Agatha and the Piltdown Man


July 14, 2013 by kittynh

I have always enjoy the story of Piltdown Man.  The skull that fooled science, a British missing link in evolution.

Piltdown Man, evolutionary link in your own back yard!

Piltdown Man, evolutionary link in your own back yard!

Some accounts claim it was a horrible mish mash of a fake skull, that only fooled a few people and would never have been such a successful fake if not for World War II.  Others, also claim it was a horrible mish mash, that fooled the best scientists of the time. Science is not perfect, and if nothing else Piltdown Man is proof that mistakes happen.  While I love how scientists always say “Science is self correcting” they forget that at any time science has a few things that are currently in need of correction.

I learned while my daughter was at MIT, science and scientists aren’t perfect. As with skepticism, those that think they can’t be fooled are the most in danger of being fooled.

I was reading a recent book about Agatha Christie, the great

Agatha used a long board named "FRED" when she surfed in Hawaii

Agatha used a long board named “FRED” when she surfed in Hawaii

detective writer.  I learned that she was a big fan of surfing, and became rather good at it on a primitive long board while vacationing in Hawaii.

I also read an account of Piltdown Man that was from the time science still have faith in the skull.

This is from one of Christie’s letters back home to her family from a visit to South Africa as accounted in the new book, “The Grand Tour, Around the World with the Queen of Mystery”.

She is speaking about a tour of a museum in Cape Town given by the head of the museum. (pg.70)

“He then gave us a very interesting lecture on all the early skulls of which they had models, from the Pithecanthropus downwards.  A champanzee’s skull is beside it to show that the Java man was not a man, but a walking ape.  Then the Piltdown, with a man’s brain, but very pronounced ape teeth, and the Heidelberg jaw, very ape like, but with quite modern human teeth, the Neanderthal people, with their enormous queer shaped heads, but still with straight jaws and quite unable to articulate speech, and the negro tyep which shows that Africa, as well as Europe, passed throug the Neanderthal phase of evolution, and a lot about the African skull, and how stupid the people who dug it up were, and lost a bit of the eye socket which was the most important and prevents them from reconstructing it properly.

At the end you come to various types of ‘bushmen’ African and Australian.  There is one African type that is very interesting to me, because it is so extraordinarily different from all the rest, long from the back to the front and flat on top, just like the Neanderthal type – and so on down to the modern European, and in the end one realises that there is really very little difference in the head, but an enormous difference in the jaw and jaw angle.  It was altogether one of the best afternoons I have ever spent!”

Scientific study of skulls in Paris.

Scientific study of skulls in Paris.

It was interesting to read this account from 1922, and to compare it to what modern science would teach and show about evolution.  The Piltdown was rather a delight for me to read about, as it was made from the lower jaw of an orangutan and a modern human.  Christie noted the Piltdown had the “brain of a human” but “very pronounced ape teeth”.  She had almost solved the mystery of just what the Piltdown skull was, a little bit human and a little bit ape, she just didn’t know it!

One thought on “Agatha and the Piltdown Man

  1. […] (I am a fan of Agatha Christie) has a problem with her first name.  While Agatha is perhaps uncommon today, it appears those that […]

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