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Will the Piltdown Man Hoax Finally be Solved?

It was indeed a scandal that shook the hallowed halls of the British Museum’s honorable geological department. Arthur Smith Woodward, then serving as the department’s keeper, had been approached with a rather curious set of bone fragments, allegedly retrieved and passed along to one Charles Dawson, a local amateur anthropologist and something of a “rockhound” renowned for his curious knack for finding curiosities. 

And what would result would be a hoax that would continue to baffle paleoanthropologists for close to four decades, before the items put forth as a relic hominid ancestor of humankind, the so-called “Piltdown Man,” were finally dismissed as a hoax. But in truth, the mystery isn’t all that much different from a number of silly hijinks that still occur in the various fields of hominology today. Not surprisingly, this would also include the modern field of cryptozoology.

We are all familiar with the infamous Bigfoot hoax of 2008 that took place in Georgia, in which two men claimed to have possessed the remains of a large Sasquatch corpse, preserved in a large block of ice. While even many in the various areas of cryptozoology had remained hopeful, the story was later, quite sadly, proven to be a poorly executed hoax that, somehow, managed to receive national attention. And now, sources are describing that Rick Dyer, one of the very individuals involved in the initial hoax, is claiming that he has, in fact, shot and killed yet another Bigfoot, which is similarly being kept on ice (eyes roll).

I can’t help but wonder what kinds of motivations could lead a person toward perpetrating (and knowingly doing so!) such mishaps. Is it merely in order to gain five minutes of fame? Is it for the sole purpose of planning carefully, obfuscating and trail-covering, and profiting from the sensationalism surrounding interest in the subject, while keeping the real facts of the deception away from public view?

I was thinking about this recently with regard to the famous case of the Piltdown Man which, unlike the modern Bigfoot hoaxes, involved treachery of a similar sort, though the suspect participants in this case were, in many cases, academics. One of them, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was actually a clergyman; but in Teilhard, I feel there is a particularly interesting case that emerges.

In an article I’ve written for the upcoming article of FATE Magazine, I focused a bit on Teilhard’s supposed involvement in the plot, and looked at what kind of role his personal quandaries may have played in his choice to become involved:

“In Teilhard we find a Jesuit priest whose written works the Roman Holy Office denounced altogether, on account of the progressive viewpoints they espoused. For instance, Teilhard had challenged the concept of “original sin” as delivered by Saint Augustine, and had also felt that mankind’s spiritual development was, essentially, a mirror of his physical growth and development. In other words, evolution had not been a subject that must exist apart from a religious viewpoint toward mankind’s origins. Furthermore, Teilhard held that the eventual future of man would trend toward possibilities that nearly escaped the imagination, an early nod toward what have emerged in modern times as “transhumanist” concepts; such would be the obvious byproducts of human cognitive development, as well as both natural and, perhaps, a somewhat “enhanced” evolution as augmented by the future innovations of the human species.

And thus, when brought into question before the Catholic Church, Teilhard’s progressive ideas remained in the minority, to put it nicely. Again, the fact that Teilhard had been the discoverer of an ape-like canine tooth at Piltdown—a key to the puzzle that assisted sharply in supporting Woodward’s reconstruction of a creature whose brain had begun to change prior to it’s diet—would also have been in keeping with Teilhard’s vision of man’s progression throughout time and, eventually, the cosmos. This is not to say that Teilhard, if he had been guilty at all, had acted alone. But it is curious indeed that he, of all people, would assist in the discovery of one element to the hoax that would have such a singular capacity to influence how the anthropological community might view the “discovery.” And despite the presence of the modified canines (recall again the microscopic analysis that revealed filing marks on some of the Piltdown teeth), the supposition that canines had existed in the Piltdown skull at all had prompted Professor Arthur Keith to first question the legitimacy of Woodward’s reconstruction, arguing that such canines would have made it virtually impossible for Homo piltdownensis to perform side to side movement of the jaw, which would have been necessary for the visible wear to have occurred as-seen on the existing molars in the lower jaw fragment.

Of course, within days of his alleged discovery of a primate canine while following Dawson and woodward out to the Piltdown site, Teilhard rather curiously disappeared, relocating to France and choosing to have no further involvement in the matter. Had his conscience gotten the best of him in the end, and he opted to merely disassociate completely from the unfolding fiasco? Or had his involvement indeed been intentional, and aimed at helping promote an agenda, of sorts, which would have helped facilitate a greater acceptance of his own views by the Roman Church?

At least in the case of Teilhard, we see that there was, perhaps, a legitimate motive behind his potential involvement, rather than the usual silliness that seems to pervade the modern variety of hominid hoaxes.

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  • Mrs. Eccentric

    Hola Mr. Hanks! In 1980-82 i was studying anthro (emphasis on archaeology) at UC Santa Cruz. As you can imagine, the Piltdown Hoax was a prominent topic of discussion – not just for the obvious titillation factor, but also because we were expected to be well versed in the history of our discipline (anthropology).

    In the view of most of my professors, the Piltdown remains were accepted so thoroughly for such a long time because they supported perfectly a very popular and appealing story about ‘man’s evolution’. As you allude to in your article, at the time of the Piltdown ‘discovery’, there were two competing views on how we evolved. In one scenario, our ancestors got all smart and big brained, then managed to stand up on our hind legs, as it were. In the other, chimp-like ancestors started to straighten up and stand right, then as their diet and posture changed, the brain got bigger as a result.

    Now, finding an intact skull (with jaw and teeth) could settle this controversy – you would have the size of the brain documented, as well as being able to get a good idea of the diet (due to shape of the teeth and structure of the jaw), as well as posture (if you have the back of the skull where the spine inserts).

    For whatever reason, many ‘men of science’ at the time were rooting for the ‘brainiac first, all else follows’ scenario – somehow this made us seem less ape-like from the beginning? i still don’t claim to see the appeal or logic of this argument versus the other, but in any case that was the view at the time held by many of these anthropologists. So when the Piltdown skull showed up, with a big brain on top of ‘primitive’ jaw and teeth perfectly embodying their preferred hypothesis, none of these anthropologists had any real motivation whatsoever to look closely at any of the questions about the ‘find’.

    Our profs spent a lot of time schooling us on this as it’s a great lesson on how a person’s outlook, beliefs, and desires can influence what you see, practically beyond imagining. To any kid with a couple months of training in physical anthropology it’s absolutely laughable anyone would be taken in by this thing. But i have to say that we see this type of bias all. the. time. in the history of anthropology, especially. Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” provides an excellent overview of bias when it comes to ‘measuring’ human ‘intelligence’.

    All of which is to say – very nice article, and P TdeC was far from the only one involved in the Piltdown fiasco with a motivation to perpetrate that hoax. steph