- 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 manâ€™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 manâ€™s direct
ancestor as well. The British far preferred that manâ€™s ancestors were British
and not from Indonesia and they readily endorsed the find wholeheartedly.
As time went on, it became certain that Dawsonâ€™s discovery
did not fit into the neat scientific mold for numerous highly technical reason.
However, among other things, Dawsonâ€™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 didnâ€™t seem to fit in and modern
science wasnâ€™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
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 Dawsonâ€™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.