The Browser Review Daily Letter 164

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Piltdown Man: Battle Of Skulls


From The Manchester Guardian August 12th 1913

LONDON — The Anatomical Section of the International Congress of Medicine has been busy to-day with an interesting problem connected with the remains of the prehistoric man discovered last year at Piltdown, in Sussex, the first news of which was published by the Manchester Guardian. By all except some German anthropologists, who are apparently jealous of the reputation for antiquity of their fellow-countryman the Neanderthal man, the Piltdown skull is now generally accepted as being by far the earliest relic of mankind ever discovered in Europe.

From the fragments of skull and mandible that were found a model of the head of the Piltdown man was constructed under the direction of Dr. Smith Woodward, the Keeper of Geology in the British Museum. The accuracy of this reconstruction has been called in question by Professor Keith, the Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, who has made a model which differs essentially from what may be called the “official” reconstruction.

The chief difference is that, according to Mr. Keith, the Piltdown man had a brain capacity very much greater than that allowed by Dr. Woodward. The model of the Royal College of Surgeons represents a large and well-modelled human head with a brain capacity of 1,500 cubic centimetres. The model of the British Museum gives a capacity of only 1,070 cubic centimetres. The point is of great importance in estimating the degree of development which man had reached at the period when the Piltdown man existed, and this cannot be later than the early part of the pleistocene period, and may be very much earlier.

If Professor Keith is correct and prehistoric man at this period possessed a brain almost modern in its capacity, it is obvious that the origin of mankind must be looked for in some infinitely more remote epoch than has been supposed.

Another point raised is that of whether the Piltdown man possessed the power of speech. It has been supposed that the simian conformation of the Piltdown chin precludes speech. But if Professor Keith’s view as to the fully developed brain turns out to be correct, this assumption may have to be modified. On the other hand, if the Piltdown man has a brain of the size given him by Professor Keith’s reconstruction while the theory as to the speechless jaw is maintained, it becomes probable that the brain of man was fully developed before he became capable of speech.

These were some of the points raised in he discussion to-day, which was sometimes of a lively character. The anatomists visited the department of Geology at South Kensington and heard Dr. Smith Woodward’s defence of his view, and afterwards went to the Royal College of Surgeons, where Dr. Keith gave his explanation of how, in his opinion, a mistake had been made.

At South Kensington one of the delegates expressed scepticism as to whether the extremely ape-like mandible and the comparatively human skull could be parts of the same remains. Dr Smith-Woodward stated than there could be no doubt on this point, and Mr. Charles Dawson, who discovered the fragments, explained that the mandible and the shattered parts of the skull were found within a yard and a half of one another. Dr. Woodward pointed out that, while the roots of teeth were ordinary modern formation, the shape of the jaw was exactly that of a young chimpanzee.

After closely examining Dr Woodward’s model of this half-man and half-ape the members went to the College of Surgeons and saw the entirely different creature which Dr Keith has made out of the same bits of fossilised bone. Dr Keith maintained strongly that there was no room for difference of opinion. It was a matter of elementary anatomical fact, and he demonstrated his theory that in the British Museum model the skull has been far too much depressed. In his view the skulls is entirely human, with a larger brain capacity than that of an Australian skull which he exhibited. “On Dr Woodward’s construction”, he said, “the man could neither breathe nor eat, and that is an absolutely impossible condition.”

“If Dr Smith Woodward is right (he went on) we have to look for the origin of man at the middle of the pleistocene period. If he is right everybody else is wrong. There is all the difference in the world between this idiot, the dream of a diseased imagination, and the other model constructed according to the laws of anatomy. Instead of dealing with an individual belonging to a civilisation two thousand years old, we are dealing with a civilisation which dates back probably for a million or a million and a half years.”

An important contribution to the discussion was made by Professor Elliot Smith, of Manchester, one of the leading authorities on the characters of the brain. He said there was no question of the remote age of the fragments or of the association of human and simian features. The presence of the human brain in this creature, in association with the simian jaw, was not so astonishing as some people imagined. It was in accordance with what other observers had stated, that the growth and perfection of the brain must have come before refinement of the features took place. Without expressing a definite opinion on the point of the accuracy of the earlier reconstruction, Professor Smith said he was convinced that some modification of the first model had become necessary.

The learned anatomists from many countries who were present were guarded in their opinions. They contented themselves mainly with heartily applauding both the the supporters of Eoanthropus Dawsonii and the advocate of Homo Piltdownensis. The ignorant outside came away with only conviction — that the Piltdown man lived a long while ago.

Editor’s note, 15th August 2013: The Piltdown Man was exposed in 1953 as a hoax. The remains supposedly found in Sussex consisted of the lower jawbone of an orang utan deliberately combined with the skull of a fully developed modern human. The fraud significantly affected early research on human evolution by creating the belief that the human brain expanded in size before the jaw adapted to new types of food. The reconstruction of human evolution was confused for decades, with a vast expenditure of time and effort directed up blind alleys. The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown to this day, but suspects have included Charles Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Professor Keith, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

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