Deceiver, Joker or Innocent? Teilhard De Chardin and Piltdown Man

By Thackeray, J. Francis | Antiquity, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Deceiver, Joker or Innocent? Teilhard De Chardin and Piltdown Man


Thackeray, J. Francis, Antiquity


Arthur Smith Woodward, an expert on fossil fish and Keeper of Palaeontology at the British Museum (Natural History), made the official announcement of the discovery of 'Piltdown Man' (Eoanthropus dawsoni) on 18 December 1912 at Burlington House in London. The announcement was sensational at the time and attracted interest in a purported new hominid species with a large cranium, apparently associated with an ape-like jaw. It was not until some 40 years later that Eoanthropus ('Dawn man') was discredited (Weiner et al. 1953; Weiner 1955), with Charles Dawson (a 'country lawyer', as well as amateur archaeologist and palaeontologist) being identified as the probable perpetrator of a hoax in which human cranial fragments were combined artificially with the modified jaw of an ape (considered to be that of an orangutan), at Piltdown in Sussex. Despite extensive investigations and a plethora of publications, the exact circumstances surrounding the Piltdown hoax remain uncertain (Weiner et al. 1953; Weiner 1955; Spencer 1990a & b; Thomas 2002).

Here I explore the role played by the distinguished prehistorian and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), making use of documents concerning Piltdown curated in the Natural History Museum in London, and further relevant documents in the Teilhard de Chardin Foundation and the Jesuit Archives (Vanves, Paris). These sources may help us to understand the Piltdown hoax in a new light: as a piece of foolery in which Teilhard was involved, bur that went wrong to such an extent that those involved were reluctant to expose it.

Teilhard's idea of a joke

Teilhard was identified in the year of his death as a possible mastermind behind the Piltdown hoax (Essex 1955). In the Piltdown archives at the Natural History Museum, there is a transcript of a tape-recording of further statements made by Robert Essex on 18 January 1960, which points out that Teilhard was one of the diggers at Piltdown, and that "he loved a joke, greatly" (Essex 1). Essex continues with reference to a 'jaw' which had been brought in a bag by one of the 'diggers' at Piltdown, to the legal office of Charles Dawson, at a time when Dawson was away in court. Essex states "I found afterwards that the digger was Teilhard, because I recognized the bag, and I found that he [Teilhard] had called again, Mr Dawson was still in court ... So Teilhard picked up his bag and went". After referring to other matters regarding Teilhard, Essex continues 'Tm certain the whole thing was a joke. There are people who seem to think that Teilhard was out to..... muddle up the evolutionary trend. He wasn't. Teilhard was.... a Darwinian evolutionist, and his.... joke was purely a joke". Essex goes on to say that he made a statement to a 'columnist' in London, and that the statement was then sent to Teilhard in New York. According to Essex, Teilhard had responded by saying "I shall deny every little bit". Essex concludes his tape-recorded statement by expressing the hope that the idea that the British Museum had been 'led up the garden' by a country lawyer was buried for once and all (Essex 2).

If Teilhard was implicated, what were his motives? Some, like Essex, may simply see the joke as an end in itself. In the Piltdown file held at the Jesuit Archives in Vanves, Paris, there is an essay by Franck Bourdier, dated November 1984, apparently unpublished, which refers to Teilhard de Chardin in the context of a 'great comedian' (Bourdier 1984). Teilhard may even have appreciated this characteristic in himself. An essay written by him on 5 January 1913 and published as a limited edition in Etudes (a Jesuit journal), begins with the following words: "Il fut un temps ou la prehistoire meritait d'etre suspectee ou plaisantee" ("there was a time when the study of prehistory deserved to be suspected, or the subject of jokes"). Thus, within three weeks of the public announcement of Piltdown Man, Teilhard was expressing the view that the field of palaeoanthropology had gone through a period when it deserved to be the subject of jokes.

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Deceiver, Joker or Innocent? Teilhard De Chardin and Piltdown Man
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