The Piltdown Story


Nancy P. Morris

The Piltdown Story, recited by Ashley Gérardy

Some forty years ago the Piltdown bones
Were found among some gravel, sticks and stones,
And when assembled – after quite a lull –
The Press announced the famous Piltdown Skull.
So E–o–anthropus achieved his fame
(Together with an academic name)
For then it was the experts dared to think
That they really had found the Missing Link.
The world in general got a nasty shock
On hearing thus of their ancestral stock,
But, by and large, they settled down again,
Their hopes of a nobler vintage down the drain.
But as the years rolled by the specialists,
The Archaeo– and Anthropologists,
Grew more and more convinced they’d been beguiled,
And “Eo” was, in fact, a Problem Child.
The mandible, when put to fluorine test,
Was modern ape, not fossil like the rest,
Which proved, undoubtedly, their knotty point,
That Piltdown’s jaw was sorely out of joint.
The battle raged as hotly as before,
For Piltdown (pictured in the Press once more
With lower dentures not as they should be)
No longer held the evolution key.
The scientists, still far from satisfied,
Went down to Sussex where the victim ‘died’ –
From water and the gravel round about
They found his nationality in doubt.
An African? a D.P. – it would seem.
His politics! Who knows what they’d have been!
While all these years of wide renown
Had claimed protection from the British Crown.
(For radioactive tests have since revealed
Some facts on vintage, hitherto concealed,
While X-ray analysis has shown
What clever chaps might do to the fossil bone).
And so with customary British phlegm
We chant for him a final requiem,
But who laughs last, may laugh the longest peal –
The hoaxer’s ghost has not been brought to heel.

Nancy P. Morris, published in 1955

Guest art by October Seagrave (@Zooophagous on Twitter)

Nancy P. Morris was well-known by her friends and colleagues for her scientific poetry, but almost none was published! The Piltdown Story is one of two poems featured in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology news bulletin from 1955. We don’t know if she submitted her poems to be published or if they were submitted on her behalf.

Biography of the Piltdown Man

This poem was written by Nancy P. Morris, but since we've already written about her, we decided to talk about the Piltdown Man hoax instead.

First and foremost, “Piltdown Man” is the nickname given to a fossil fraud (Eoanthropus dawsoni) found in a gravel pit in Sussex, England in 1912. The Piltdown skull appeared at a time when anthropologists were desperate to find the “missing link” between humans and apes, and it had features associated with both. Though there were suspicions around the skull immediately, it wasn’t fully debunked until 1953, shortly before this poem was written.

The Piltdown Man was likely created by Charles Dawson (yes, the fossil is named after him), the amateur archaeologist who brought it to the attention of the Geological Society of London. The skull was made entirely of modern species; mostly a medieval human skull, but with the 500 year old lower jaw of an orangutan, and with fossilized chimpanzee teeth. The teeth had been filed to mimic the wear patterns one would expect from a human.

The hoax came at a perfect time to be believed. English scientists were struggling to accept the increasing body of evidence that pointed to all races as belonging to one species that originated in Africa. If the Piltdown skull were real, it would support not only that the White race was in fact a separate species, but that this species originated in England.

Though it was a hoax, the Piltdown Man influenced the study of human evolution for decades. Before it was fully, finally debunked, it gave the impression that humans evolved a large brain before an omnivorous diet. It also took attention away from important, real finds like the Australopithecus nicknamed “Taung Child,” since scientists were more focused on the large Homo sapiens brain.