Tag Archives: Henry Fairfield Osborn

What Piltdown Taught

[Edited 4 Feb 2017]

Skull reconstructions of the four “early men” of mid-twentieth evolution: Java man, Piltdown man, Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man, as presented in the 1952 edition of Elements of Biology. Elements was the last American biology textbook to picture Piltdown. The “fossil” was revealed as a fraud in 1953 (and neatly X-ed out by an anonymous student sometime after).


UNVEILED CEREMONIOUSLY AT A 1912 MEETING of the Geological Society of London, Piltdown man – a species conjured from a few skull fragments, a jaw bone, a tooth and an odd collection of associated flora and fauna fossils – became the pride of Great Britain. Here was proof that England, like rivals France and Germany, was once home to prehistoric humans. Better yet, in contrast to the ‘brutish’ Neanderthals, England was home to a refined cave man, a more cultured ancestor.

First appearance. From Henry Fairfield Osborn’s Men of the Old Stone Age (1915).

Collected by amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson, and presented by the Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum of Britain, Arthur Smith Woodward, Piltdown man was “the missing link,” a creature whose features matched what many experts expected an early human to look like. He was a worldwide sensation, and as it turned out, a total fake.

Though Piltdown had his early detractors [1], the fake fit prejudices and preconceptions so well that, after a second set of remains were announced a few years after the first, debate regarding authenticity pretty much ceased. However, with no new fragments found after Dawson’s death in 1916, and as counter-evidence began to accumulate, most paleontologists seemed willing to let Piltdown drift as an exception. But there were a few who staked their reputation on Piltdown’s veracity. In the U.S., the influential director of the American Museum of Natural History, Henry Fairfield Osborn, became Piltdown’s chief promoter.

Among his many museum-supported efforts, Osborn directed the development of a wide range of quality visual materials featuring Piltdown, and made these materials easily available to textbook publishers and the popular press. His goal was to freeze in place his own aging theory of human origins. And the success of this strategy is an American tragedy. By flooding the market with compelling visual materials, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, advanced a racialized theory of evolution that would survive Piltdown’s fall from grace in 1953 and taint the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s. Continue reading