In December 1912, a paper was presented at the Geological Society claiming fossil evidence for the link between apes and man. The Piltdown skull had been discovered by Charles Dawson in a gravel pit in Sussex several years earlier. It went on to become one of the most infamous forgeries, and mysteries, in the history of science.
At the time, Sir Arthur Keith was a leading figure in the study of human fossils. In a guest post, Lindsay James Keith defends his great uncle against charges of having perpetrated the fraud…
Portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. John Cooke, 1915. Arthur Keith is centre wearing lab coat. Charles Dawson is second from right, back row.
Grand (he didn’t like great) Uncle Arthur was born on 5 Feburary 1866 in Aberdeenshire. He died on 7 January 1955 at Downe, Kent, aged 88. The dream of his Bromley Solicitors, he left a Will and five Codicils.
Clever and imbued with the work ethic, he went up the academic medical scientific ladder at an impressive rate. I was taken as a toddler to meet His Grandness. He ticked me off for jumping up and down to see the oil gauge on his car bonnet and was surprised at a boy who didn’t like cream with strawberries.
AK came back to life with some grandstanding nonsense in the Sunday Times on 23 September 1990. The then Arts Correspondent Geordie Grieg condemned AK for a hideous deception. It was Keith wot dunnit – planted the Piltdown skull, or gave it to Charles Dawson to plant it.
Charles Dawson (1864-1916) was an Uckfield Sussex solicitor, keen on fossils. His dodgy evidence management was defended hilariously by his successor firm’s senior partner Geoffrey Denton in 1990 in a letter (10/10/1990).
Unfortunately, poor old Geordie G didn’t do his own research. Silly errors, such as that AK was a bachelor when he was a widower and that (presumably to hide it) he burnt his Dawson correspondence. Easily checkable information from my cousin Robin Keith was that his father Alec, an AK executor, burnt those papers when clearing up. He then relied on a Frank Spencer whom he deemed respected.
Spencer’s book on this was rubbished comprehensively by Lord (‘The Dreaded Solly’) Zuckerman (1904 – 1993) in his Review, published in the New York Review of Books on 8 November 1990 (Vol XXXVII No 17). Lord Z gave me a copy of his galley proof and the Editor of the NYR sent me a copy of the published article. I have them with me. Lord Z also told me he had worked with AK and this attack on his integrity was laughable. In his galley proof, he described AK a quiet and kind man with intellectual humility – although that did not stop him from being forceful if he wished.
I was later told that I was the only man in the known world to have two hours of Lord Z’s time without fee!
Neither Greig nor Spencer considered sensibly or at all AK’s background or the mores of his time. AK was the fourth of seven sons along with three girls. Dad was a working farmer as had been his father. The eldest son, Alexander, (AK’s brother) took over the family farm. Others had different careers – none were slouches. My grandfather was the seventh son and the only one to have sons, including my father. The work and scholarship ethic was respected. Not the sort of low skulduggery imagined by Spencer.
AK married Celia Caroline Gray on 21 December 1899 at St Clement Danes Strand. Sadly she died childless on 13 October 1934 at 65. In the years of the ‘discovery’ of Piltdown (about 1908 to 1911) AK was eminent and respected. In his 40s, the world before him. The clumsy plot Spencer suggested was too stupidly incompetent by any view. Exposure would have meant social and professional ruin. No carbon dating or DNA then – but still too risky.
Zuckerman suggests AK didn’t allow himself to accept the Piltdown skull until 1939 (more than 20 years later) after extensive research and investigations by other experts. This was hardly rushing to claim a false triumph. My mother told me AK was very upset at being told, after so many years, he had been fooled.
Perchance not just coincidence that exciting random discoveries seem to have dried up soon after Dawson died?
What of the other dramatis personae? No space here to examine all. However, one interesting chap lurks in the shadows. Enter Martin Hinton FRS (1883 – 1961). Spencer chooses to dismiss Hinton from his suspects list because it might have damaged Hinton’s job prospects and credibility. What about the same danger to AK?
Zuckerman liked Hinton. Hinton ‘did well.’ He retired as Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum, a wonder for goggly-eyed children of all ages. Lord Z recalls that Hinton was a Lamarckian. He believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. He did not get on with the eminent but ‘unsmiling and pompous’ Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology. To provide a Darwinian such as Smith Woodward with a phony missing link would have been a brilliant joke. Moreover, he had a grudge against him arising from an argument in 1910 about money and Hinton’s ability to produce a Catalogue of Fossil Rodents. Finally, Lord Z says Hinton’s antipathy to Smith Woodward was well known – as was his interest in hoaxes.
Where’s my money? Hinton knew his stuff. He had form. What a gorgeous chance! And he was bright enough to get away with it. He used Dawson to score off Smith Woodward big time. He produced and planted the necessary bits. He told Dawson that Piltdown could be an interesting place to dig for glory. Silly, vain Dawson fell for the bait. Bingo!
A story to run and run…
Interesting reading: ‘An Autobiography – Sir Arthur Keith’ – Watts & Co first published 1950. Known in the family as ‘The Green Book.’