The most perfect ape cannot draw an ape; only man can do that; but, likewise, only man regards the ability to do this as a sign of superiority… Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

We recently posted a review of a book that argued that the forger of Piltdown man was Arthur Conan Doyle in an attempt to promote his new novel, The Lost World, and escape Sherlock Holmes whom he had grown to hate almost as much as Professor Moriarty did. This book extends the list of suspects all the way from the British Museum to the sometimes incoherent ramblings of a Jesuit whose theories would be condemned by the teaching office of the Church. What is remarkable about both of these books is the excruciating detail with which they describe not only the obvious fraud of Piltdown but the milieu of the age of Darwin – that has gone from pseudo science to modern metaphysics which is more of less pure fantasy – without questioning the first cause of the forgery, the need to support the theory of evolution.

Paleontology, for instance, has gone from believing that dinosaurs were terrible lizards to thinking that maybe they were birds. Maybe we did not ooze out of the primordial slime but somehow descended from the clouds – are we really fallen angels sent to rule over an evolving world? Casting bones, haruspication and scry have all been condemned but paleo studies hurry from error to error in a mad rush to explain our origins and map our route to the omega point where we will exist only in the noosphere. We are reminded of the story of Dr. Johnson refuting Berkeley’s theory of the nonexistence of matter by kicking a rock. While we are afraid of what new theories may be visited on us by turning over the wrong rocks we would suggest that the average modern scientists could benefit from a good long walk outside.

Piltdown: a scientific forgery London; New York : Oxford University Press, 1990 Frank Spencer Piltdown forgery Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. Based on research by Ian Langham (1942-1984) xxvi, 272 p.: ill.; 25 cm.  Includes bibliographical references (p. [243]-257 and indexes. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

On the night of December 18, 1912, a packed meeting of the Geological Society of London listened to Charles Dawson, a rural lawyer and an amateur geologist, make an exciting announcement: he had found evolution’s missing link in an old gravel pit near Piltdown Common. Together with Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum and a noted authority on prehistoric archaeology, Dawson had discovered the shattered remnants of a thick, human-like skull together with a simian jaw – the fossils of a strange creature halfway between apes and human beings. Though debates raged over reconstructing Piltdown Man from these remains, few doubted their authenticity – and it was not until forty years later that further tests proved they were an elaborate fake.

Written by anthropologist Frank Spencer, Piltdown tells the story of this incredible hoax, the greatest forgery in the history of modern science. Spencer begins by taking us back to the debates in Edwardian Britain over the antiquity of Homo sapiens and the public excitement over the search for the missing link between apes and human beings. He recounts Dawson’s initial “discovery” of the shattered skull, the further dramatic finds made with Woodward in the midst of the furious scientific debate over Piltdown Man, and the great public argument between Woodward and Arthur Keith over the reconstruction of the head (Keith, an anatomist and Conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, won fame by promoting his own theory of a very human-like version of the Piltdown skull).

Spencer also traces the increasing confusion and doubt over Piltdown Man as later archaeological discoveries were made in Africa and China: the Piltdown Man didn’t seem to fit the emerging picture of human evolution, and an ever-larger number of scientists claimed that the jaw did not belong with the skull. Finally, he captures the dramatic uncovering of the hoax, closely following anthropologist Joseph Weiner’s fascinating investigation in 1953. Weiner – troubled by the inconsistencies of Piltdown Man – revealed that the remains consisted of a modern human skull and the jaw of an orangutan, treated with chemicals to simulate great age and planted at the Piltdown site.

Yet the question of who perpetrated the forgery has remained to the present day. Certainly Dawson, a rural solicitor who craved a great scientific reputation, was intimately involved. But who provided the tremendous expertise behind the hoax, and why would such a learned authority risk his career on a highly public fake? Was it Woodward, the great archaeologist most closely associated with the find? Keith, the prominent anatomist? Or was it Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest who found a critical tooth at the site? Spencer draws on original documents from the archives of the British Museum and other sources to identify the missing conspirator, in a startling and convincing revelation. Compelling and authoritative, Piltdown offers a gripping account of this great hoax and the final word on one of the deepest mysteries of modern science.


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