BULL STREET - The art of the Con

The Piltdown Man

However, forgery is not a particularly original crime relative to recent times. At the beginning of the 20th century, Charles Dawson who among other things was an amateur archaeologist was working diligently on his diversion at a place that was known as the Piltdown farm in merry old England. There were workers in the area digging up road building materials. when he was presented a skull by one of them. However, the skull at this point was in a number of pieces as it had been cracked when it was mistaken for a coconut. However, he had a second thoughts on the matter and presented it to Dawson who seemed always to be slithering around the digs looking for old material.

Dawson was pleased with his broken head and presented the fragments to Arthur Smith Woodward who was at the time, head of the geology department of the Natural History Museum in London. Woodward was immediately intrigued with the piece and preceded to the site with Dawson along with a French priest and paleontology expert, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It seemed as though the broken skull was a previously undiscovered ancestor of man and it was now a matter of finding more parts to confirm their suspisions.

They all began digging feverishly in order to find additional proof of what they were now coming to believe was confirmation of the fact that this skull represented man’s direct ancestor. The digging had its moments and did not disgorge its secrets immediately. It seemed to always await the time when Dawson was on the sceen and it was he that always seemed to be the one that was able to find the additional remnants. As time passed other remains were found in the same general vicinity, including those of a mastodon, an extinct deer, and a elephant that was a forbearer of the current model. This seemed to be enough evidence that the human-like remains found in the dig, predated man but was his immediate ancestor. This was loudly announced and caused substantial interest within the paleontological community.

The fragments that had been found were called the remains of the Piltdown Man, because that is where they were discovered and no lessor an authority than the Geological Society of London certified to its authenticity. However, what they did not say was the fact that a decade or so earlier another human ancestor had been discovered in Java and was described as man’s direct ancestor as well. The British far preferred that man’s ancestors were British and not from Indonesia and they readily endorsed the find wholeheartedly.

As time went on, it became certain that Dawson’s discovery did not fit into the neat scientific mold for numerous highly technical reason. However, among other things, Dawson’s Piltdown man would have had to have sprung to life without ancestors in order to have the characteristics that were attributed to him. For many years, in spite of the amazing amount of publicity that the incident generated, there was a lessining of discussions relative to this discovery in polite scientific circles. The old boy just didn’t seem to fit in and modern science wasn’t about to place square pegs into round holes just to satisfy the British lust for aged relatives. “Once the hoax was exposed, Sir Kenneth Oakley went on to apply more advanced tests to find where the bones had come from and how old they were. His main findings were:

Piltdown I skull Medieval, human, ~620 years old.

Piltdown II skull Same source as Piltdown I skull.

Piltdown I jawbone Orangutan jaw, ` 500 years old, probably from Sarawak.

Elephant molar Genuine fossil, probably from Tunisia

Hippopotamus tooth Genuine fossil, probably from Malta or Sicily

Canine tooth Pleistocene chimpanzee fossil.”[81]

No one really knows who arranged the hoax and why. One of the most interesting conspirators would have been the often identified, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was the author of the Sherlock Holmes Detective stories. Doyle was intimately intrigued with paleontology and not so strangely, he just happened to be a next door neighbor of Dawson’s and was an actual participant in many of the digs when artifacts were uncovered. Moreover, Doyle was a firm believer in the Barnum theory that a sucker is born every minute and had indicated on numerous occasions that people believed what they wanted to believe. In addition, he himself had been stung not to long before in a similar fraud in which everyone including himself had been duped. No one really knows one way or the other who the other consipirators were because Dawson died soon after the remains were uncovered and is not available to let us in on his secret.

The only issue that remains is the question; was a crime committed? There can be no question that there was a forgery but was it done with a malicious intent which seems to be the critical issue? If you would say that it was prepared in order to let some of the steam out of pompous British paleontologists who wanted firmly to believe in their rightful ascendancy of their race, you would probably be right. The best case is the fact that Dawson and Doyle were just tweaking the overbearing British scientific hierarchy and the worst case would be that there was something in it for them, however, that eventuality has never surfaced and we will be forced to call the perpetrators, safe at first base. A semi-decent swindle which not even close to some of the hoaxes that had been pulled off by others.

 

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