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The Piltdown Forgery, by J. S. Weiner

Kirtley F. Mather

Vol. 43, No. 3 (JULY 1955)

THE PILTDOWN FORGERY, by J. S. Weiner; xii + 214 pages; 9 illustrations; $3.50; Oxford University Press, 1955.

The end of Piltdown man is the end of the most troubled chapter in human paleontology.” It is the end of a chapter of history which began on December 18, 1912, with the announcement of a remote ancestral form of man—the Dawn Man of Piltdown—in the gravels of the Sussex Ouse in South England. In honor of its discoverer Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward proposed its allocation to a new genus and species of man, “Eoanthropus dawsoni.” The reconstruction showed it to possess a cranium in all essentials human and a jaw similar to a chimpanzee. The find was later supplemented by other finds, a canine showing predicted wear, found by a young priest, internationally known and recently deceased, Teilhard de Chardin; a fossil slab of elephant bone, a club-like implement found in 1914, and the animal remains appropriate to a geological era as far back as the Pliocene.

There were doubters from the beginning not only among the amateurs in Sussex but also among the professionals. But the personalities concerned, which included Woodward, Arthur Keith, Eliot Smith, and Sir Ray Lancaster, prevailed and emphasized their agreement by sitting for a portrait by a Royal Academician in 1915 with the reconstructed skull as the central object of interest.

The progress of paleontology, the problems of fossil man in Asia and in South Africa all served to make the Piltdown man an ever-increasing anomaly. This book records the battery of research which has been necessary since July 1953 to prove that Piltdown was the most complicated forgery, the greatest hoax of modern times. It required fluorine and nitrogen, carbon and water analyses, X-radiation and radioactivity analyses, determinations of sulfate, iron and chromium. From the sleuthing there emerged a fraudulent modern jaw, a thick fossilized cranium, with, beyond doubt, spurious animal bones and implements.

The book records the detailed unmasking of the forgery, a tribute to the delicate techniques now available and to the operators. The whole story is reviewed as to all its details and all the personalities involved in such a manner that the book reads like a scientific detective story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a walking part in the action. The evidence is all summed up in a manner worthy of a most judicial judge but the culprit is never actually named. Perhaps that is why the book is so fascinating to the reader who may picture himself as one of the jury called upon to pronounce the verdict.

The Board of Editors is happy to announce that an article on this subject by the “sleuths” will be presented in the Autumn Issue of American Scientist.

Kirtley F. Mather (1888–1978), the first editor of American Scientist's Scientists' Bookshelf, was a geologist and professor at Harvard University. He served as president of AAAS in the 1950s, during which time he also spoke out against the McCarthy-era inquisitions. This was not the first time Mather had advocated for freedom of expression: In the 1930s, he refused to take a "teachers' oath" proposed by the Massachusetts state legislature. In a 1996 biographical sketch of Mather for GSA Today, Kennard B. Bork notes, "Mather was happy to pledge allegiance to the federal government when he was inducted into the U.S. Army, but he rebelled against state fealty oaths for faculty members at private universities." Among Mather's books are The Earth Beneath Us (1964) and, with coauthor Dorothy Hewitt, Adult Education: A Dynamic for Democracy (1937). Bork's 1994 biography of Mather is titled Cracking Rocks and Defending Democracy.

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