Pseudoarchaeology Research Archive (PARA)
Cite as: Boaks, Amelia. 2008. Why Piltdown and not the Davenport Tablets? PARA Research Paper A-11. http://pseudoarchaeology.org/a11-boaks.html
Why Piltdown and Not the Davenport Tablets?
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The Piltdown Fraud, which occurred in 20th century England, has been hailed as the most famous forgery in the history of archaeology. However, it was not the only significant one. Another archaeological forgery was the Davenport Tablets and Elephant Pipes discovered in Iowa during the 1800s. While many scholars stress that the Piltdown Fraud was primarily successful due to the skill of the hoaxer, a comparison of the circumstances surrounding the Davenport Tablets and Piltdown forgeries reveals that cultural bias and those individuals who believed in the authenticity of these forgeries had a much stronger influence on their continuation than previously thought. In light of this, this paper will proceed in two parts. The first part will provide the history of each forgery while the second part will compare the circumstances surrounding the Davenport hoax to those of the Piltdown forgery in order to analyze how the skill of the hoaxer(s), the cultural biases and key figures in each situation determine the length of each forgery’s acceptance in the field of archaeology.
Part One - Historical Background
The Davenport Tablets
In 1877, Reverend Jacob Gass, an amateur archaeologist working for the Davenport Academy, America’s foremost amateur antiquarian society at the time -discovered four inscribed tablets – later named the Davenport Tablets – and, two tobacco ‘elephant’ pipes within a “Moundbuilders” mound in Iowa. Initially, they were thought to be relics of the ancient Moundbuilders, a ‘lost white race’ of Natives once thought to have built the large mounds that, today, dot the landscape of the Great Lakes region and Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys in the United States. Shortly after their discovery, the Tablets- and later the Pipes- were shipped off to the Bureau of Ethnology to be studied and authenticated (McKusick, 1970: 16). After eight years of studying the Tablets at the Bureau of Ethnology, Cyrus Thomas published an article in Science denoting these artifacts as being frauds due to the uncharacteristic deposition circumstances as well as the dubious Hebrew/Hittite-looking characters inscribed on them (Thomas 1886). Thomas noted that many of the figures inscribed on the tablets can be found on page 1766 of the 1872 edition of Webster’s dictionary (Thomas, 1886: 10). Charles Putnam, the president and lawyer of the Davenport Academy, was outraged and published a response in which he insisted that no one in the Academy doubted the good faith of the discoverers nor the genuineness of the artifacts themselves (Putnam, 1886: 120). Despite Putnam’s tireless defense, after 1886 the Tablets were generally accepted as frauds – at least on the national scale. Locally, their authenticity was upheld until 1930 (McKusick, 1970: 76).
In 1908, Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist, was walking down a country road in Sussex when he noticed some unusual brown flints at the side of the road. He enlisted some workmen to help him excavate the area and by 1911, he had found two pieces of an unusually thick skull. He then informed Arthur Smith Woodward, the eminent paleontologist of the British Natural History Museum, of these findings and from that point onward, they collaborated in excavating the Piltdown site. In 1912, they discovered more parts of the skull as well as the right half of an ape-like mandible. They believed that the ape-like mandible and human-like cranium were from the same individual and represented the earliest species of modern man in Europe, Eoanthropus dawsoni. In February of 1912, they presented their findings to the world (Straus, 1954: 266). The media eagerly scooped up the story and scientists, by and large, believed the news as well. Further excavations at the Piltdown site revealed 40 other specimens, of which a canine tooth, the remains of a second Piltdown specimen and a cricket bat carved out of an elephant femur became the most widely studied (Boldest Hoax, 2005). Dawson died in 1916, after which specimens stopped appearing at the Piltdown site (Straus, 1954: 266).
After Piltdown’s discovery, many published their opinions concerning the incompatibility of the mandible and the skull – e.g. Gerrit Miller, an American scholar, thought that the mandible was from a chimp. Inspired by Gerrit Miller’s work, William King Gregory wrote an article in 1914 in which he stated his belief that the missing third molar would have been too large for a human mouth. He later wrote a second article supporting Miller’s interpretation in which he argued “in favour of a ‘generic identity’ between the Piltdown jaw and teeth and those of a chimpanzee (Blinderman, 1986: 45) Regarding individual specimens such as the canine tooth, Courtney Lyne believed that it was from a young ape and not the Piltdown mandible (Blinderman, 1986: 41). However, these scholars’ opinions were disregarded at the time, and “[a]part from these few exceptions and some suspicions and rumours, no documentation has come to light that anyone knew or suspected that a deliberate forgery had been perpetrated." (Tobias, 1992: 247).
Piltdown was accepted until approximately 1950 when J.S. Weiner decided to re-do Kenneth Oakley’s 1949 fluorine tests on the Piltdown specimens. The test’s results revealed to Weiner that the skull fragments had a higher fluorine content than the mandible; indicating that the skull fragments belonged to an individual who lived and died well before the individual to whom the mandible belonged. They were therefore quite clearly frauds.. Weiner later realized that all 40 specimens found at Piltdown were fraudulent as well. In 1953, J.S.Weiner, Kenneth Oakley and W.E. Le Gros Clark published their findings and thereby exposed the Piltdown Fraud. (Blinderman, 1986: 65-68).
Exposure gave way to further analysis of the Piltdown specimens. Weiner, Oakley and Le Gros Clark discovered that while the skull was fossilized, the mandible was still bone (Blinderman, 1986: 69), which, in addition to the fluorine test results, indicates that the mandible was much younger than the skull fragments. Additionally, the mandible and the skull fragments had been stained with chemicals. The canine was from a young individual, which is shown by the fact that there was a large pulp cavity down to which the forger had filed and then filled in with sand and a gummy material (Blinderman, 1986: 74-75). Finally, if one looked closely at the molars in the mandible, one could visibly see the file marks on the teeth (Tobias, 1992: 246). In fact, Le Gros Clark stated, “[t]he evidences of artificial abrasion immediately sprang to the eye. Indeed so obvious did they seem it may well be asked-how was it that they escaped notice before.” (Gould, 1979: 3).
Part Two – Why Piltdown?
Given that both discoveries were quite visibly frauds, one may begin to wonder how the Piltdown forgery managed to be accepted amongst scholars for forty-one years while the Davenport Tablets were rejected within eleven years of their discovery. The circumstances surrounding The Davenport Tablets and the Piltdown Fraud can be broken down into the following three analytical factors: the skill of the hoaxer, cultural bias and the key individuals who promoted the authenticity of these forgeries. Each of these factors played a significant role in the course of each forgery’s discovery. However, the question remains as to which ones were more influential.
The Skill of the Hoaxers
The skill of the individuals who created the Davenport and Piltdown forgeries can be assessed by looking at the circumstances surrounding the discovery and survival of these forgeries, such as how visibly fraudulent they were as well as any small idiosyncratic features of the process used to discover their duplicitous nature.
Within the context of the Davenport Tablets, Marshall McKusick (1970) does not evaluate the skill required of those who perpetrated the hoax. However, the fact that experts at the Smithsonian Institute relatively quickly rejected the Davenport Tablets during their storage and study there from 1877 to 1885 would seem to indicate that the artifacts and therefore the hoax itself were not skillfully produced or carried out. It should be noted that the quick rejection of the Davenport Tablets may have, in part, been due to the experts’ growing skepticism of the Moundbuilders myth by the late 1800s. However, one could also argue that had the artifacts been more convincing, the experts may have hesitated in their judgement of the Davenport Tablets’ authenticity.
On the other hand, in the case of the Piltdown fraud, Blinderman presents its long-term success as being primarily perpetuated by the skill of the hoaxer. He, as well as Ronald Miller, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard de Mille, and Gertrude Himmelfarb believe that the skill required to pull off this hoax would have included an excellent knowledge of stratigraphy, zoology and a keen knowledge of the parts of the mandible that would diagnostically indicate that they did belong to the skull – i.e. the articulation area of the ascending ramus and the chin.
In addition to his belief in the skill required of the hoaxers, Blinderman states that,
“ a good deal of luck attended the rise of Piltdown Man – a geological survey of the Piltdown area had come up with a mistaken Pleistocene age; Sam Woodward had analyzed the cranial fragments for organic content, finding none; but he had failed to analyze the jaw bone. X-rays had been taken of the molar roots, but at the wrong angle. That investigators had limited or no access to the real fossils [at the Natural History Museum] meant that they would miss gross points, such as the disharmony in weight between the skull… and the mandible” or the visible file marks on the molars and canine (Blinderman, 1986: 38).
He therefore believes that luck also played an important role in the continuation of the Piltdown forgery.
Although it is obvious that skill does play an important role in the course of a forgery’s discovery, Blinderman indicates that second to the influence of skill, the European cultural biases of racism, the assumption of ‘brain primacy’ in leading evolution and the support of important scholars may have also influenced Piltdown’s long-term acceptance (Blinderman, 1986: 38). Cultural bias, in this context, refers to the various underlying culturally accepted notions or political and/or philosophical climates that would have blinded scholars while interpreting the specimens that they discovered or were presented with; be they Davenport Tablets, Elephant Pipes or Piltdown Man. In fact, cultural bias was not as secondary as Blinderman suggests to the acceptance and perpetuation of these frauds.
With respect to the Davenport Tablets, and within the philosophical and political climates up until the late 1880s, the Moundbuilder myth was a widely accepted theory, at least at the local level amongst local amateur organizations. “Moundbuilders” were thought to be a lost European race, unrelated to the historic Native tribes of North America at the time of European discovery (Silverberg 1968; Pinsky 2007; Saunders-Hastings 2007). It was also believed that the Moundbuilders were superior in culture and intelligence to the historic Native American tribes. By the mid-1800s, however, professional American organizations were beginning to lobby to credit the Native Americans with having built the mounds in which the Davenport specimens were found; not the Moundbuilders. This did not sit well with many local amateur archaeologists. Therefore, when Gass discovered the Tablets and Pipes, they were locally interpreted as being proof of the Moundbuilder myth (McKusick, 1970: 5). In fact, Putnam was so blinded by his intent to prove the Moundbuilder myth that he refused to conduct investigations into the validity of the artifacts and he removed any dissenters from within the Academy – e.g. A.S. Tiffany and C.T. Lindley in 1886 (McKusick, 1970: 44+55). Additionally, while many citizens of the Davenport area had little interest in archaeology – indeed there would only be a few members present at any archaeological talk at the Academy, let alone citizens of the community – and therefore little opportunity to refute the validity of the Davenport Tablets, Putnam insisted on suing any individuals outside the Academy such as Cyrus Thomas or Henry Henshaw, who attempted to defame the Davenport artifacts (McKusick, 1970: 70-71). However, eventually the Bureau of Ethnology managed to prove that the Davenport specimens were frauds and Putnam lost his case.
In conclusion, the fact that the Tablets and Pipes were almost immediately rejected by the Bureau of Ethnology suggests that the political and philosophical climates in which they were discovered were unfavourable and therefore would not have aided their overall acceptance. That is to say, by the late 1800s, experts were unusually skeptical – rather than generally accepting - of outward claims of proof of the Moundbuilder theory.
As for the Piltdown Fraud, Stephen Jay Gould discusses the strong, but largely unconscious, influence that cultural biases can have on an individual’s interpretation of data. In the case of Piltdown Man, the underlying cultural bias was the assumption of “brain primacy” in human evolution – i.e. the idea that “we [humans] rule today by virtue of our intelligence” (Gould, 1979: 5). According to Blinderman, the ready acceptance of Piltdown can be partially attributed to the philosophical climate regarding the then perceived course of human evolution. In September 1912, Elliot Smith expressed a new and quickly accepted theory when he posited that there was a
“’steady and uniform development of the brain along a well-defined course throughout the primates right up to man.’ The brain came first, developing toward humanness before the hands did, before the advent of upright posture, before speech. Thus, if a very early hominid should be found, it would have a brain halfway between a pithecanthropine’s and a modern human being’s. It would also be apelike.” (Blinderman, 1986: 36)
Piltdown Man was also discovered in a political climate that favoured its acceptance. Throughout the 1800s, France, Spain and Germany were all hailing specimens of early man while England, much to its embarrassment, had none. The build-up to World War I made the rivalry between England and Germany more severe. Britain was anxious to prove that it, not Germany, was the birthplace of the human race (Boldest Hoax, 2005).
Thus, Piltdown Man’s ready acceptance can easily be attributed to the fact that it neatly matched many scholars’ anticipated results.
Finally, Gould notes that Piltdown’s acceptance would have also been aided by the fact that it reinforced the racial views of cultural and biological superiority held amongst white Europeans. In the 30s and 40s after the discovery of Peking Man, new phyletic trees based on the Piltdown Man were created. Here,
“Peking man, with a brain two-thirds modern size, while Piltdown man, with its full developed brain, inhabited England. If Piltdown, as the earliest Englishman, was the progenitor of white races, while other hues must trace their ancestry to Homo erectus, then white crossed the threshold to full humanity long before other regions of people. As longer residents in this exalted state, whites must excel in the arts of civilization”. (Gould, 1979: 5)
Thus, the stage was set for Piltdown’s grand entrance and acceptance into archaeological history.
In conclusion, both the Davenport and Piltdown frauds reveal the negative effects that cultural biases can have when scholars, or in the case of the Davenport Academy, amateurs are presented with new data to interpret. As John Evangelist Walsh notes, “it’s always easier to be fooled when you want to be fooled” (Walsh, 1997: 136). The danger to these initial biases lies in the fact that as with the Davenport and Piltdown examples, scholars, amateurs, the public, the media etc. did not question their initial assumptions before they latched onto the notion that these specimens were authentic. And they were so convinced of their authenticity that they did not think to investigate what were visibly frauds until newer overriding ideas came to the fore and made them change their primary assumptions. In the case of the Davenport Tablets, it took eleven years for their authenticity to be disproved; for Piltdown, forty-one. How long it takes for people to begin to question the validity of these specimens rests on how long their initial assumptions are considered to be valid.
It is for this reason that cultural biases are more influential in the course of a forgery’s discovery than the skill on the part of the hoaxer. However, one takes note of the cultural biases inherent to that society only after the fact, and often after the biases have changed and are therefore more easily identified. In other words, the hoaxer is not necessarily aware of the biases that shape his/her culture, nor is the scientist who is accepting the provided data. It is an unconscious connection. This is no doubt the reason that cultural biases have not generally been classified as having a significant influence on the events that lead to the discovery of a forgery. What Davenport and Piltdown demonstrate is that cultural biases do have a substantial effect on whether a forgery or new idea is generally accepted at all, and for how long.
The Key Individuals
The third influential factor behind a hoax’s continued support can be found in the role that key individuals play in encouraging the public acceptance of the hoax. Key individuals can be those who may have been involved in carrying out a forgery as well as those who support them.
In the case of the Davenport Tablets, there are three key individuals and institutions whose actions shaped the course of the forgery’s rejection: Jacob Gass, the Bureau of Ethnology, and Charles Putnam. The Reverend Jacob Gass was known amongst his peers for being a zealot when it came to excavating the Moundbuilders' mounds. But he also was known to be an honest man. Therefore, when he found the Tablets and the Pipes, they, and he, were initially thought to be genuine. And even when they were no longer considered authentic, it did not reflect on his reputation – i.e. his previous discoveries, while rarely mentioned today, were not questioned in their authenticity (McKusick, 1970: 97). The second key player in the Davenport Fraud was The Bureau of Ethnology, which did not believe that these artifacts were authentic. Over the course of their eight-year analysis of the Davenport Tablets, both Henry Henshaw and Cyrus Thomas were skeptical of the validity of these specimens, though they did not publish their opinion until the mid-1880s – for reasons that Marshall McKusick fails to elaborate. Henshaw, in particular, was suspicious of the fact that one man found both unique ‘elephant’ pipes, especially when other mound explorers in the same area had found none. (McKusick, 1970: 27-28). Putnam, on the other hand, threatened libel/slander suits against any individual who defamed the character of Gass or his artifacts. He, over Gass, was the one promoting the validity of the Davenport specimens. When the Bureau published its findings concerning the authenticity of the Davenport artifacts, Putnam began to suspect that there was a plot at the Smithsonian Institution to discredit the Academy itself. He believed that J.W. Powell, the director of the Bureau, was determined to prove that the Moundbuilders were Indians, rather than a lost European race, by destroying the credibility of all those who did not support his theory (McKusick, 1970: 29).
Ultimately, the debate over the authenticity of the Davenport Tablets as well as the validity of the Moundbuilder myth can be reduced to the government vs. the amateurs; or in other words, the strong vs. the weak. This time in American archaeology was an era of pre-professionalism. Full-time research specialists were rare and the majority of them worked for the government. However, those who did work for the government, understandably would have been the more eminent and more authoritative scholars and would have been much harder to question. Meanwhile in the late 1800s, local research organizations and their untrained scholars/members were becoming obsolete. In light of this, it is not surprising that Putnam’s ideas, like his organization, were discounted while the government’s point of view won the debate.
Similarly, with Piltdown, there were five key individuals and institutions that helped perpetuate the Piltdown Fraud for so many years. The first key individual was Charles Dawson, who, while not particularly respected in Sussex, where he was thought to be a cheat and a swindler, did have a good reputation with other scholars in London. Given that he had such a report with other British scholars, no one questioned his authority or the authenticity of his work until after the fraud was discovered. Sir Arthur Smith Woodward was the second key player in the fraud. As Woodward, who represented the Museum’s position regarding the Piltdown findings, was a pre-eminent scholar and director of the paleontology department within the British Natural History Museum, it was hard for other individual scholars to question him. Additionally, “at the very top of the hierarchy of British science stood two people whose authoritative support of Piltdown Man’s authenticity helped to legitimize the fake: Arthur Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith.” (Blinderman, 1986: 34). Keith reconstructed the Piltdown skull, which revealed just how close to the modern cranial capacity the Piltdown skull was (Blinderman, 1986: 35). As noted above, Smith’s theory on the evolution of man was that the brain developed before all other human features such as bipedalism or speech (Blinderman, 1986: 36). Since Keith and Smith supported the authenticity of Piltdown, so did many others because of their positions within prominent scientific institutions.
Piltdown’s perpetuation was also aided by the fact that the British Natural History Museum – a huge establishment for the study of archaeology and related sciences - did not allow anyone to handle the original specimens.
“Piltdown’s keepers severely restricted access to the original bones. Researchers were often permitted to look but not touch; only the set of plaster casts could be handled. Everyone praised the casts for their accuracy of proportion and detail, but the detection of fraud required access to the originals – artificial staining and wear of teeth cannot be discovered in plaster” (Gould, 1979: 6).
It is therefore understandable that very few individual scholars would have been willing to rock the boat by publishing an opposing viewpoint when the Piltdown specimen was backed up by a respectable amateur, three prominent British scholars and the British Natural History Museum.
Thus, the role of key individuals in perpetuating forgeries, like the role of cultural bias, is significant and clearly much larger than it has been accredited in the literature. If questions are not asked, there will be no investigation into potentially fraudulent material. In the case of the Davenport tablets, the Bureau of Ethnology asked the questions that led to the hoax’s unveiling within a fairly short period of time. Conversely, in the case of Piltdown, its long-term acceptance within archaeology is, in part, the fact that other significant scholars were deterred from voicing their concerns and questions due to the reputation of those who supported it. While they may have feared that their ideas would be ignored at the time, it is likely that if they had voiced their concerns, questions would have led to investigation. This ultimately, would have provided answers as is evidenced by the fact that Weiner, Oakley and Le Gros Clark eventually asked the questions that led to their investigation and exposure of the Piltdown Fraud.
Thus, having compared the circumstances surrounding each of the Davenport and Piltdown Frauds, one notices that the number of influential factors in the continued acceptance of an archaeological forgery extends beyond the skill of the hoaxer to include factors such as cultural bias and key supporters of each forgery. The interaction of these factors often determines the lifespan of an accepted forgery in the history of archaeology.
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 Cf. S. Jay Gould (1979), C. Blinderman (1986), and those authors that Blinderman cites such as R. Miller, R. de Mille and G. Himmelfarb.
 E.g. Grafton Elliot Smith or Arthur Keith.
 However, it should be noted that it was also cultural bias that influenced the Smithsonian’s experts to reject the authenticity of the Davenport Tablets.
 With the above-noted exception of the Smithsonian Insitute and the Bureau of Ethnology.
 Between C. Blinderman, The Boldest Hoax, J.S. Weiner and S. Jay Gould, only Gould lists the role of the British Museum as playing a key role in the perpetuation of the hoax while ignoring the role played by Woodward. Blinderman quickly mentions Woodward’s role in the hoax’s perpetuation but stresses the hoaxer’s skill and luck as playing larger roles.