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Walsh brings well-honed historical skills to this narrative of the famous Piltdown mystery. Found in a gravel pit in 1912, the skullcap and jaw turned paleoanthropology into a ferocious battleground for many years. Reputations were won and lost over interpreting the artefacts in the ensuing years. Walsh carefully outlines the personalities and the sequence of events leading to the finds. He describes how reluctantly many scholars accepted the original interpretations, until a "second Piltdown" overcame their misgivings.
Walsh's chapter "Challenging the Skull" is an excellent summation of the level of knowledge available at the time. The key issue was the "ape-like" jaw adorned with a significant canine tooth, also found at the site. Several scholars argued that such a tooth precluded the evidence of human chewing wear seen on the jaw's molars. The second "find" swept away these contentions, although the chewing mechanism was never worked out. Arthur Smith Woodward gave Piltdown the appellation Eoanthropus dawsonii honouring the finder of the skull. It became the centre of British anthropological ideas for many years.
In 1953, however, fresh doubts arose concerning Piltdown. Walsh leaps the intervening years abruptly to introduce Joseph Weiner. Weiner, disturbed by the lack of supportive data and the results of new dating technology began to delve more deeply into establishing whether the jaw and skull were truly from one individual. Close inspection revealed the tooth "wear" was the result of filing, not chewing! After four decades, Piltdown was exposed as a fraud.
Walsh examines the cases against the primary figures involved in the find and the campaign to establish its primacy in the anthropological scene. Charles Dawson, the original finder is first exonerated as being "too honest" for such an act. Weiner, who originally investigated Dawson, couldn't obtain more than circumstantial evidence. Walsh continues by recounting the several provoking assessments of other participants. He finds the most compelling Stephen J. Gould's implication that the French priest, Teilhard de Chardin was the perpetrator. Of all Gould's assaults on various scientific figures over the years, this one has always seemed the least plausible. Walsh also finds it unconvincing, criticizing the use of evidence or its lack. He critiques other accusations in the same way. Yet, when he finally settles back on Dawson, his own case is built on surmise and supposition. He is unable to actually demonstrate Dawson perpetrated the fraud. Walsh's case is built on past events and some shady dealings on Dawson's part. Of Piltdown, however, Walsh offers no solid evidence. The most significant aspect of his case is his failure to provide motivation. He builds a flimsy foundation of sibling rivalry, plausible, but unsubstantiated.
The glaring omission in this book is Walsh's failure to place Piltdown in its anthropological context. While the deception circumstances and his survey of those accused of it make compelling reading, the real mystery is why such figures as Woodward and Keith clung to Piltdown's morphology in the face of contradictory evidence. The real challenge to Piltdown came from South Africa with Raymond Dart's find of the Taung Child in 1924. Taung's discovery refuted Piltdown's large brain capacity and the belief that modern humans evolved in Asia or Europe. Woodward fought this analysis for years, vigorously defending his "Earliest Englishman" against the African challenge. Woodward's ideal early man must be British. While Walsh's "detective story" makes compelling reading, his failure to provide in-depth motivation for anyone involved, even Dawson, still leaves too many questions unanswered. Given the number of tarnished reputations the affair produced, this is an unfortunate lapse. While Walsh has built a strong case, the jury remains unconvinced. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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VINE VOICEon 11 May 2011
This is a very detailed examination of all the suspects in the infamous Piltdown palaeolithic skull forgery of 1912. In the end, the author concludes, surely rightly, that Charles Dawson committed the fraud, having already carried out numerous smaller frauds in other fields, such as the "discovery" of a Roman iron statuette, an ancient boat and even an alleged sighting of a sea serpent in the English Channel. It is amazing that others such as even Arthur Conan Doyle are suspected by some of being the Piltdown forger, on the basis of supposed similarities between incidents and descriptions in The Lost World novel and aspects of the Piltdown affair. There is, as ever among conspiracy theorists, a tendency to build castles of speculation on feeble threads of coincidence and lacunae in people's lives. A good read and a sober reminder of how honest and intelligent people can be fooled by a plausible rogue.
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