Meeting Piltdown

by Lee Weinstein

When I was a child, my father gave me a set of illustrated encyclopedias. One illustration that burned itself into my brain was a photograph of three busts of “cavemen” peering out from under the entry for Man. The Cro-Magnon Man, aside from the pre-hippie-era shoulder length hair, looked like he could have been someone who lived down the street. But the other two, the Neanderthal and the Piltdown, had brutish faces and sinister straight-on stares that made me squirm.

It was in the ninth grade that I discovered Piltdown Man had been a hoax. My teacher told us that a little old man had confessed on his deathbed. There had never been a Piltdown race. I went home and dug out my old encyclopedia volume. A hoax? But there he was staring back at me from the page. The face of someone who never was. The idea intrigued me.

Years later, I discovered that there was no little old man or any deathbed confession. Whodunit is still a matter of debate. But a hoax it was, nonetheless. In 1953, very shortly before my encyclopedia had been published, Joseph Weiner, an Oxford anthropologist, had shocked the scientific world with the revelation that the Piltdown bones were artificially aged fragments of a modern human skull and an orangutan jaw. But Piltdown had already entered into popular culture, from references in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels of the ‘teens and the Peter Piltdown comic strip of the 1930’s to the MacIntosh prototype “PDM” computer of more recent years.

He had entered my imagination as well. There was something about his non-existence that was fascinating. I decided that I wanted to meet him face to face. So I scanned the internet and plumbed the depths of the library stacks.

Like the proverbial roads that lead to Rome, the paths of my research all led to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

In 1922 Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, then president of the museum, opened a major exhibit called “The Hall of the Age of Man”. The busts that had fascinated me had been specially made for the exhibit by Professor J. H. McGregor of Columbia University, a former student of Osborn’s who became a Research Associate in the museum’s Department of Comparative Anatomy.

I made the pilgrimage to New York and met with McGregor’s present day spiritual successor at the museum, Dr. G. J. Sawyer. Sawyer, an anthropologist with a flair for the dramatic who clearly loves his work, showed me how he still employs McGregor’s techniques. An entire skull is extrapolated in clay from assorted fragments of bone. Next, layers of muscle, followed by the other soft tissues, are lovingly modeled over the skull, all to a carefully determined thickness. Ears, nose, and eyeballs are added. What had been a few pieces of a skull now has a human face.

We set out the life-sized plaster busts in a veritable rogue’s gallery. There were Neanderthal, Java Man, Cro-Magnon and Piltdown. I was assured that the Neanderthal bust is as accurate a rendition as any that have ever been done.

And then there was Piltdown. Professor McGregor had no way of knowing that those bones had been deliberately doctored. Confronting Piltdown, and looking into his carved eyes with the hollowed out pupils, I could almost hear him grunt.

To most, he represents a fraud; an embarrassment. But to me, he represents imagination made concrete. He represents a reality where dragons still fly and unicorns graze.

Looking at last at that face in bronze-painted plaster I knew that Dr. McGregor had done his best with the dubious bones he had been given. No, Piltdown Man never existed. But if he had, I know I can rest assured that this is what he would have looked like.

This article first appeared in THE AURELIAN no. 2 in 2005.