This paper was presented in a poster session of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists on April 1, 1994 and is appearing here by the kind permission of the author. The abstract of this paper appears in the February 1994 issue of the AJPA
Assessment of the chemical composition of the fossil specimens associated with the Piltdown cranial remains suggests several possible source localities for the introduced elements. While additional evidence supports the Weiner-Oakley hypothesis (1955) that Charles Dawson was involved in the fraud, it remains difficult to explain his access to the unusual paleontological specimens without a scientific accomplice.
A review of the excavational/curatorial histories of the source localities indicates that Arthur Smith Woodward had both initimate knowledge of access to all of the requisite specimens. The Ghar Dalam paleofauna, the likely source for Hippopotamus premolar planted at Piltdown, was originally described by Woodward in 1894. The radioactive “Stegodon” molar fragments are plausibly associated with the Upper Biozone at Pikermi where Woodward collected in 1901. Subfossil Pongo specimens were catalogued into the Natural History Museum by Woodward in 1899.
Oakley noted that a Patagonian archeological specimen may have served as the “remarkably thick” cranium used in the fraud. Woodward acquired several Ona and Fuegean skulls in 1899. Illustrations of an Ona cranium were found inserted into the pages of Woodward’s personal copy of Keith’s Antiquity of Man.
A Dawson-Woodward nexus is made more plausible by their three decades of regular interaction prior to 1912. The specimens recovered and the timing of their discovery provided support for Woodward’s belief that orthogenetic principles could accurately predict “missing links” in human evolution. Woodward’s primary motivation may have been an effort to establish himself as the principal candidate for the coveted Directorship of the Natural History Museum.
It has been four decades since the revelation that a human cranium and an orangutan mandible were fraudulently introduced into the Piltdown gravel bed. Since then there have been some twenty-five individuals proposed as instigators of “the greatest scientific hoax of this century”. Many of these “suspects” have been identified, not on the basis of physical evidence, but only through the presumption that they had a motive for pursuing the fraud. The late Tom Harrison, Curator of the Sarawak Museum, proposed a less subjective but more discriminating method to identify potential perpetrators: tracing the orangutan mandible used in the episode from its point of origin to those individuals who may have had opportunity to plant it in the Piltdown (Harrison 1959). This study extends Harrison’s suggestion to include other materials “salted” in the Barkham Manor gravels.
Known chemical compositions of fossils from over 500 Plio-Pleistocene samples (Weiner et al 1967,1971,1975; and other sources) were contrasted with specimens utilized in the Piltdown forgery (Weiner et al). Localities with faunal and chemical characteristics that corresponded with the materials from Piltdown were then evaluated as to (a) date of official discovery and (b) possible access to the antiquarian “gray market”. The curatorial histories of collections from localities discovered prior to 1915 were examined in detail (Sherborn 1940, Cleevely 1983, Webby 1989). Individuals involved in the excavation, cataloguing, curation, or scientific evaluation of materials served as a pool from which those with link in the Piltdown discoveries could be identified.
A number of the specimens recovered from the Piltdown pit and vicinity are indistinguishable in mineralogical content, coloration, and character from materials derived from several Red Crag and Norwich Crag localities in the United Kingdom. The bulk of these assemblages were known by collectors for decades before the first Piltdown “discovery” and served as a supply pool for Natural History supply houses in London and elsewhere. Although trace-element analyses might generate a more specific signature for the composition of materials at these sites, at present efforts to narrow the roster of potential Piltdown source-localities to particular domestic assemblages has not proven fruitful.
A possible Maltese link was initially noted by Weiner et al (1955) who pointed out Hippopotamus teeth from the John H. Cooke collection excavated at Ghar Dalam in Malta (Cooke 1893), if artificially treated with FeSO4 (iron alum), corresponded with the similarly treated Piltdown lower molar (E.598). The bulk of the Ghar Dalam material remains in Malta, but comparative collections were sent to Bologna and London, where Arthur Smith Woodward (1894) originally described the assemblage. After his assessment Woodward [henceforth ASW] sent a small paratype series to Edinburgh.
The broken molar plates from Piltdown have also been variously classified as “Stegodon” (Dawson and Woodward 1913), E. africanavus (Weiner et al; Maglio 1973), E. [Archidiskodon] planifrons (Freudenberg 1915, Matsumoto 1924, Osborn 1943), or diagnosed merely as a “primitive” elephantid close to the Early Pliocene origin of the taxon (Maglio, 1973). Although these teeth are fragmentary in nature, their chemical composition is of extraordinary value in identifying their probable origin. Weiner et al (1955) found both the enamel and cementum of these fragments exhibited extreme radioactivity, although at varing levels. Oakley (1954) believed that radioactive E. africanavus molars from the Ichkeul locality in Tunisia seemed the likely source for the Piltdown fragments, but noted that Ichkeul was not officially discovered until 1947. Oakley surmounted this problem by hypothesizing that a single tooth from Ichkeul might have been acquired in a Tunisian souk and then brought to Britain via agents in the antiquities trade. The tooth would have then been purchased and broken up to provide the several fragments used in the fraud.
There is countervailing evidence to this view. Osborn’s (1942) analysis of wear and morphology indicates that the Piltdown sample consists of fragments from three distinct specimens. This is also supported by Weiner et al‘s (1955) own study of the differential levels of absorption of Uranium in the enamel and cementum of E.597, E.598 and E.620. Any perpetrator of the Piltdown fraud must, therefore, have had access to a substantial sample of E. cf. africanavus teeth, an unlikely circumstance if the specimens had been purchased through an antiquities dealer.
A more likely source than Ichkeul for the Piltdown specimens would be the radioactive assemblage from the Upper biozone of the Pikermi beds (Theodorou, Karis-teneos and Papadopooulos 1985). This assemblage apparently represents the same biozone as Bethlehem Early Pliocene fauna (which contains a mixture of Pikermi elements and a primitive elephant provisionally assigned to E. africanavus). Although many Continental museums had sent workers to collect at Pikermi, there was an absence of comparable material in British museums until the 20th Century. During the summer of 1901 Woodward (1901) and his wife Maud made extensive excavations at Pikermi and recovered a diverse fauna, including proboscideans. The BMNH collection appears to be the only one in Britain sampling the Pikermi fauna until the fraud unfolded.
In their third season of fieldwork at Piltdown, Dawson and Woodward (1914) reported uncovering a previously undiscovered yellow sandstone stratum. After the 1914 field season ended this stratum was reported as being “unfossiliferous”. They were, however, to soon contradict this assessment. The next season, after having workmen remove a section of a hedge to expand their excavation, Dawson and Woodward (1915) discovered a broken proboscidean femur “implement”, smeared with yellow mud, that exactly matched splinters of bone found in the yellow bed the “previous season” (i.e., 1914). This reversal relating that fossil material was actually found in the yellow sandstone was overlooked at the time. The fact that the matrix containing the slivers was a faked composite (Weiner et al 1955) was only discovered scores of years later.
Likewise ASW’s fanciful explanation of how two articulating fragments of the femur could have been removed from the “newly uncovered” stratum and discarded unnoticed by laborers was unscrutinized. The “artifact” was not found in gravel debris from the pit, as would have been expected if it had been thrown away by the workers, but in a black vegetable loam. The weathering of the surface between the two portions was far in excess of the “whittling” supposedly made by hominids on the ends of the fragments. Since the break must have occurred long before the facets had been cut, the fragments must have been cut later and intentionally placed in close apposition under the burgeoning hedgerow. Woodward seemingly failed to notice these and many other obvious discrepencies in the history of the excavation.
Woodward had long been a quiet supporter of the British eolith movement and the femur artifact supported his view that a Pliocene “bone age” would be found to precede the more recognizable lithic industries (Woodward 1912). In 1906 he had sent CH Read (Director of Antiquities and Ethnography, British Museum) a “tusk…rolled in mud for ages” with a sharpened end that he believed provided proof of this. But Read disabused the notion, pointing out the break was “certainly a natural fracture…doubtful as a tool”. Nevertheless, the incident is uncannily like that of the Piltdown femur episode. In 1913 ASW was privy to Reid Moir’s discovery of small broken bone “implements” from the Red Crag (Moir 1915) that may have encouraged the introduction of the femur. The coincident reports of the Piltdown femur and Red Crag fragments provided mutual support for Woodward’s notion of a Pliocene “bone age”.
Woodward claimed the morphology of the femur “artifact” suggested a form of elephant larger than any other known from the Pleistocene of Britain. This hinted at an earlier chronological placement than the Early Pleistocene association he had publicly allowed in 1912, and lent support to the hominid’s association with the earlier fauna in the Piltdown gravel.
The morphology of proboscidean femora from the Pleistocene locality of La Cotte de St. Brelade in Jersey (Scott 1986) match the Piltdown specimen in breakage and size. The femur is also consistent with chemical content of materials from La Cotte. At the behest of RR Marrett, Woodward (1911) described the assemblage from La Cotte. He could also have gained access to extremely large “Pliocene” proboscidean femora through his excavations at the Spanish site of Tereul (Woodward 1902, 1903) and at Pikermi (Woodward 1901).
The Pongo right mandible selected for use in the Piltdown fraud is not fossilized, but sediment was found deep within the cancellous chambers of the ramus (Oakley to Le Gros Clark, in Spencer 1990b) and plugging the mandibular canal (A. Marston to J. Trevor 1967). Slight traces of fluorine indicates the mandible was not a “wild shot”, but had ultimately derived from a sedimentary context. Radiocarbon analyses by the Groeningen laboratory generated a date of 500 plus or minus 100 ybp. (Vries and Oakley 1959; Vogel Waterbolk 1964).
The Piltdown molars exhibit a pattern of dehiscing characteristic of many of the specimens collected from the Bau limestone cave and Paku Flats auriferous sands in the Everett subfossil collection from Sarawak (Everett, Evans and Busk 1880). These, and later donations from Everett’s executors were catalogued as a unit into BMNH Department of Geology collections by ASW in 1899 (Woodward 1904). Although attention has been focused on Everett’s extant orangutan collections housed in the Department of Zoology (Spencer 1990), this smaller subfossil collection has gone unnoticed. Although absent from the current collections, it possibly once contained “a skull of Simia Wurmbii in a fossilized state” that Hornaday (1888) reports that Everett had disinterred from Bau Cabe. Woodward had both knowledge of and unhindered access to the BMNH subfossil materials throughout the Piltdown find. A necessary ability to repeatedly exploit this source would be consistent with the discovery of the Piltdown canine a year after the mandible and the left molar from the PII site in 1915.
Recent C14 analysis of PII frontal supports the view that two distinct thick skulls of medieval age were used in the Piltdown fraud (Spencer and Stringer 1989). One puzzling aspect of the Piltdown episode is the ability of the forger to locate sources for these extraordinarily thick modern human crania. Spencer (1990a) and Tobias (1992) argue a large osteological collection (such as that at the Royal College of Surgeons) would have been necessary to provide the requisite pathologically thickened crania. The accumulation of fluorine in these specimens also suggests they were interred for some time and not from a mortuary derived collection. Although such a pattern of calvarial thickening is extremely rare in most populations, Weiner et al (1955) found that crania with thickend diploe and thin internal and external tables (as Piltdown) are relatively commonplace within the Ona Amerindian population of Patagonia.
In 1899 Woodward received several thick “Fuegian” Ona crania from the Argentine anthropologist, F.P. Moreno. Yet until Oakley’s observation (on this same Ona series), it was believed no one (other than the hoaxer) had observed any connection between these specimens and Piltdown. Never-the-less, after a review of Woodwards’s personal library (held intact in the Special Collections, DMS Watson Library, University College, London) this investigator found ASW had noticed a relationship. In the pages of his personal copy of Arthur keith’s Antiquity of Man (1925), Woodward had inserted illustrations of the type specimen of this Ona series opposite his rivals Piltdown reconstruction. It is difficult to conceive of any other plausible explanation of Woodward’s interest in drawing this comparison than his implicit knowledge that the Piltdown specimens were drawn from either Moreno’s donated series or another set of Ona crania (perhaps collected on either Woodward’s 1896 or 1907 visit to Patagonian archelogical sites (Woodward 1897).
When questions were first raised regarding the contemporaneity of the Pliocene fauna and the Piltdown cranial fragments and mandible, Ray Lankester and Aubrey Strahn (Spencer 1990a,b) lobbied to have BMNH mineralogist GFH Smith perform comparative analyses. Woodward’s failure to properly assess the chemical content of the Piltdown fauna has usually been attributed to the general obscurity and distrust of these methods. But, as Hammond (1988) has suggested, it was only after the widespread acceptance of the antiquity of the large-brained Piltdown specimen that doubts regarding the innovative methods developed by Carnot (1892,1893) and Bemmelen (1896,1897abc,1900) became widespread.
In fact, Woodward’s (; Moreno and Woodward 1900) vigorous support of Carnot’s technique as a means to determine potential admixture of assemblages has escaped wide notice. Woodward’s dramatic reversal on chemical assessment of the specimens coincides with a cautious retreat from his earlier position of Pliocene age of the cranium. It thus seems strange that ASW rebuffed the requests to have GFH Smith, located in the same wing of South Kensington, to assay the remains. At the same time Smith (1908,1912) was not only making great strides in the assaying of small quantities of signature compounds in minerals, but was also an authority on the chemical detection of fraudulent gemstones. Although he had used Smith’s services frequently in the past (and would do so subsequently), Woodward instead elected to allow the inexperienced Sussex County Analyst SA Woodhead (Dawson’s friend) to undertake this critical study.
Woodward examined only the organic content of a small piece of the cranium and one of the fossil bones from the locality. Dawson and Woodward (1913 in comments introduced supplementing their 1912 oral presentation) reported that neither fragment exhibited organic component. This result is strong at variance with modern assessment of the crania suggesting Woodhead (a) failed to analyze the materials properly, or (b) was provided something other than the cranium for assay.
Many have pondered why Dawson, if involved in the forgery, openly admitted treating the fragments with potassium dichromate to Woodward (Weiner 1955; Weiner et al 1955). Dawson also noted that the staining of the fossils resulted from the presence of “bisulphide of iron” (iron alum) in the Piltdown gravels (Dawson and Woodward 1914). Both admissions are consistent with his specific knowledge of the compounds used in altering the specimens. While in hindsight these claims appear incriminating, they would also serve as effective alibis had Strahan’s and Lankester’s objections won out and simple comparative tests had eventually been performed by GFH Smith.
Dawson’s (1894) use of iron alum on other specimens has finally been documented. His use of dichromate on the Piltdown specimens as a “preservative” later became common knowledge, but was only formally reported much later (Woodward 1933; Hopwood 1955). It may be important that Woodward’s announcement followed immediately on the heels of Vayson de Paydenne’s renowned book on scientific fraud “Les Faux en Archeologie Prehistorique” (1932). de Paydenne pointed out that Carnot’s fluorine and other chemical comparisons established the non-contemporaneity of the Calaveras skull and fossil rhinoceros bone associated with it. This might easily have led to a re-evaluation of the Piltdown fragments. Sonia Cole (1955:134) reported Oakley’s surprise when she informed him of this earlier rediscovery of Carnot’s work with fluorine analysis.
“Why, if Vayson knew this in 1932, did nobody do anything about it?”
ASW’s subsequent effort to miscarry Smith’s examination of the specimens amd retreat from an assuredly Pliocene association of the hominid as well as other actions seem to designed to obscure the composite nature of the Piltdown assemblage. One can only image what Oakley would have proclaimed if he had been aware of Woodward’s championing of Carnot’s fluorine method.
The second “Piltdown” locality was ‘discovered’ in early 1915, just as questions regarding the association and contemporaneity of the mandible and the cranial fragments were again coming into question. Dawson’s “find” of another thick portion of cranium and of a molar tooth resembling those in the Barkham Manor mandible effectively quashed arguments that the original remains belong to two distinct taxa or were referable to distinct depositional phases. Furthermore, the late Pliocene/early Pleistocene dating of the specimens was bolstered by the recovery at “P II” of another molar of Rhinoceros etruscus.
Unfortunately, Dawson died in 1916, a year and a half after the discoveries at “P II”, but months before Woodward chose to announce these specimens. While not specifically detailing the location of the second site, Woodward (1917) remarked that he had “visited the field with Dawson in the Spring and Fall of 1914 without success”. ASW did specifically pinpoint the location of “P II” at John Martin’s Netherhall Farm (HJ Osbourne White 1926) and also on a map provided to the Sussex Archaeological Society (Costello 1985). On a section of the Ouse River drainage basin provided to HF Osborn (1921, 1926), Netherhall Farm was identified as situated on the same river terrace as Piltdown. Yet, despite the potential of this new locality providing important material (and even though he he moved to nearby Hayward’s Heath in 1924), there is no evidence ASW ever sought to survery or initiate trial excavations at Netherhall.
It is clear that after Dawson had reported the specimens to ASW in January 1915 and had brought the human remains to London at least twice that year, showing them to both Lankester (1915) and Arthur Keith (RCS Keith Desk Diary 1915). Woodward had also visited Dawson several times before his death. After Woodward’s retirement, Ales Hrdlicka, who questioned the possibility that the cranium and mandible could derive from the same species of hominoid, made inquiries about the provenience of the PII specimens (Spencer 1990b). Responding, Woodward vehemently denied knowing either the specific location of the site (suggesting it may have been at Sheffield Park, on the opposite bank of the Ouse from Netherhall), or of having examined the PII specimens until after Dawson’s death. What can explain Woodward’s contradictions regarding the PII specimens and why did he allow the Netherhall site to lapse into obscurity?
Woodward was aware of the fact that Dawson was the Steward of both Barkham Manor and Netherhall Farm (Weiner 1955; Vere 1955). The probability of Dawson locating similar assemblages, conveniently establishing the contemporaneity of the originally discovered mandible and cranium, on a property which he administered, would surely have brought scrutiny upon the authenticity of the entire Piltdown assemblage. Although Dawon’s death may have afforded some protection from direct accusation, both Woodward’s discovery and reputation would have been shattered had a fraud been exposed. And there is certainly the risk that evidence contemporary with the events would have brought forth suggesting Woodward’s direct involvement.
One can easily understand why the hoaxer chose to select a faunal assemblage that was at least as old as that of the Trinil and Heidelberg assemblages. The selection of the Piltdown fauna directly reflected Woodward’s (1898) own diagnosis of the “Upper Pliocene”. His orthogenetic concepts of evolutionary change were also consistent with the fragments recovered from the Barkham gravel. In 1909 he went on record suggesting that morphological laws provided by embryology could predict the evolutionary history of the human lineage. “When the general features of organic evolution are determined in this manner, it will be much easier to decide where missing links in any particular case are likely to be found” even for “links among the rarest of all fossils, those of the higher apes and man” (Woodward 1909). Woodward’s faith in these deterministic principles could have led him to feel secure that later discoveries would entirely vindicate his morphological reconstruction of human ancestry.
Some of these “laws” were recapitulation principles widely promoted by American (Cope, Osborn, Hyatt) and German (Eimer) orthogeneticists. Woodward (1909) embraced the idea that more generalized “young” forms eventually became dominant species replacing lineages which develop many “senescent” features in parallel. These degenerating lines were characterized by the accretion of cresting, spines, processes (Beechers model).
To Woodward (1914; Dawson and Woodward 1913) the ape-like supraorbital tori and nuchal cresting of Neanderthal and Pithecanthropus were signposts that they were evolutionary cul-de-sacs. This meant the discovery of an equally ancient but smooth-browed rival to these forms was inevitable.
“Deliberate malice could hardly have been more successful than the hazards of deposition in so breaking the fossils as to give free scope to individual judgement in fitting the parts together.” GS Miller (1915)
Removal of portions of the cranium which preserved the sagittal suture and the symphysis of the mandible deleted landmarks which could have identified the midline of the Piltdown skull. This allowed ASW considerable latitude in reconstructing a cranium with a cranial capacity smaller than modern humans and closer to that of the Java specimen. Only later did Woodward (1915) quietly capitulate to Keith’s careful cranial reconstruction. And this retreat curiously occurred just before Dawson ” PII frontal (which established the midline).
The 1912 recovery of the orangutan mandible in association with the cranial fragments forced the scientific community to reject a simple linear model of human evolution in favor of one with parallel hominid lineages. Some weeks prior to the discovery of the mandible Dawson had pointed out to Woodward the primitive aspects of the “chinless” Cheddar mandible, as if fully expectant to both that a jaw with similar features would soon be recovered at the Piltdown pit.
The existence in the deciduous dentition of humans of a more “ape-like” canine suggested to Woodward that the actual ancestor of humans would have borne a larger canine than found in Homo heidelbergensis. This he modeled in the dentition of the 1912 reconstruction. A few weeks after Keith produced a rival reconstruction with more human-like teeth in August 1913, an artificially abraded canine mirroring ASW’s model conveniently emerged from the pit.
Woodward’s efforts to obtain the Directorship of BMNH are well documented. In 1909 he gained the testimonials of twelve prominent botanists, zoologists and geologists and even privately commissioned a professionally lithographed application. In a transparent slap at his chief rival for the position, he note “I have always been in robust health so that…I should have the prospect of being able to carry on a definite and consistent policy.” Mineralogist Lazarus Fletcher was elderly and had spent most of 1907 hospitalized due to ill health. Nevertheless, possibly due to the desire by the Trustees to award him a larger pension and for reasons of temperament and public reputation, Fletcher was hired over Woodward.
ASW might have felt frustration at the politically appointed Museum Trustees ignoring his reputation as the world’s authority on fossil fish. Piltdown may have been initiated as a drive to foster public recognition. What better means to obtain public acclaim than discovering the “missing link” on English soil. Woodward may have concluded that, upon Fletcher’s (seemingly imminent) retirement, the Principal Trustees would have little choice but to bow to popular as well as scientific pressure. This enterprise was somewhat frustrated with the advent of WWI and Fletcher’s decision to remain on at the Museum until hostilities ended. The war, of course, dragged on until 1919, with much of Fletcher’s operational activities being assumed by the well respected Museum Secretary, CE Fagan (Stearn 1981).
Upon the announcement of Fletcher’s retirement, Woodward undertook to undermine Fagan’s chances to replace Fletcher (and leave himself an open path) by anonymously promoting the publication of “Memorials” in The Times and Nature opposing the appointment of a non-scientist to the Directorship. The Trustees ultimately recruited the application of Fagan’s friend, SF Harmer, the Keeper of Zoology. Woodward’s frustration at his failure to acquire the position and bitter departure from the Museum was well-known (White 1945; Simpson 1978; Colbert 1989; Hodgson in Spencer 1990a). He retired to Haywards Heath, and used nearby Piltdown to remain in the public limelight, hosting entourages of celebrities and fellow scientists who wished to visit the English cradle of humankind.
Given the many possible risks to his reputation and career, Arthur Smith Woodward has been considered an implausible confederate to Charles Dawson in the Piltdown affair. Woodward’s seeming lack of motive has distracted many. Yet it is clear that ASW did serve to benefit from the acclaim of the “discovery” and had undertaken many other questionable practices in order to advance his desire to be appointed to the Directorship of the Natural History Museum.
Woodward’s innocence is seemingly promoted by letters from Dawson retained in the BMNH files. But we should not expect incriminating evidence to openly emerge from these documents. The correspondence in question was very public. The Keeper’s correspondence was subject to regular review by the Director and was retained in Deparmental letterbooks as a permanent record.
Woodward maintained a thirty year association with Charles Dawson, which suggests a close and compelx relationship beyond that of any other “suspect”. Without such ties the trust essential for the conspiracy to occur would have been inexplicable. Dawson had access to the Sussex localities but lacked appropriate specimens and expertise to succeed alone. Woodward’s close association with sites that serve as plausible sources for materials used in the fraud provide important physical evidence pointing towrd his involvement. Woodward’s participation in the fraud also explains many of the puzzling episodes and “oversights” that surround the discoveries. A Dawson-Woodward nexus appears to draw together all the necessary elements to provide a satisfying resolution of the Piltdown fraud.
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I express my appreciation ot the archivists and staffs of the Natural History Museum, London; the Royal College of Surgeons, London; the Hastings Public Library; the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery; and the Library of the University of Cambridge. Innumerable favors were granted by Chris Stringer and Robert Kruzynski (Human Origins Group); Ann Lum (Paleontology Library), John Thackery (Archives), Andrew Currant and Jerry Hooker (Departmnent of Paleontology) of the Natural History Museum. Ian Lyle (Library) and Carolyn Grigson (Hunterian Museum) of the Royal College of Surgeons also aided in gaining access to unpublished material of Arthur Keith and others. R.K. and C.B. also provided helpful discussion on the fraud and have me appraised of current developments. Posthumous accolades must go to Joseph Weiner, Kenneth P. Oakley and J.C. Trevor who were cose to establishing Woodward’s involvment many years ago; and to my father who encouraged the endeavour to resolve this paleontological mystery.