Science: End As a Man

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For more than a generation, a shambling creature with a human skull and an apelike jaw was known to schoolchildren, Sunday-supplement readers and serious anthropologists as "the first Englishman." He was "Piltdown man," and he was supposed to have lived anywhere from 750,000 to 950,000 years ago. Last week three British scientists, armed with modern chemistry, demolished Piltdown man.

The "first Englishman" was first heard from in 1911 when Charles Dawson, lawyer and amateur anthropologist, unearthed skull fragments and part of a jaw in a gravel pit near Piltdown in Sussex. The skull was obviously human, but the apeishness of the jaw made some authorities suspicious. Others accepted both as genuine. In honor of Finder Dawson they labeled Piltdown man Eoanthropus (dawn man) dawsoni. To some anthropologists, who often jump to conclusions as quickly as a monkey jumps on a banana, the contrast between the skull and the jaw all but "proved" him to be a link connecting apes and man.*

Among the doubting Thomases about Piltdown man were the British Museum's Dr. K. P. Oakley and Oxford Professors J. E. Weiner and W. E. Le Gros Clark. They knew that when bones lie in the earth for a very long time, they accumulate fluorine. When the skeptics got around to a careful analysis, it showed that the relics of Piltdown man did not have enough fluorine to be extremely ancient. The skull fragments may be 50,000 years old, the age of many other human bones found throughout Europe. The jawbone, according to the scientists' report in the British Museum Bulletin, fared even worse: it proved to be the jaw of a modern ape, probably an orangutan, which died at the age of ten. It had been artificially colored with potassium bichromate and an iron salt to make it look old, and its teeth had been pared to make them look more or less human. Unanswered still was the question of who had planted the fake. Dawson, who died in 1916 and whose monument stands near the Piltdown gravel pit, may have doctored the jawbone to make himself famous. More likely, the difficult hoax was perpetrated by an erudite joker who enjoyed in silent satisfaction his success in fooling the experts.

*Since early man was scarce and not often fossilized, anthropologists often spin theories around meager finds. The giant men of China, for instance, are "known" only through large, humanlike teeth, most of them found in native apothecary shops. Many anthropologists deny that such giants ever existed. Other early humans are heavily documented by multiple finds of their bones. Neanderthal man, discovered in 1857, is as real as the Romans. Java man (1891), Peking man (1928) and many of the types recently found in Africa are too well-proved to be the creations of wishful' theorists or of jokers.