This page is a transcript of Winslow and Meyer’s September 1983 article
in Science 83 accusing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of being the perpetrator
of the Piltdown hoax. The boxed material and the letters are on
separate pages. The links to them are:
At the time of publication, John Winslow held a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and had been, among other things, a professor of geography and anthropology, a department head at two universities, a researcher, an anthropology museum preparator, and a national park ranger-archeologist. He is now retired and living with his wife in Florida where he is writing a long-delayed book on Piltdown. Alfred Meyer was then a contributing editor to Science 83.
On December 18, 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward announced to the Geological Society of London and the world the discovery of the remains of an early human fossil, Eoanthropus dawsoni. It was found in a shallow unimpressive gravel pit near the village of Piltdown in the County of Sussex. It became known as the Sussex Man, Dawn Man, and then Piltdown Man, the name that stuck.
In an age when the Empire was still expansive and the great antiquity of human evolution was still a fresh idea, the find seemed to confirm British primacy, or at least British longevity. For Piltdown Man was widely regarded as the earliest known human fossil, older than anything the French or Germans or anyone else had yet dredged up.
Some 40 years later J. S. Weiner and his colleagues published an equally startling discovery. Piltdown Man, once the pride of British science, was an out-an-out fake, fabricated by a party or parties unknown. Its mandible wasn’t human at all, coming instead from a juvenile female orangutan. The molars and canine tooth associated with it had been artificially filed, and the condyle, or hinge, was apparently broken to prevent the discovery that it did not properly articulate with the skull. The skull fragments recovered from the site were, on the other hand, definitely human, although of unusual thickness and construction.
The bones, teeth, and antlers of a variety of extinct mammals were also found at Piltdown – elephants, mastodons, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and beavers. Blatantly enough, in retrospect, they ranged in age from the early to late Pleistocene, a stretch of approximately half a million years. Many were typically British fossils, but a few now appear to derive from the Mediterranean area. There were also a number of primitive tools and crudely flaked flint stones known as eoliths, which were then being found in great numbers at various sites in southern England. All in all, the Piltdown find was an extraordinarily mixed bag.
Once the hoax was uncovered, Charles Dawson, the discoverer and one of the two principal excavators of the site, became the prime suspect. Woodward, his co-excavator, was the British Museum’s leading paleontologist and therefore considered above reproach, as was Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit who had assisted in excavation on several occasions and who went on to become a geologist, a paleontologist, and a philosopher. Each was properly credentialed. Dawson, on the other hand, was a solicitor by profession. Although knowledgeable and enthusiastic in geology and paleontology, he was nevertheless regarded as an amateur, a status that made him all the more vulnerable to innuendo when the hoax was finally announced, some 37 years after Dawson’s death.
His reputation suffered further with the publication in 1955 of Weiner’s book, The Piltdown Forgery. Weiner amassed a great deal of information that led him to point the finger directly at Dawson, although he was careful to leave an escape clause:… our verdict … must rest on suspicion and not proof. In the circumstances, can we withhold from Dawson the one alternative possibility, remote though it seems, … that he might, after all, have been implicated in a “joke,” perhaps not his own, which went too far?Since Weiner’s book, several other individuals have been proposed as the hoaxer, either as a co-conspirator with Dawson or independent of him. These include Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, a neuroanatomist; W. J. Sollas, a geologist; and Teilhard, who has been favored by Louis Leakey and, more recently, by Stephen Jay Gould. There is little doubt, however, that in the eyes of many experts Charles Dawson is still the frontrunner.
But there was another interested figure who haunted the Piltdown site during excavation, a doctor who knew human anatomy and chemistry, someone interested in geology and archeology, and an avid collector of fossils. He was a man who loved hoaxes, adventure, and danger; a writer gifted at manipulating complex plots; and perhaps most important of all, one who bore a grudge against the British science establishment. He was none other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
That Doyle has not been implicated in the hoax before now not only is a testament to the skill with which he appears to have perpetrated it, but it also explains why the case against him is circumstantial, intricate, even convoluted. For to be on Doyle’s trail is, in a sense, to be on the trail of the world’s greatest fictional detective himself, Sherlock Holmes. And Holmes, as his admirers know, was not only a master of deduction, he was also a forensic genius as expert in chemistry as he was in pharmacology, as familiar with human pathology as he was with anthropology. His exploits would become required reading for the police forces of several nations, and his creator, Doyle, is still regarded as a pioneer of modern criminology.
What led one of us, Winslow, to first embark on that labyrinthine trail was an earlier hoax that contained similar elements. It had been perpetrated by the eccentric English naturalist Charles Waterton many years before Piltdown. In 1825 in Wanderings in South America, Waterton claimed to have come across and killed an apeman, a sketch of which graced the book’s frontispiece. It showed the humanlike face and apelike head and shoulders of the creature, which he called Nondescript. Because of the beast’s burdensome weight, Waterton explained tongue in cheek, he had severed its body and carried only the head and shoulders out of the rain forest and back to England. These he had then preserved using his own unique methods of taxidermy. Anyone doubting the veracity of his tale was welcome to gaze upon this apeman of the woods in the flesh.
Waterton actually had taken the head and shoulders of a red howler monkey and shaped its facial features to give it a humanoid appearance. His creation stirred some mirth and some indignation.
Another of Waterton’s typical whimsies was to combine the parts of two entirely different animals into a single creature, something one of his biographers categorized as a “taxidermic frolic”.
Could there be a connection between Waterton’s ruses and the hoax at Piltdown? Piltdown Man too ended up being a composite creature, a concoction, perhaps even a “frolic”.
Because of the great gap in time between the hoaxes there is clearly no direct link. Waterton was long gone by 1912. But an indirect connection provided the first notion that Doyle was more than casually exposed to the Waterton tradition and might be involved in Piltdown as well. It turned out that he attended the same Jesuit preparatory school from which Waterton had graduated many years before. This was Stonyhurst College, located in a fairly remote part of Lancashire. Waterton had been one its most illustrious alumni. Indeed, many of his taxidermical productions were frequently put on display in the school’s halls.
That Doyle’s name surfaced in this way seemed, at first, merely coincidental. But in reviewing the limited roster of those who enjoyed access to the Piltdown site during excavation, and who knew Dawson and Woodward beforehand, his name came up again and again. Not only did he live in Crowborough at the time, only seven or eight miles from the site, he also appears to have visited it openly in 1912. Dawson seemed gratified by his attention. In a note to Woodward, he stated, “Conan Doyle has written and seems excited about the skull. He has kindly offered to drive me in his motor anywhere.”
A medical doctor who no longer practiced, Doyle was at this stage reaping the rewards of being a successful author. Moreover, his interest in paleontology had recently been stimulated by his discovery of several fossilized dinosaur footprints and bones close to his house in Crowborough. Dawson and Woodward met with Doyle to examine these discoveries. In addition, Doyle was financially involved in a project of find coal in Kent, a project that had penetrated into strata rich in dinosaur remains, which excited him greatly.
Doyle was also a prodigious walker who thought nothing of setting forth on long jaunts, “geologizing” as he went along. There can be little doubt that he often visited the relatively unguarded site either by walking up the driveway that passed next to it or by peering over the hedge to observe the progress of excavation. Since most of the remains were found on or near the surface, it required no great feat on the part of the hoaxer to insert them into recently exposed cuts or toss them onto the spoil heaps where their discovery could be assured. All one had to do was keep an eye on the excavators. The real trick was to concoct a convincing creature, stain it to match the color of the Piltdown gravel, and surround it with acceptably appropriate fossil remains and implements. Unquestionably, Doyle possessed the anatomical competence, knew sufficient paleontology and chemistry, and had more than ample opportunity to do so. The case against Doyle, however, becomes more convincing in light of associations that can be established between him and the actual remains found at Piltdown.
Perhaps the single most expertly contrived part of the plot is the selection and modification of an orangutan’s jawbone to make it resemble a primitive human mandible, one that appeared to “fit” the skull. Not only were the condyle and chin areas broken off, but the remaining molars were filed in such a way as to simulate patterns of human wear. During his first days as a practicing doctor in Southsea, a suburb of Portsmouth, Doyle moved into a house whose previous occupant had been a dentist. Heaped about in great numbers were the casts of human jaws. It may be partly for this reason and partly because many of his first patients had jaw ailments – having been referred by a dentist neighbor – that Doyle developed an abiding interest in human jaws. In a story about the life of a doctor, which is clearly autobiographic, he refers to one of his protagonists as a generalist who had one minor specialty: He was a “jawman”; that is, a doctor who treated abscessed jaws and the like.
When it was dated many years later, the Piltdown jaw proved to be young, but not that young – 500 or 600 years old. Where could the hoaxer have obtained the jaw of an orangutan who lived somewhere in the East Indies and died approximately in the 12th or 13th century?
Among several possible sources, East India travelers and collectors whom Doyle may have known, Cecil Wray is the most likely. A former neighbor of Doyle’s, Wray in 1906 had just returned from the Malay Peninsula where he had worked both as a magistrate and a collector. He was also a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. Wray’s brother, moreover, was head of the Malay museums and specialized in excavating caves, an ideal environment for preserving bone remains. One of his museums had recently purchased a large collection of animal specimens from Borneo. Orangutans live only in Borneo and Sumatra.
Doyle’s fascination with jaws extended to skulls as well. His special interest is reflected in a famous passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles in which a medical man meets Sherlock Holmes:“Glad to meet you, sir,” said Mortimer. “I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running finger along your parietal fissure? A cast of your skull, sir, until the original is available, would be an ornament to any anthropological museum.”
Doyle was also fascinated with the field of phrenology and had made the acquaintance of the leading phrenologist in London, the American Jessie Fowler, who had an immense number and variety of skulls in her collection. Like Doyle, Fowler was intrigued with the occult. In the late 1890’s, she “read” Doyle’s skull and stayed as a guest in his house.
Since the skull planted at Piltdown was exceptionally thick and constructed in a manner that had rarely, if ever, been observed before, it is almost certain that the hoaxer had access to a large and varied collection of skulls. Fowler was in the practice of selling her skulls.
Several of the fossil mammal remains that were salted into the Piltdown gravel pit have since been identified as coming from the Mediterranean. The likely sites include Malta and a fossil cache in the Ichkeul area of Tunisia, which was not known to paleontologists until 1946. Whoever was the hoaxer had to have access to such exotic materials. In 1907, some two years before any fossils were discovered at Piltdown, Doyle visited archeologist Joseph Whitaker, one of the few scientists who had frequently been to the Ichkeul region.
A few months after that meeting, Doyle and his bride – it was his second marriage – honeymooned for two months in the eastern Mediterranean. In all probability they went ashore at Malta, a British port, in late November or early December on their return voyage. Coincidentally, the Daily Malta Chronicle announced on November 16 the discovery of the fossilized remains of a hippopotamus by workmen excavating a limestone fissure on the island. One of the planted items at Piltdown was a hippopotamus tooth whose form and chemical content indicate it came from a limestone chamber in one of the Mediterranean islands, Malta being regarded as the most likely.
Two years later, in 1909, before the discovery of any of the Mediterranean fossils at Piltdown, Doyle and his wife cruised the western Mediterranean. They visited Algeria and almost certainly Tunisia. Shortly after, Doyle wrote a story about Carthage, located not far from Ichkeul. Several of the fossil elephant teeth are known to have come from Ichkeul. The ship also stopped at Malta and Corsica, another possible source of the hippopotamus tooth. None of the other individuals suspected of being the hoaxer is known to have visited these islands or Tunisia. The timing of Doyle’s travels was perfect.
Most of the flints that were planted at Piltdown and uncovered in 1912 were similar but slightly different from those ordinarily found in Britain. Some had a rather unusual white cortex, most of the larger ones were thought to be rejects from some unknown paleolithic flint factory, several were worked only on one side, and some were very old for their edges were rounded by weathering, while others had much sharper edges. The flint from which one had been chipped included the fossil shell Inoceramus. These characteristics are especially typical of the artifacts found in abundance in the desert town of Gafsa, also in Tunisia, site of the largest paleolithic flint factory in North Africa.
If he did not collect them himself, there is another conduit through which Doyle could have obtained such flints. In 1910 Norman Douglas, distinguished author and a friend of Doyle’s, left Italy for England. On his way he spent several months in Tunisia, mostly in Gafsa. Douglas was an inveterate collector and had a special interest in paleolithic implements. He referred to himself as a “flint maniac,” and he collected some 400 pieces, which he carried to England and sold or gave away.
Finally, there are the other fossil mammal fragments, including beaver teeth, that were salted into Piltdown but most likely came from Norfolk and Suffolk. For years prior to Piltdown, Doyle vacationed in Norfolk near towns that boasted excellent golf courses, as golf was one of his favorite games. These included the Sheringham Golf Course, which abutted the East Runton deposit, a confusing collection of fossils ranging from a late Pleistocene beaver to a variety of early Pleistocene animals, the same unusual kind of mix found in the Piltdown gravel pit. It is not unlikely that the beaver fossils as well as some of the older fossils found at Piltdown were picked up between rounds of golf.
It is possible then to link Doyle with virtually all the physical fragments that, taken together, comprise the find at Piltdown – from jaw and skull to fossil animal remains and flints. Unsurprisingly, it is also possible to link the hoax with what Doyle did best: fiction.
In his exposé of the Piltdown hoax, Weiner mentions Doyle only incidentally, speculating that perhaps Doyle had gained some inspiration for his novel, The Lost World, from witnessing the excavation. To be sure, an examination of that book, the first of several in which Professor Edward Challenger appears as the central character, reveals many suggestive points of resemblance. But it is the timing of its conception and publication that is particularly relevant. Indeed, The Lost World may offer a unique twist to Byron’s observation that truth is stranger than fiction.
Consider a few touch points between Doyle’s fictional adventure story and the Piltdown hoax:
- The statement by one his characters that “if you are clever and you know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph.”
- The observation by another character that the practical joke “would be one of the most elementary developments of man.”
- The occurrence of a time-mix in the living fossil animals of the story and those at Piltdown. When Dawson learned of the imminent publication of The Lost World from Doyle, he wrote Smith Woodward: “C. Doyle is writing a sort of Jules Verne book … I hope someone has sorted out his fossils for him!”
- In the story, a tribe of shaggy, red-haired, nest-building apemen is discovered not too far from where Waterton’s red-haired Nondescript apeman was supposed to have lived. The description of these creatures makes them appear to be most closely allied with the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra. There are also several references to early man and the “missing link” in the story.
- The plateau that makes up “the lost world” is described as an area “as large perhaps as Sussex, [which] has been lifted en bloc with all its living contents.” A map of the basin-topped plateau shows it to bear a fairly close resemblance to the horseshoe-rimmed basin known as the Weald in southeastern England. The Weald, which includes most of Sussex and parts of Surrey and Kent, is where Piltdown Man was found.
- The main characters in the book can be identified as acquaintances of Doyle, although some of the characters appear to be composites of two or more people. For example, Lord Roxton, the handsome bachelor who explores the upper reaches of the Amazon, is mainly derived from Doyle’s friend, Sir Roger Casement. The dry, goat-bearded, and acerbic geologist, Professor Summerlees, bears a close resemblance to Woodward. Others are equally traceable.
Weiner did not consider the possibility that instead of Doyle’s book being inspired by the Piltdown excavation, the Piltdown hoax was inspired by, or developed hand-in-hand with, the plot of The Lost World. On August 5, 1910, at a time when the Piltdown site had yielded nothing but a single skull fragment and no public announcements had yet been made, Doyle outlined his plans for The Lost World in a letter to his friend Casement. He completed the novel in December of 1911, at which time he sent it to The Strand Magazine. There is no known record of Doyle having visited the Piltdown site before then. In April 1912 his story came out as a serial in The Strand, and in December Dawson and Woodward made the first announcement of their momentous discovery. The timing is crucial, for the seeds of The Lost World appear to have been planted in Doyle’s mind long before Piltdown was a site of recognized significance in anyone’s mind.
Doyle, it must be said, genuinely believed in the scientific significance of the evidence pointing to the existence of early man. Indeed he composed a manuscript entitle “Human Origins,” though it was never published. He even wrote part of The Lost World on the inside cover of an archeological journal. What then could prompt him to perpetrate a hoax and, as it proved, to make fools of the individuals who discovered, excavated, and interpreted the Piltdown remains?
Besides being fascinated with science, Doyle was also a believer in Spiritualism. He so declared himself as early as 1887 in a letter to the journal Light, and he spent much of his time, energy, and money furthering the Spiritualist cause. He came, for example, to believe in such things as the existence of fairies and other diminutive folk, as well as in the idea that an apocalypse would be brought about by a wrathful “Central Intelligence,” resulting in the death of most of the world’s population.
These spiritualist and unorthodox views are central to the question of motive. Here again, by way of an answer, fiction and reality merge. For fiction we may look to Doyle’s Professor Challenger; for reality, the formidable figure of Edwin Ray Lankester.
Professor Challenger of Doyle’s stories was another composite character. One of Doyle’s medical school professors contributed the Assyrian beard and the booming voice emanating from an enormous chest. Lankester also provided some physical traits, but his greatest contributions were to the development of the personality and background of the almost inimical Professor Challenger.
Lankester was a dedicated Darwinian evolutionist. As a boy it had been his privilege to meet Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley at the home of his parents. It was he, if anyone, who succeeded Huxley as “Darwin’s bulldog,” becoming evolution’s staunchest defender. But he not only defended, he attacked, and mercilessly so. Besides holding Spiritualists up to ridicule, he encouraged scientists to wage war on them and in doing so to forgo gentlemanly rules of conduct. In a letter to The Times he wrote:To convict the spiritualist impostor one must not approach him with theories based on “recondite principles of modern science,” nor should one put him on his guard as though an honorable contest were at hand, but his habits and methods should be minutely and covertly investigated as those of the elusive wild beast, and then at the right moment he may be seized and brought to light “taken in the act.”
As a man of action as well as of words, this is precisely what Lankester had already done. The elusive wild beast he had stalked and bagged was the American medium, “Doctor” Henry Slade, the rage of the Spiritualists of Britain in the mid-1870s. Lankester had arranged to attend a seance with Slade, the purpose of which was to communicate with a spirit. The spirit would manifest itself by writing on a blank slate. Suspecting Slade of having tampered with the slate, Lankester decided “to test my hypothesis … by [conducting] a crucial experiment.” After the slate was presented as clean, but before he heard any noise of writing, Lankester snatched it and found a message on its surface. Lankester viewed this as certain evidence of an intent to cheat and defraud him of the fee he had paid Slade, evidence that “would be convincing to persons not already lost to reason.” A magistrate agreed, though Slade was released on a technicality and left England as expeditiously as he could. In a single stroke, Lankester had become the Spiritualists’ bête noir.
Doyle first made reference to the Lankester-Slade affair in a short story, “The Captain of Pole-star,” published in 1883. The message was that even if mediums such as Slade had been guilty of fraud, one does not condemn Spiritualism for this reason alone. But Lankester had used just this kind of reasoning. Piltdown would provide a chance to reverse the tables by applying the same kind of logic: If science swallowed a scientific fraud like Piltdown Man, then all of science, especially the destructive and arrogant evolutionists, whom Doyle called the Materialists, could be condemned. They would, in other words, be hoisted by their own petard.
In a number of subsequent writings Doyle made frequent reference to his adversaries, the Materialists, and he singled out Lankester as one of its most flagrant representatives. Not long before the hoax was set in motion, Lankester retired from his lofty perch as director of the British Museum of Natural History, a position he had held for nine years. That same year, 1907, he chose to remind the Spiritualists of his unabated contempt for them. Cerebral disease, he stated in his book The Kingdom of Man, may account for their beliefs.
Ironically enough, it was Lankester who provided the hoaxer with the recipe for what would prove a believable and long-lasting paleontological meal. Between 1906 and 1909 Lankester had made known his views on the kind of discoveries the prehistorians of the future might be expected to make. Man he declared, emerged quite early, “perhaps in Lower Miocene times.” Furthermore, he believed the cranial capacity of early man, contrary to the prevailing view, most likely would be remarkably large. He arrived at this prediction by extrapolating the results of a comparison of paleolithic skulls and those of contemporary “savage races.” Also, in his regular column in The Daily Telegraph, “Science from an Easy Chair,” he stoutly defended his belief that certain crudely chipped flints found in many sites were not only of great antiquity but were shaped by human hands.
Lankester also predicted that other less crude man-modified rocks would shortly be found in pre-Pleistocene deposits. In 1911, he argued in a paper presented before the Royal Society that such rocks had indeed been discovered. He referred to some novelly-shaped flint implements, which he called rostro-carinate or eagle’s beak, and some scrapers, hammers, and large one-sided picks recently found both in Suffolk and Norfolk. He dated them from the Pliocene or possibly earlier.
Unwittingly, Sir Ray had set himself up. He provided a list of objects to be discovered or verified as being man-made, and the hoaxer had obliged him on every count. The Piltdown flints included the eoliths he believed in, some early paleolithic implements, and at least one of the unusual rostro-carinate type (which a well-known antiquities dealer had been selling for six months). Piltdown Man’s skull turned out to have a large brain capacity considering its apparent antiquity as determined from the age of the fossil mammals with which it was associated. Some of the fossils were identified by Lankester as being of Pliocene and possibly even of Miocene age. Piltdown Man, as he saw it, represented a large step in the direction of his hypothetical Lower Miocene apeman. It was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, with the hoaxer providing the wherewithal.
So the case against Doyle is made. Besides the necessary skill, contacts, knowledge, and opportunity to qualify as the hoaxer, Doyle also had sufficient motive and an inviting target, Lankester.
That the blame for the Piltdown hoax fell largely on the shoulders of Dawson can now be regarded as an injustice. Perhaps Weiner was more correct than he knew when he left Dawson an escape clause: Had Dawson “been implicated in a ‘joke,’ perhaps not even his own, which went too far?” On the other hand, it appears that Dawson was not the butt at all, merely a patsy and later the scapegoat for a deeply embarrassed segment of the scientific community.
To have fooled science for so long may thus be regarded as something of a Holmesian triumph, though perhaps a dubious one considering how much time was wasted, how much confusion was created in our understanding of human evolution, and how many reputations were tainted as a result. Dawson, Woodward, Lankester, Teilhard du Chardin – they were all duped. But why didn’t Doyle ever reveal – anonymously at least – so exquisite a hoax?
He may well have tried to do so, for Doyle was a sportsman as well as a jokester. As he was an expert cricketer who had played on some of the country’s top amateur teams, what could be better than to place a cricket bat “in the hands of” Piltdown Man? In 1914 a portion of a fossil elephant femur was discovered at the site. When it was formally described at a Geological Society meeting, a scientist rose to state that “he could not imagine any use for an implement that looked like part of a cricket bat.” He further believed in the possibility “of the bone having been found and whittled in recent times.” But most of the scientists either ignored it or preferred to believe that the object was a genuine paleolithic tool, though no one could assign it a plausible function.
The following year, 1915, another fossil deposit was discovered by Dawson one or two miles from the original site. Called Piltdown II, this site also may represent an attempt by Doyle to strain the credulity of scientists to the point where they would question the authenticity of both deposits. Among other oddities, Piltdown II contained a skull fragment and a molar tooth that appeared closely related to the jaw found at Piltdown I. (In fact, it is now known to have come from that jaw.) Ales Hrdlicka, the doyen of American physical anthropology, went so far as to suggest of the molar that “… the account of its having been discovered at a considerable distance away [from Piltdown I] might be mistaken.” But for many believers, the tooth confirmed that Piltdown Man was not an aberration but a legitimate early fossil – and that apparently there was more than one. Even some who had doubted that the human skull and apelike jaw at the first site belonged to a single creature were convinced when they saw the same combination – an apelike tooth and human skull – at the second site. The effect of the tooth, like that of the cricket bat, was probably the reverse of what Doyle had intended.
Such gullibility must have exasperated Doyle, or made him howl with laughter.
This page was last updated November 1, 1998.