Quote: George Grant MacCurdy on Piltdown

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I was doing some reading about Piltdown for a project, and ran across a 1916 article by George Grant MacCurdy in Science reviewing diverse opinions about the find. It is a common misconception that anthropologists were all taken in by the hoax. In reality, after Arthur Smith Woodward reconstructed the Piltdown cranial and mandibular fragments as the single skull of new species, “Eoanthropus dawsoni”, many prominent scientists objected that these parts did not go together. MacCurdy was secretary of the American Anthropological Association and a former vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his article reviews a number of the scientific objections to Piltdown.

He concludes:

Regarding the Piltdown specimens then, we have at last reached a position that is tenable. The cranium is human as was recognized by all from the beginning. On the other hand, the mandible and the canine tooth are those of a fossil chimpanzee. This means that in place of Eoanthropus dawsoni we have two individuals belonging to different genera, namely: (1) Homo dawsoni, and (2) Troglodytes dawsoni as suggested by Boule, or Pan vetus, sp. nov., if we adopt Miller's nomenclature.
Such a revision does not by any means minimize the importance of the Piltdown discovery. On the other hand it contributes to our knowledge of the fossil fauna of the period in question by the addition of the chimpanzee to the list. As for the Man of Piltdown, he still exists and is quite as ancient as he was before the revision, which is saying a good deal; even if he is robbed of a muzzle that ill became him. The only thing missing is Eoanthropus and since he was never there anyway, the loss is small; besides we can well afford to continue our search and live in the hope that he may be caught next time.

What he did not imagine—and indeed, what almost no one imagined—was that the remains could have been deliberately planted. And so, even those who strongly argued that the skull and mandibular fragments did not go together still often accepted the geological setting, with the human and ape fragments found among an extinct fauna of extreme antiquity. The cranial fragments belonged to a modern human, by far the earliest such evidence if the geological age had been correct. As MacCurdy illustrates, even those who accepted the arguments of skeptics about the mandible still often believed that the skull was highly significant as evidence of modern human ancestry.


MacCurdy, G. G. 1916. The revision of Eoanthropus dawsoni. Science 43: 228--231.