He is an unlikely suspect – a Jesuit priest whose joke spiralled into the scientific hoax of the century.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin might have been a man of the cloth and respected philosopher, but a new academic paper implicates him as a co-conspirator in the Piltdown Man hoax, which obscured science’s understanding of evolution for 40 years.
His motive may have been a simple prank.
The paper, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity, also suggests that a letter written by Teilhard de Chardin and deposited in a bank vault might out the culprit or culprits behind the unsolved 100-year-old fraud.
Professor Francis Thackeray, of Wits University’s Institute for Human Evolution, has come to this deduction after studying letters and archives concerning Teilhard de Chardin, a respected palaeoanthropologist.
On December 18, 1912, news broke of the discovery of the remains of a new large-brained human ancestor near Piltdown in Sussex, England. The man behind the discovery was country lawyer-turned-amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson, who had a shady past.
At first Piltdown man was heralded as the missing link between apes and humans.
“The discovery persuaded people that evolution happened in Europe with a big brain and big jaw. This adversely affected South Africa and the acceptance of the Taung child,” explained Thackeray.
It took 40 years before Piltdown Man was discredited and exposed, partly through the work of SA scientist Dr Joe Weiner. Piltdown Man was found to be nothing more than the lower jawbone of an orang-utan, combined with the skull of a human and the filed-down fossilised teeth of a chimp.
From the beginning there were suspects. Teilhard de Chardin was closely associated with the discovery: he was a friend of Dawson and found one of the artefacts.
“Teilhard de Chardin discovered the canines in an area at Piltdown that had been searched earlier,” said Thackeray. The priest could even have committed the hoax with his religious order’s blessing. “He was known for his humour,” said Thackeray, “and Jesuits are permitted to lie for a joke.”
Thackeray implicates others in the joke, including Dawson and Martin Hinton, an assistant at the British Museum. Hinton had access to orang-utan jaws and human skulls. A box discovered in the attic of the museum had Hinton’s initials on the lid, and inside were bones purposely stained like those found at Piltdown.
Thackeray says evidence for Teilhard de Chardin’s joke comes from clues in letters he wrote. “In January 1913 he wrote that ‘palaeontology deserved to be suspect and deserved to be subject of jokes’, in which he might have been referring to the Piltdown hoax,” said Thackeray.
Not everyone supports Thackeray’s theory. Dr Miles Russell, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in England, wrote a book about Piltdown Man. “If you look at the evidence, Dawson duped Teilhard de Chardin. Dawson’s entire career was that of a fraudster, and he used people and experts to give a degree of authenticity,” said Russell, who analysed Dawson’s antiquities collection and discovered at least 38 fakes.
He lets Hinton off the hook as well, saying he might have been experimenting with the stained bones to ascertain how the forgeries were made.
But there might be a smoking gun to the mystery.
A document Thackeray discovered in the Natural History Museum in London suggests Teilhard de Chardin wrote a letter about Piltdown, then placed it in a bank with instructions that it be opened only when all those associated with the discovery were dead. Thackeray has looked for the letter but has yet to find it. The quest might lead to an unlikely spot to solve an evolutionary hoax – the Vatican, where the priest’s personal documents may lie.