of septicemia at the age of 52. A small but vocal community of supporters still insists that he was murdered, “quite likely on the orders of the Church of England,” in one internet posting. In addition to his work in and around Piltdown, Dawson had demonstrated an uncanny knack for making spectacular anthropological discoveries, including that of a sea serpent in the English Channel, and a petrified toad’s leg he found inside a flint nodule in his garden. On his death, his local newspaper named him the “Wizard of Sussex” for his successes.
It was to be 41 years before Time, once so eager to embrace Piltdown Man as evidence of a brave new scientific world, published conclusive proof that it was a fake. “For more than a generation, a shambling creature with a human skull and an apelike jaw was known to schoolchildren, Sunday-supplement readers, and serious anthropologists as ‘the first Englishman,’” it reported in November 1953. “He was ‘Piltdown Man,’ and he was supposed to have lived anywhere from 750,000 to 950,000 years ago. Last week three British scientists, armed now with modern chemistry, demolished him.” Readers may note the implication that only recent scientific dating techniques had made it possible to detect the long-running fraud. In fact, the essential Fluoride Absorption Method used in 1953 had also been available in 1912. Scientists had known of a simple test to determine if any two or more relics had absorbed roughly the same amounts of fluorine and nitrogen, and thus could conceivably belong to one another, ever since the Royal College of Surgeons developed the process in 1844. The result of this “modern chemistry” was to prove definitively that the Piltdown fossils could not possibly form an integral whole. Rather, they consisted of a human skull of medieval age, the jawbone of an 18th-century orangutan, and several assorted modern chimpanzee teeth. There was also a bone chip determined to have come from an extinct species of elephant unique to the plains of Tunisia. Only a brief microscopic examination was required to show that a number of the jaw fragments presented by Dawson had been filed down to give them a shape associated with that of a human. A sculpted bone found at the original site in Sussex, and thought by Woodward to be “a wonderfully preserved Neanderthal hunting or sporting tool”—a sort of primitive cricket bat—had been similarly formed with an “implement like a Swiss army knife.” In short order, Piltdown Man was unceremoniously removed from display and consigned to a metal box in the basement of London’s Natural History Museum, where it resides today. Say what you will about the hoax, it had been an unusually ingenious and protracted one. Having first come to public view before the Great War, when Britain still boasted an empire she defended with gunships and cavalry, Eoanthropus damson had survived to see a time of lost certainties, and the advent of the hydrogen bomb and the Space Age.
Relatively little is known of Charles Dawson, the most obvious candidate to have perpetrated the Piltdown Man fraud. Oddly enough, the same “scientific community” who had so avidly embraced Piltdown was for the most part conspicuously silent at the time of its exposure. Like the tabloid astrologers of a later era, they had a tendency to promote their few obvious successes, while ignoring the large number of embarrassments or failures. Dawson was, we can agree, prolific: In the 1890’s alone, he had investigated what he called a “curious flint mine full of medieval artifacts” near the town of Chichester, excavated a series of tunnels beneath Hastings Castle, unearthed everything from an ancient timber boat to an unusual Roman statuette of cast iron, discovered a large supply of natural gas of “many inexplicable properties,” reanalyzed the Bayeux Tapestry, reported on a strange goldfish-carp hybrid, and begun to develop phosphorescent bullets in order to “defend our realm from an as yet unknown aerial attack.” This was not a man who restricted himself to the normal confines of a late-Victorian English country solicitor. Bald and rotund, with a bristling white mustache, he seemed to present a kindly and avuncular figure, the acme of middle-class rectitude, which may help to explain how he successfully pulled off British archaeology’s greatest scam. Early death is often seen as a kind of martyrdom, and Dawson’s, it would seem, gave both him and his work an almost saintly status in some quarters: “Within a century, people will revere him as the God-man I believe him to be,” an obituarist wrote.
In fact, the Wizard of Sussex led an often lonely and professionally frustrated life. Dawson himself remarked that he had taken the bar largely to please his father, a respected London barrister, and that his “interest in the natural world and the collection of fossils” had sustained him through some otherwise “dark and uninteresting” days. He later called his election as a fellow of the Geological Society at the age of only 21 the “supreme moment of fulfillment” of his life. Without delving too far into the briar-patch of psychiatry, it’s tempting to speculate that the self-described “solitary” Dawson needed peer approval in the same way other men might be nourished by the joys and challenges of a family. As a part-time archaeologist, he was certainly industrious, turning up flints and vases and other relics, many of which came to bear his name, right up to the end of his life. Even Arthur Smith Woodward, Dawson’s champion at the British Museum, allowed he had “a restless mind.” A neighbor and fellow archeologist named Margaret Boycott said that “Charles was an otherwise obscure little man who wore spectacles and a bowler hat.” Did Dawson lead a Walter Mitty life, which found significance in “discoveries” that he quite possibly meant as a sort of boyish prank, at least up to the moment Nature declared the Piltdown fossils “the most important find of its kind ever made”? “It was simply all too good to be true,” says Miles Russell, whose book Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson is now widely regarded as definitive. “Dawson forged axes, statuettes, ancient hammers, Roman tiles, and a host of other artifacts. Piltdown was not a one-off. It was the culmination of a life’s work.” Other researchers have theorized that Dawson had expected his hoax—if only because of the prehistoric cricket bat—to be spotted straight away, but was horrified to see it take root in scientific thought. So he stayed silent. Following Dawson’s death in 1916, no further finds were made at Piltdown.
While Dawson was almost certainly the main culprit behind Piltdown, there are scientists who still insist that he had the help of co-conspirators. Over the years, suspicion has primarily fallen on the French Jesuit priest, philosopher, and trained geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who lived near Piltdown in 1912 and was known to be keen to “move the guardrails defining orthodox Christian teaching,” as he put it. De Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man, written in the early 1930’s but published posthumously in 1955, disdained the biblical story of Creation in favor of that of an evolutionary process he termed a “gigantic psychobiological operation, a sort of mega-synthesis . . . the super-arrangement to which all the thinking elements of the earth find themselves today individually and collectively subject.” While it conjures up a vivid image of the cadaverously gaunt, black-robed cleric paying nocturnal visits to the Piltdown site in order to scatter assorted bone fragments by the light of a lantern, De Chardin’s candidacy should be treated with caution. Although a prolific archaeologist for over 40 years, none of his other discoveries have turned out to be frauds. Other suspects have included both Arthur Smith Woodward and his colleague at the British Museum, Martin Hinton. In 1970, nine years after his death, an old traveling case belonging to Hinton was found hidden behind a hollowed-out panel in a museum basement storage area. It contained mammal teeth and bones stained and carved in the manner of the Piltdown fossils. It’s been suggested that Hinton may have been moved not so much by high-minded philosophical considerations as by the fact that he was involved in a long-running quarrel about his salary and other payments from the museum, and thus might have felt the hoax to be a fitting academic revenge. With its cast of superficially respectable but inwardly troubled professors and lawyers, and the mysterious clues left in a dust-filled crypt, the whole thing could have come from the pages of Agatha Christie—herself then a struggling young author and keen archeologist, and thus also a prime suspect.
In time, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who lived in Sussex and played golf at Piltdown, joined the long list of those thought to have been among the hoaxers. After all, one of his characters in The Lost World (1912) says, “If you are clever and know your business, you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph.” As to motive, there was Conan Doyle’s position as the de facto head of the worldwide Spiritualist crusade, and his ensuing dispute with what he called the “medieval [and] essentially un-Christian teachings” of the Roman Catholic Church. According to the London Guardian, “His beliefs had brought him into conflict with organized religion and he may have wanted to humiliate its practitioners.” Although it’s an intriguing theory, it, too, fails to accord entirely with the facts: Piltdown Man was discovered in 1912; Doyle underwent his conversion to the paranormal in 1916.
Ultimately the lesson of Piltdown Man is that, as Harry Houdini once said of Doyle, “As a rule, I have found the greater brain a man has, and the better he is educated, the easier it has been to deceive him.” Not only did many of the best, and certainly self-regarding, minds of the early 20th century rush to embrace the findings of a weekend archeologist like Charles Dawson; we can thank many of their spiritual heirs today for the lazy but widespread assumption that the biblical story of creation and the evolution of the physical universe might not be twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation. It’s a fallacy that never fails to strike me when I attend services in the nave of Westminster Abbey, just a few feet away from where Charles Darwin lies buried. Perhaps the final words on the subject should go to Harvey Goodwin, bishop of Carlisle, who preached the sermon in the abbey on the Sunday following Darwin’s funeral in April 1882. “I think that the interment of the remains in this place is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of our countrymen,” he said.
It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred—or may yet occur—to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr. Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God.