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The Great Bone Hoax : UNRAVELING PILTDOWN: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution. By John Evangelist Walsh (Random House: $25, 270 pp.)

September 22, 1996|Michael Shermer | Michael Shermer is director of the Skeptics Society, publisher of Skeptic magazine and an adjunct professor in cultural studies at Occidental College

In science we presume that an unsolved mystery will one day be unraveled because nature's answers are sitting out there somewhere. In history, the answers are sitting back in time, and if they have been lost to the memory of their long-gone keepers (or covered up with a conspiracy), the mystery may be more than unsolved; it may be unsolvable. Who shot JFK? After decades of endless speculation, theorizing and conjecture, we are no closer to a final answer than we were in 1963.

What I have discovered in investigating mysteries for Skeptic magazine is that once a story takes on a life of its own, a satisfactory answer may be impossible simply because the mystery is more tantalizing than its solution.

In the history of science, there is one enduring mystery in this category of unsolvables: the Piltdown hoax, or what John Evangelist Walsh calls "the science fraud of the century" in his book, "Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution." Unfortunately, despite the author's subtitle claim of "and Its Solution," as with JFK, Walsh's return to the lone perpetrator likely will be met with scorn by the Oliver Stones of Piltdown. The reason is simple: There is no smoking gun and the remaining speculative theories will continue being contested as long as imaginative people are interested.

What are they contesting and what is the mystery?

On Feb. 15, 1912, a British lawyer named Charles Dawson, who devoted every moment of his spare time to amateur archeology, presented to the renowned Keeper of Geology of the British Museum of Natural History, Arthur Smith Woodward, several cranial fragments that appeared to belong to an ancient hominid, or protohuman. Dawson told Smith Woodward that in 1908, workmen had unearthed the fragments from a gravel pit at Piltdown in Sussex, accidentally smashing them with their picks. The skull fragments were modern in appearance, yet they were found in deep, ancient layers, indicating great antiquity.

On June 2, 1912, Smith Woodward visited the pit with Dawson and a youthful Jesuit named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, later to become the world-famous author of "The Phenomenon of Man," the book that attempted a scientific proof of the spiritual nature of humanity. There, Dawson discovered the lower jaw of the skull, including two molars, which were very ape-like in structure but indicated human-like wear. Additional digs uncovered stone tools, chipped bones and fossil animal teeth that helped to place the ancient hominid well back in our evolutionary history.

Six months later, Dawson, under the auspices and endorsement of Smith Woodward, announced the great find to the Geological Society of London. A few skeptics voiced their doubts, but one of the crucial pieces of evidence that might have deflected their concerns--the jaw--was mysteriously broken in just the right places to preclude resolution. The following year Teilhard de Chardin found an ape-like lower canine tooth similar to the ones from the earlier discovery. In 1915, at another pit two miles from Piltdown, Dawson uncovered two more hominid skull fragments along with another tooth similar to those from the previous finds.

The scientific world was ecstatic. It was too good to be true: This new find had confirmed what they always assumed about human evolution--our large brain had lifted us above our simian ancestors. Now there could be no doubt.

Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. In 1953, scientists Kenneth Oakley, J. S. Weiner and W. E. le Gros Clark announced that new dating techniques had proved the skull fragments to be of modern origin, as was the orangutan jaw--all stained, chipped and filed to look ancient. The flint artifacts were worked with modern tools, the fossil animal teeth were from elsewhere and everything was carefully placed in the Piltdown pit. It was all a hoax--four decades' worth.

Now the mystery begins. Who did it? Conspiracy theorists have produced an endless variety of combinations, most of which include Dawson as everything from patsy to accomplice to orchestrator. Walsh devotes a chapter to some 20 or so accused and additional chapters to the big-name conspirators, including Teilhard de Chardin, Oxford anatomist Sir Arthur Keith and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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