573: Unraveling Piltdown by John E. Walsh

by Gerard


573.3: Walsh, John Evangelist. Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution. Bath, UK: Bath Press, 1997. 219 p. ISBN  0-679-44444-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 570: Life Sciences
  • 573: Specific physiological systems in animals, regional histology and physiology in animals
  • 573.3: Anatomy and general biological processes

With the bitter winter winds blowing about, my training runs have been postponed until it at least climbs over 30 degrees F outside. That said, it gives me more time to hunker down and get through another book. Today’s selection looks at fraud in the scientific world. Now, we’ve all heard of art forgery and corporate fraud, but deliberate deception in the scientific world takes on a different aura. Not only do scientific frauds set back discovery, they also cast doubt on all those involved, guilty or not, for a long time afterwards. This is one such tale.

In February 1912, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the British Museum’s geological department,  received an interesting package from his acquaintance Charles Dawson. It contained fragments of skull unearthed in a gravel field in Piltdown, East Sussex. Dawson claimed he had received these pieces from a workman digging up the field some three or four years earlier. The pieces seemed to hint at a possible new hominid species. All this was very exciting, and Woodward and Dawson spent the next few years digging for other artifacts in the field. With Woodward helping, Dawson managed to retrieve a jaw bone, a tooth, and other small fragments from the ground. Also there was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (we’ve seen him before in The Jesuit and the Skull). Dawson even managed to unearth another skull in an adjacent field (called Sheffield Park). When pieced together, they formed a picture of a new development in human ancestry—they had found the earliest known human in England, now known as Eoanthropus dawsoni, Dawson’s dawn-man.

There was only one problem: it was all a complete fraud.

What everyone was really looking at was the skull of a medieval British man, the filed jaw of a orangutan and the tooth of a chimpanzee, all stained to look ancient and fossilized.

John E. Walsh’s Unraveling Piltdown recounts the discovery, publication, and subsequent work to untangle the mess caused by the new “find.” The Piltdown artifacts have been officially declared fakes for 60 years now, but the story is still pretty interesting. Dawson systematically duped Woodward and the scientific establishment, but he wasn’t without his detractors. Sir Arthur Keith, at the time of the discovery, along with Kenneth Page Oakley, Sir Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark, and Joseph Weiner years later all worked to expose the finds for the fakes they were. The discoveries (and “un-discoveries”) rattled the scientific world by sending folks down one evolutionary path only to have it completely dismantled.

The book itself is decently paced, but at times gets bogged down with geological and anthropological minutae as well as a sense of British waspiness. The more intriguing parts are Walsh’s attempts to piece together the timeline to “prove” Dawson’s crime. The suspect list is deliciously wide, including Chardin and residents of the household near Piltdown. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gets dragged through the mud a bit (but eventually cleared of the charges). Ultimately, he surmises that Dawson alone perpetrated the fraud, given a history of fakes found among his effects and his ever-changing story on the initial discovery. A decent book but not a very quick read.