by Mark Midbon
Arizona State University
The recently announced discovery of a trunk containing fake fossils at the British Museum is an important event in two different dramas. The first drama is the whodunit about who committed the Piltdown Man fraud. The second drama is a war story over who owns the world's geological and archaeological treasures.
The war story will keep on raging despite this discovery, but the whodunit is now solved. Martin A. C. Hinton, a curator of zoology at the British Museum, was the culprit behind the Piltdown Man fraud. He experimented carefully to derive a chemical stain that would make bones only hundreds of years old seem hundreds of thousands of years old. Then he used this stain on the skull of a human and the jaw of an orangutan containing two teeth. He planted these fake fossils in a gravel pit at Piltdown, where an amateur geologist named Charles Dawson discovered them. (Teilhard, not yet formally trained in paleontology, was at that time only a student at the French Jesuit theological school-in-exile at nearby Hastings, in Sussex, and, on a walk one day, had happened upon and had become friendly with Dawson, never suspecting until much later that someone had "planted" the "find"!)
Hinton's colleagues at the British Museum accepted Piltdown Man as genuine and proclaimed it an important find. Other scientists were less impressed. Some immediately saw Piltdown Man as a fraud. When later testing proved that it was a fraud, the British Museum decided that Dawson, who had died in 1916, was solely responsible and that all of their personnel had been innocently fooled.
Much later, after Hinton died, glass tubes with stained teeth turned up among his personal property. The discovery of more stained bones in his trunk at the British Museum has given a clear picture of how he carried out the hoax. [Henry Gee. "Box of bones 'clinches' identity of Piltdown palaeontology hoaxer," Nature 381 (23 May 1996), pp. 261-262.]
But this discovery has importance beyond solving a case of scientific fraud. An accusation of involvement in this case has been used as a weapon in the war between the great museums and the countries where they dig.
The war began in Tientsin on the coast of China, southeast of Peking. In March of 1929 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin returned there for his third tour of duty. A Jesuit college in Tientsin was his base of operations, and the Paris Museum of Natural History funded him and expected to receive all important finds.
Teilhard, however, had developed respect for his Asian colleagues. He believed that unique and valuable specimens should stay in China and be studied there. He kept filing reports to the Paris Museum but sent fewer specimens.
Marcellin Boule of the museum reacted by cutting off his funding. Teilhard -- disappointed but not defeated -- said, "I will never put the museum before the general interests of human research." [C. M. H. Simon. Faith Has Need of All the Truth. New York: Dutton, 1974, p. 87.]
The Chinese Geological Survey offered him a job with their team digging in Choukoutien, forty miles southwest of Peking. These scientists were Chinese, American, Canadian and Swedish. Teilhard found a place to live at a Lazarist monastery that was conveniently close to the team's laboratories at the Peking Union Medical College.
In December of that very year of 1929, the team found an important fossil of what came to be known as Homo erectus pekinensis, or "Peking Man." During the following years they found many related bones. These belonged to a group of pre-humans living in the caves over Choukoutien 400,000 years ago. In just a few years Teilhard went from unemployment to worldwide fame.
But in 1941 two American members of the team lost the bones during an attempt to move them to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. Their reason for this move was to keep the fossils safe from the invading Japanese. They did not tell Father Teilhard or the other members of the Chinese Geological Survey what they were doing. Their reason for this secrecy was to give plausible deniability to those staying behind in China in case they were questioned by the Japanese.
The attempt to move these fossils to New York may have been motivated by good intentions. But the Japanese suddenly attacked American and British targets while the fossils were in transit, and the bones were lost in the chaos of an erupting world war. Teilhard did not hold the AMNH responsible for the loss. But ten years later the Chinese charged that the bones had actually reached the AMNH and were being hidden there. [Harry L. Shapiro. Peking Man. London: Book Club Associates, 1976, pp. 19-26.]
Thus the museum has reason to feel defensive when Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is mentioned. And scientists began mentioning his name frequently when the United Nations sponsored "Science and Synthesis: An International Colloquium Organized by UNESCO on the Tenth Anniversary of the Deaths of Albert Einstein and Teilhard de Chardin," Paris, 1965. So perhaps it was inevitable that some spokesman for the AMNH would attack Teilhard's reputation.
Staff at the British Museum discovered Martin A. C. Hinton's trunk in the mid-1970s. Now the identity of the Piltdown culprit and the sophistication of his methods were known. But the British Museum moved very slowly and carefully, keeping the information about the trunk within a small but growing circle of people.
A few years later, in August 1980, the AMNH began its attack on Teilhard. The medium of the attack was the viewpoint column that appears in every issue of "Natural History: The Monthly Magazine of the American Museum of Natural History." This column is written by Stephen Jay Gould, who coincidentally is a zoologist, as was Martin A. C. Hinton.
Gould rightly pointed out that the Piltdown Man fraud required more scientific knowledge than amateur geologist Charles Dawson possessed. But Gould presented Teilhards visits to the Piltdown site as being earlier and more frequent than was really the case. Gould also referred to two letters by Teilhard, claiming they showed Teilhard as knowing about a Piltdown skull fragment in 1913, before it was presented to the world in 1915. Gould concluded that Teilhard had committed the Piltdown fraud.
The United Nations mounted a counterattack. First they sent Mary Lukas to the British Museum to look into Gould's claims. Then they organized another colloquium. But this one was devoted entirely to Teilhard. And, unlike all their previous colloquia, they held it in New York, their headquarters and that of their enemy.
Scholars from eleven countries presented papers at "Humanity's Quest for Unity, a United Nations Teilhard Colloquium." And the first paper presented at the first plenary session was a refutation of Gould's charges by Mary Lukas.
Lukas first corrected Gould's mistakes regarding Teilhards presence in the Piltdown area before 1913. Then, concerning Gould's charge that Teilhard knew of a Piltdown bone in 1913 before it was made public in 1915, she offered a ready answer. Gould was confusing two bones, one of which was actually made public in 1913.
In her ten-page report Lukas did a thorough job of refuting Gould's charges against Teilhard. But her one weakness was that she did not know the real culprit. The trunk of evidence belonging to the late Martin A. C. Hinton was still a secret back in London.
However, as a result of the AMNH's attack on Teilhard in the early 1980s and the United Nation's defense of him in 1985, a new generation took an interest in Piltdown Man. These scholars accepted Stephen Jay Gould's argument that someone with deep scientific knowledge was behind the fraud. But they also accepted Mary Lukas' argument that this someone was not Teilhard. The result has been embarrassment for the British Museum.
There is a debate now raging over whether the British Museum should return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. A recent poll shows the British public supporting this act of justice. Stephen Jay Gould argues against any such return. Ironically, by aiming at Teilhard and instead muddying the reputation of the British Museum, Gould may have helped persuade the British public to take a position that he opposes. Even after his death, the spirit of Teilhard is furthering humanity's quest for unity.
Mark Midbon is now on the staff of the University of Wisconsin. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org