I was interested to see that the Natural History Museum has recently been reviewing all its materials on the Piltdown Man, 60 years after the hoax was confirmed and 100 years after the discovery of the remains. Since some of the characters involved were Fellows, I became curious to see what material we held on this controversial event.
The fraud began with the supposed discovery, in a gravel pit near the village of Piltdown in Sussex, of a piece of bone, which was passed to amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson for verification of its age. Dawson searched for the rest of the skull and, in 1912, discovered a jawbone; this was verified as human, with human features and an apelike jaw, by Sir Arthur Smith Woodward FRS (1864-1944), the distinguished palaeontologist and Keeper of Geology at the British Museum. The bones became known as Piltdown Man or Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson’s Dawn Man). Further remains were found a couple of miles away, together with tools and animal remains. In 1953 Dr Kenneth Oakley exposed these finds as forgeries, the skull coming from a modern human and the jawbone and teeth from an orang-utan, all having been chemically treated and the teeth filed.
Woodward is maybe the Royal Society Fellow most closely associated with the case. The Royal Society holds some printed works by him, plus his election certificate and a few letters relating to Fellowship elections. In 1917 he was awarded the Society’s prestigious Royal Medal for his research in vertebrate palaeontology. It was he who described the specimen produced by Dawson and made reconstructions which caused much discussion and interest. His last article on this seems to have been published in Nature in 1938.
If Woodward was in on the hoax, it is hard to see why he should still explore the area looking for further discoveries for 20 years, from his retirement in 1924 until his death. This is confirmed by a 1937 letter to Woodward (held in the Royal Society’s collections) from James Reid Moir FRS (1879-1944), an authority on early stone cultures, which says: “I thought you might be interested in the Warren Hill bone & hope that … you may have some luck at Piltdown. It is remarkable that having yielded such important specimens, the site now seems so barren.”
There are other references. In a letter dated 28 August 1944 and deposited at the Royal Society in 2011, Sir Arthur Keith FRS writes to Robert Broom FRS: “And while I am a mollusc stuck in my parish not because of the war but just the lack of the spirit of youth – you young and robust are everywhere on the hunt – for secrets relating to skeletons in the human cupboard. Good luck on all your chases.” (n.b. at the time of writing, Keith was 78 and Broom 77!) Keith, a distinguished anatomist, embryologist and anthropologist, developed the thesis that modern types of man, such as Homo sapiens, had a greater antiquity than was supposed.
Keith argued with Woodward over the reconstruction of the skull of Piltdown Man, though he did in the end accept the majority opinion among anatomists and palaeontologists that cranium and jaw belonged to the same individual. The letter to Broom was written ten years before the exposure of the hoax, but his phrase “for secrets relating to skeletons in the human cupboard” will catch the attention of those who suspect that Keith was involved in the fraud. Keith also wrote the foreword to Woodward’s book on Piltdown Man, ‘The Earliest Englishman’; this was published posthumously in 1948 and is held in the Royal Society Library, together with Keith’s autobiography and other printed publications.
Another suspect as hoaxer was Martin Hinton FRS (1883-1961), who was a volunteer in the British Museum (Natural History) at the time of the discoveries. In 1927 he became Deputy Keeper of Zoology, and Keeper in 1936, retiring in 1945. In the 1970s a trunk which had belonged to him was discovered at the museum. It contained what appeared to be test fakes – bones that had been cut and stained to look ancient and similar to those of Piltdown Man.
An item deposited in the Royal Society’s archives in 2011 relates to William Sollas FRS (1849-1936), Professor of Geology at Oxford from 1897 until his death. It includes a newspaper cutting from the Sunday Telegraph of 1978 recording an interview with Professor James Douglas, formerly his assistant and later his successor at Oxford. Here Douglas claimed that it was Sollas, the eminent geologist of his day, who carried out the hoax as part of a personal feud with Woodward.
Douglas claimed the feud started at a meeting of the Geological Society in the 1890s where Woodward dismissed and ridiculed the method Sollas demonstrated for making copies of a fossil by taking a relief. Douglas also claimed Sollas had known and visited Dawson, and received a package of potassium bichromate, the substance later discovered to have been used to stain the Piltdown skull. This was an oral interview, played at a seminar in Reading University in September 1978. It is, however, hard to reconcile this description of a bitter feud between the two with the fact that Woodward was the author of a very positive Biographical Memoir on Sollas for the Royal Society.
Interestingly, the Society does not appear to be involved in either the original discovery or subsequent arguments – or, if it was, none of this is referred to in any of our publications. Whilst Dawson for whatever reason was subsequently proved to have forged many of his other discoveries, and is the prime candidate as the forger of Piltdown Man, he never achieved his ambition of election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, and the other main suspects who were Fellows (Woodward, Keith, Hinton and Sollas) were all known for their academic dedication. One would like to think that no Fellow would stoop so low!