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The Fossil Chronicles
How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution
By Dean Falk
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 Dean Falk
All rights reserved.
Of Paleopolitics and Missing Links
The outstanding interest of the Piltdown skull is the confirmation it affords of the view that in the evolution of Man the brain led the way. Grafton Elliot Smith
Shortly before Christmas 1912, a remarkable fragmentary skull was presented at a widely attended meeting of the Geological Society of London. The discovery had been made by Charles Dawson, a solicitor and an amateur geologist and archaeologist who had recovered seven pieces of the skull during the preceding four years from a gravel pit near Piltdown Common, in East Sussex. From 1913 to 1915, additional skull fragments appeared at Piltdown and two other nearby locations, including some from at least one other individual.
Because the unprecedented fossil appeared to be a "missing link" that was intermediary between apes and humans, it was given a new scientific name, Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man"), more commonly known as "Piltdown Man." The announcement caused great excitement among British scientists, who claimed that its antiquity proved that humans had originated in the British Isles. Piltdown had just become the most important site anywhere for studying the early evolution of humans.
It would be over four decades before the world would learn that Piltdown Man was a fraudulent specimen that had been assembled from a modern human braincase and the lower jaw of an orangutan and that both had been stained to appear as if they were from the same individual. The most characteristic parts of the ape jaw, near the chin and farther back where it hinges with the skull, were missing, and the teeth had been deliberately filed to look more like those of humans. The gravel pit had also been salted with stone tools and fragments of fossilized hippopotamus, deer, horse, and mastodon from other places, which gave the false impression that the skull was very ancient.
But at the time, Piltdown Man seemed real. Even though potentially revealing features of the jaw were missing, what remained still looked significantly apelike. Anatomists had to reassemble fragments from the broken cranium and fill in the missing portions of the jaw in order to fit the pieces together. Some scientists favored a restoration that had a more apish jaw but with hinges that were humanlike enough to attach to the cranium. Others preferred to make the missing parts of the jaw appear more humanlike. Although the scientists argued heatedly about these details, all of the Piltdown restorations resulted in some combination of humanlike and apelike features. A mixture of traits, after all, was expected for a missing link.
Despite their quibbles over the skull's details, most scholars embraced Piltdown as a legitimate human fossil—at least until 1953, when tests of the amount of nitrogen and fluorine in the Piltdown remains revealed that the cranium was older than the lower jaw. This unleashed further investigations that eventually showed the extent of the fraud: "There did not appear to be a single specimen in the entire Piltdown collection of hominoid bones, associated fauna, and cultural remains that had genuinely originated from Piltdown." In hindsight and considering the "seemingly ludicrous marriage of an orangutan mandible to a palpably modern human braincase," the length of time it took for the hoax to be exposed was remarkably long. There were, however, understandable reasons why Piltdown had been accepted as an ancestor.
By the time of the Piltdown announcement, Charles Darwin's general ideas about evolution had been published for slightly over half a century and had gained wide acceptance among scholars. Paleontologists were on the lookout for missing links that would support Darwin's theories about human evolution, and several specimens had appeared as possible candidates. In 1891, the Dutch anatomist Eugène Dubois had discovered remains in Java that he christened Pithecanthropus erectus ("ape-man upright," now Homo erectus), or Java Man. The skullcap of this new species was not only small but also long, low, and thick, which made its potential role as a human forerunner highly contentious. Just three months before Piltdown was unveiled, Pithecanthropus was rejected as a human ancestor in a report to the International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology in Geneva, by the influential French paleontologist Marcellin Boule, who echoed the earlier opinion of the German pathologist Rudolf Virchow by claiming it was nothing more than an extinct gibbon. While he was at it, Boule eliminated another potential human ancestor, the big-brained but primitive-looking Neanderthals from Europe, which he thought should be dropped entirely from the human family tree.
Under these circumstances and despite disagreements about the details of Piltdown's restoration, it is understandable that most of the leading scholars in British paleoanthropology eagerly accepted the discovery of a missing link from their very own gravel beds as "the most important ever made in England, and of equal, if not of greater importance than any other yet made, either at home or abroad." The main thing that convinced these scientists of Piltdown's significance was its modern human braincase, because it fit better than the skulls of either Pithecanthropus or Neanderthal with prevailing expectations of how a very old missing link should look.
Having been personally embroiled in controversies surrounding the two hominins that are the focus of this book, I was nonetheless surprised to learn from the Piltdown episode that the passionate fights and acrimony that accompany the science of paleoanthropology are nothing new. Many of the paleoanthropologists who were players (or were "played") in the Piltdown episode were every bit as adamant and defensive about their favored evolutionary theories as some who practice in the field today. Another thing that may have been true then, as I believe it is now, is that the closer to the brain (or braincase) one's prized specimen is, the more intense the debates about its interpretation. The brain makes us human, and the uniqueness of humanity has always been at the heart of the boisterous debates about human origins.
The disagreement between two leading scientists, Arthur Smith Woodward and Arthur Keith, about how to reconstruct Piltdown Man shows just how acrimonious these debates can be. Woodward had first crack, having been invited by Dawson to supervise the initial reconstruction and description of the fossil. Appropriately enough (since the mandible was from an orangutan), Woodward reconstructed the missing front parts of Piltdown's lower jaw to be consistent with the rest of its apelike morphology. His reconstruction therefore had large projecting canines. When Keith set out to "correct" Woodward's reconstruction, he focused on Piltdown's braincase, which he rightly believed Woodward had made too small. In his version of the skull, Keith expanded Piltdown's braincase and, reasoning that an ancestor with such a modern-looking braincase couldn't have such an apelike jaw, reconstructed the Piltdown jaw, including its canines, to be more humanlike. In a sense, both scientists were right: Woodward's reconstruction of the ape jaw was appropriate, as was Keith's reconstruction of the human cranium.
At a pivotal meeting of the Anatomical Section of the International Congress of Medicine in London on August 11, 1913, Woodward presented his reconstruction of Piltdown's skull and conceded that Keith may have been right that its braincase should be larger but stood by his reconstruction of the mandible. The assembly then adjourned to an amphitheater at the Royal College of Surgeons, where Keith presented his own model of the skull and gave his reasons for reconstructing its braincase to be 400 cm3 larger than Woodward's model:
The difference between his model and that of Woodward's, he declared, was not "simply a matter of opinion, but a principle of the most elementary fact". Seizing Woodward's model and holding it up to his audience, Keith is reported to have said with "infinite scorn", that such an individual would have been prevented not only from eating but also breathing! "If a student had brought up a skull like this one, he would have been rejected for a couple of years", he added mockingly.
In response to Keith's presentation, the renowned neuroanatomist and anthropologist Grafton Elliot Smith said that he was not disturbed by either Woodward's reconstruction of an apelike mandible or Keith's of a large braincase, because, in his view, enlargement of the human brain must have preceded the evolution of the face and jaw. Others concurred. In reply, Keith is reported to have said that
he did not think his audience quite realized the importance of the Piltdown skull. It brought home the incontrovertible fact that at the commencement of the Pleistocene, or perhaps more accurately at the end of the Pliocene, the human brain had reached its full size. This fact, he said, opened up a new insight into our past — "a vista of human cultures coming struggling to us over perhaps a million of years."
Dawson, however, was unimpressed. "When we have done with the pick and shovel," he told a reporter, "it will be quite time enough to call in the doctors." Sure enough, a mere nine days after the meeting at the Royal College, "proof" of the accuracy of Woodward's apelike reconstruction of the jaw came in the form of a new discovery from the gravels (made by the French Jesuit priest Father Teilhard de Chardin)—a supposed right lower canine from the Piltdown mandible! In 1953 this tooth would be shown to have been filed and stained to match the color of the Piltdown remains. Meanwhile, it contributed to the ongoing acrimony among scholars who had become "dug in" about their particular views of Piltdown.
The 1913 controversy inspired an oil painting, The Piltdown Committee, by John Cooke, which was unveiled at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in London in May 1915 (figure 1). As "a celebration of the induction of the 'earliest Englishman' into the annals of British science" and "because it neatly captured the underlying geometry of the Piltdown controversy," the now famous painting created a stir and was reputed to be the highlight of the exhibition. In keeping with the widely publicized debate, Cooke depicts Arthur Keith demonstrating Piltdown's large braincase, as Elliot Smith points to it approvingly. Standing behind Keith and to his left, the most likely mastermind of the hoax (as discussed below), Charles Dawson, looks on with his colleague Arthur Woodward, as the latter's reconstruction is being "corrected" by Keith.
While most scientists accepted Piltdown as a legitimate missing link and were arguing about how it should best be reconstructed, militant fundamentalists were denouncing it as a fraud. In 1923, for example, the orator and politician William Jennings Bryan, who would later act as counsel for the prosecution in the infamous Scopes trial against teaching evolution in public schools, ridiculed paleontologists in an address to the West Virginia state legislature: "The evolutionists have attempted to prove by circumstantial evidence (resemblances) that man is descended from the brute.... If they find a stray tooth in a gravel pit, they hold a conclave and fashion a creature such as they suppose the possessor of the tooth to have been, and then they shout derisively at Moses." Ironically, the fundamentalists proved to be way ahead of the scientists about this particular "discovery."
In 1912 when Piltdown was causing such a stir, 19-year-old Raymond Arthur Dart, who had been brought up as a religious fundamentalist, was experiencing his "first frank confrontation with evolutionary ideas" as a biology student at the University of Queensland, in Australia. Dart was raised on a cattle farm in a pioneer family of devout Methodists and Baptists, and his childhood ambition was to become a medical missionary. From an early age, he had a "passion for learning and books," and he remained a self-described bookworm as an adult. Dart also had a childhood interest in anatomy. His brothers, for example, returned from the field one day to find that Raymond had neglected his chores in order to dissect a rooster. In 1912, Dart had no way of knowing that he would discover what was to become the world's most famous fossil or of knowing the prolonged negative effect that the Piltdown discovery would have on the reception to his find.
Given today's often polarized discussions about the relative merits of science and religion, it is perhaps surprising that, rather than reject his religious upbringing in favor of evolutionary theory, Dart sought to reconcile the two. His biographers report that as an adult Dart would recite chapter and verse from Scripture in both German and English. Furthermore,
even as Dart often read the Bible to his two children, it had earlier been agreed between Marjorie [Dart's second wife] and himself not to christen and register them in a particular church but, rather, to wait and allow them to attend the Sunday school of various denominations and, eventually, join the church of preference. The couple made a strong point to instruct the children against prejudice of certain religions be they Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Islam. Importantly, they took care not to promote political or racial bias in the children's minds.
Like Charles Darwin, who once intended to become an English country clergyman, and Louis Leakey, the famous paleontologist who had youthful ambitions of becoming a missionary, Dart came to see discrepancies between fundamentalism and facts. Regardless of his waning orthodoxy, Dart's early instruction seems to have had a positive effect, because today he is remembered "for his dynamic character, his unflinching forthrightness, his personal interest in and desire to help every student ... his infectious confidence, his encouragement of criticism, even of himself ... his keen sense of humour and his ability 'to take it with a smile.'" Dart's personal and professional papers, which are archived at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, reveal that he was a gentle, intellectual, and private soul who retained a lifelong inquisitiveness about nature.
As Dart described it, 1914 was a "momentous year." Having received a degree with honors in biology from the University of Queensland, and although he was still working on a master of science degree, he entered medical school at the University of Sydney. In light of his boyhood experiences with dissection, it is not surprising that Dart excelled at human anatomy and became particularly interested in the nervous system. In August, the British Association for the Advancement of Science held an international congress in Sydney, which was attended by, among other luminaries, the Australian-born Grafton Elliot Smith, a world-renowned anatomist and anthropologist. Elliot Smith had traveled from Manchester, England, where he was chair of anatomy, and Dart recalled that he gave a "brilliant public lecture on the evolution of the human fore-brain. It was in simple language by this resplendent red-gowned imposing graduate of our very own university and school."
Impressed by Elliot Smith, Dart made a vow: "Neurology—how the brain had come to be as we found it, could anything more be discovered about it and its workings? This had long since become my main life objective; and the dream-world already spontaneously fashioned was to join Dr Grafton Elliot Smith after the war years were over and to spend a lifetime alongside him finding out whatever one could, of what one needed to know about the head and its brain." Dart's dream became real after he graduated from medical school in 1917 and served overseas in the Australian Army Medical Corps. Elliot Smith, who had moved to University College, London, was expanding the Department of Anatomy there and "shocked" Dart by appointing him to be his first senior demonstrator.
In 1919, University College was coming into its heyday. With generous support from the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States, new buildings were erected to enhance the medical sciences, and other facilities were enlarged. Elliot Smith was training a generation of young anatomists who eventually assumed key positions in far-off places such as Hong Kong and Beijing (then Peking). By 1922, he was also incrementally increasing the staff of the Department of Anatomy, where Dart had become a lecturer in histology and embryology. The comparative anatomical, osteological, and fossil collections in London were superb, as were the libraries. Dart recalled that 1922 was his happiest year at University College, because he had found an exciting new interest in anthropology. In his free time, he examined the comparative brain collection at the Royal College of Surgeons and was gradually drawn in by Elliot Smith's efforts to make a new reconstruction of the Piltdown skull.
Excerpted from The Fossil Chronicles by Dean Falk. Copyright © 2011 Dean Falk. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
1. Of Paleopolitics and Missing Links
2. Taung: A Fossil to Rival Piltdown
3. Taung’s Checkered Past
4. Sulcal Skirmishes
5. Once upon a Hobbit
6. Flo’s Little Brain
7. Sick Hobbits, Quarrelsome Scientists
8. Whence Homo floresiensis?
9. Bones to Pick
What People are Saying About This
"Brilliant. . . . Sparkles with scholarship and wit."Nature
"The book is part historical drama, part neurological crash course and part autobiography . . . . The combination is refreshing."Wall Street Journal