Letters in the Limelight: ‘The Wizard of Sussex’ and the Piltdown Man

Coll.14.9.21.16 Dawson signatureCataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

As a prominent figure in the field of zoology, Ewart’s professional connections frequently interlinked with those involved with disciplines such as archaeology and palaeontology. Ewart was often able to use these connections to benefit his own research into the prehistoric origins of domestic animals. For example, one of his most well-known pieces of research was ‘On the Skulls of Horses from the Roman Fort at Newstead, near Melrose, with Observations on the Origin of Domestic Horses’ (Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 45: 555-587, 1907). But one of his Ewart’s correspondents from the archaeological world proved to be more notorious than the rest…

In September 1915, Ewart received a letter (ref: GB 237 Coll-14/9/21/16) from amateur palaeontologist and antiquarian Charles Dawson (1864-1916) concerning the case of a horse with some unusual horn-like protuberances on its skull. Dawson goes on to say that he will shortly be visiting Ewart in Edinburgh and will bring with him ‘some new pieces of Eoanthropus skull from near Piltdown, in which you might be interested.’ Just how interested Ewart was in these skull fragments we will never know, but Charles Dawson was certain to hold the interest of the scientific world in a firm grasp for some time to come.

Unlike his brothers, Dawson did not attend university but followed his father into the legal profession and became a solicitor. However, he held a lifelong passion for fossil-hunting and archaeology, making some uncannily fortunate finds (a Roman statuette made uniquely of cast iron, the teeth of a previously unknown species of mammal, a unique form of an ancient timber boat). At the age of only 21 he was made a Fellow of the Geological Society. However despite these successes, he complained that he was always ‘waiting for the big ‘find’ which never seems to come along’.

Ever since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, there had been an intense rush to find any ancient remains which would form ‘the missing link’ between apes and humans. Early human remains had been found elsewhere in Europe (including Cro-Magnon man in France), but the British Isles apparently  lacked any evidence. However, this changed when in December 1912 it was announced at a meeting of the Geological Society that skull and jawbone fragments had been discovered by Charles Dawson (later accompanied by palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward), in Pleistocene gravel beds in Piltdown, Sussex, which seemed to suggest an early human with a large brain, ape-like jaw but human teeth. The fragments Dawson refers to in his letter to Ewart were those of a molar tooth and skull pieces which seemed to match those of the Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni or ‘Dawson’s Dawn Man’) which were unearthed at a nearby site in 1915. Dubbed ‘the Wizard of Sussex’, Dawson finally found the public acclaim he craved, although he did not live to gain a knighthood or a prestigious Royal Society Fellowship. However, he also died without seeing his Piltdown discovery exposed as a fraud: this did not happen until 1953.

Improved technology for dating fossils from the 1940s meant that scientists in the Natural History Museum began to examine the Piltdown remains in detail. It was then they made various alarming discoveries: the skull and jaw fragments actually came from two different species, a human and an ape (probably an orang-utan); the teeth had been deliberately filed down to make them look human; and the remains had been artificially stained to match the local gravels.

Several theories have emerged which either inculcate Dawson as the sole perpetrator of the fraud or name various other individuals who could have been involved (including Arthur Conan Doyle). However, the general consensus casts Dawson as the prime or only suspect. But all of this was still to come when Dawson wrote to Ewart back in September 1915 – yet another example of how James Cossar Ewart’s correspondence collection charts its way through an eventful and occasionally turbulent period in scientific discovery.

You can read more about the Piltdown hoax on the Natural History Museum’s site here:

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/the-scientific-process/piltdown-man-hoax/

 

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