Quote: Arthur Keith on Weidenreich and Piltdown

In 1944, after receiving Franz Weidenreich’s monograph on the fossil sample from Choukoutien, China (now spelled as Zhoukoudian), Arthur Keith wrote a letter to the editor of Nature to express his thoughts on Weidenreich’s ideas: “Evolution of modern man (Homo sapiens).

Keith, who held many sensible views even earlier in his career, really softened toward the light of facts in the later 1930s and 1940s, and wrote several notes and letters complimenting the ideas of scientists whom he had criticized in his earlier work. Dart is probably the most famous example, but Weidenreich comes in for praise in this Nature correspondence.

Still, there is the bone of contention:

I have mentioned that as, regards the origin of modern races of mankind, Dr. Weidenreich and I have reached a large measure of agreement, all save in the case of that most ancient of Englishmen, Piltdown man (Eoanthropus). Dr. Weidenreich is of the belief that all surviving races of mankind have passed through a "Neanderthaloid" stage in their evolution, a stage which was apparently omitted in the case of Piltdown man. He is therefore removed by Dr. Weidenreich from the list of authentic fossil men, his skull being assigned to a modern type of man, while his lower jaw is given to a fossil anthropoid akin to the orang. Virchow solved the mixed simian characters of Pithecanthropus in a similar way, assigning the skull to an ape and the femur to a man. In England we find it hard to believe that there lived in the Weald of Sussex, in earliest pleistocene times, a modern type of man and a rather human-like ape, and that by some strange chance the bones of these two became mingled in the Piltdown gravel bed. Not only was the Piltdown race alive in England when the rest of Europe seems to have been occupied by human stock of the Neanderthal breed, but also this ancient race appears to have come down to mid-pleistocene times; at least it is on such a supposition we can best explain the characters of the Swanscombe and London fossil skulls.

People often wonder why Piltdown comes up so much today, when it has been known to be fake for seventy years—much longer in fact than it was thought to be real. One reason is that it carried such weight at the time when it was accepted, and really stymied the development of ideas in paleoanthropology at a time when evolution was undergoing a synthesis. Its proponents (at first) and defenders (in later years) saw the fossil as objective evidence for unstated or unconscious assumptions about the advancement of European, and specifically English, peoples in prehistoric times.