Conan Doyle and the hoax of the 20th century

THE YEAR 1912 was a good one for science fiction and even better for fossil hunters. The publication of The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw his hero Professor Challenger find an undiscovered plateau populated by dinosaurs, where the missing link – a half-man, half-ape figure – still roamed the undergrowth.

Back in Britain, near the small Sussex village of Piltdown, an amateur archaeologist began a dig after discovering the bones of an unknown species which appeared to show the development from ape to man.

Truth really was stranger than fiction. Or was it?

Charles Dawson had made many antiquarian finds in his life, but was searching desperately for the big discovery that would make his name. He thought he'd found it when he uncovered bones, teeth and a skull in a shallow gravel pit in Piltdown. In 1912 he contacted his friend Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, a highly respected palaeontologist at the British Museum, and together they began to excavate the site.By December they were ready to unveil their discovery – the remains of a very early human fossil Eoanthropus Dawsoni, which they argued was around 500,000 years old. It was the earliest known human fossil ever found.

It split the scientific community with British experts enthusiastic, but the French and Americans remaining sceptical. The announcement of a second site – a few miles from the original discovery - along with hippopotamus, beaver and elephant bones - silenced the critics. The missing link had been found and evolution explained.

Forty years later when JS Weiner discovered that this so-called Piltdown Man was a fake made out of a 500-year-old skull and an orang-utan jawbone, the hunt began to find out who had perpetrated the fraud.

The main suspect has always been Dawson, possibly with the aid of his colleagues Sir Arthur Smith Woodward and Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit who had also assisted at the dig. But there is someone else in the frame. According to one theory this man had the means, motive and opportunity. He is none other than the Scottish creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle was first put forward as the hoaxer by John Winslow and Alfred Meyer in their 1983 paper The Perpetrator at Piltdown, where they described:"…a doctor who knew human anatomy and chemistry, someone interested in geology and archaeology…a man who loved hoaxes, adventure…and most important of all had a grudge against the British science establishment."

Winslow and Meyer set out a comprehensive breakdown of why the finger of blame pointed to Conan Doyle. They began by recalling an earlier hoax by Charles Waterton in 1825 which was very similar. Waterton claimed to have killed an apeman, but had actually remodelled the head and shoulders of a howler monkey to approximate a human. Waterton was a past pupil of the Jesuit prep school attended by Conan Doyle – who would have been well aware of his alumnus.

At the time of the hoax, Conan Doyle lived in Crowborough, less than eight miles from Piltdown, and as he is known to have been a prolific walker would have passed the site frequently as he tramped across the countryside. He had an interest in palaeontology and was a friend of Charles Dawson. Conan Doyle was an extensive traveller in the years before Piltdown, coincidentally visiting places that could have helped him in his fraud, stopping off at Malta at a time when hippopotamus bones were being dug up. He was friendly with a phrenologist who sold strange shaped skulls and he knew a man who could have helped him source an orang-utan jawbone.

Along with the physical evidence, Meyer and Winslow turn to Conan Doyle's own fiction writing to furnish further proof of his complicity. His novel The Lost World mirrors so perfectly the circumstances of Piltdown. The story tells of a tribe of red-haired, nest-building apemen, who are referred to as the "missing link." The area of the lost plateau seems to conform to the area of Sussex where the discovery was made. Crucially, he outlined the plot long before Piltdown yielded anything, telling a friend about his idea in 1910.

Not only that, but one of the characters, Tarp Henry, says:

"…if you are clever and you know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph."

If you're prepared to go along with the idea that he did it, then surely the biggest question would be why? Meyer and Winslow have an answer to that too. They suggest that around this time Conan Doyle's obsession with spiritualism brought him up against Sir Edwin Ray Lankester – a Darwinian evolutionist who rigorously persecuted spiritualists.

Lankester launched a campaign to have mediums exposed as frauds – having successfully unmasked one as a trickster. Perhaps Conan Doyle wanted to show that all science was capable of being fooled or of attracting fraudsters, but this didn't necessarily invalidate every scientist or every scientific theory. Thus, spiritualism couldn't be damned on the back of one or two rogue practitioners.

Ultimately we'll never know. Whoever carried out the fraud took their secret to their death. If it was Conan Doyle then how ironic that the creator of Sherlock Holmes should have perpetrated the most complex and scientifically challenging fraud of the century and remained undetected.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:

Conan Doyle's obsession with the afterlife

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