Probably the biggest find in 20th century human evolution and paleoanthropology was the 1974 finding of a 40% complete skeleton in Ethiopia of one of our fossil ancestors named Australopithecus afarensis, better known as “Lucy.” This discovery was obviously decades after HPL died. However, one of the most “infamous” findings in human paleoanthropology was the discovery of a “big-brained proto-human” in 1912 at Piltdown, England.
An artist’s interpretation of the Piltdown Man (www.bizarrebytes.com)
The finding of the Piltdown Man in 1912 was suppose to provide evidence that brain size, and not an upright gait, led the way in human evolution (Evolution by Edward J. Larson; 2004). Also, the fact that the fossil was conveniently found in England was almost like a informal means of establishing recent human evolution to be of Anglo-Saxon origins. This is certainly something that HPL could identify with being an anglophile.
The Piltdown discovery was a partial skull and incomplete mandible made by a local lawyer – Charles Dawson (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years; edited by Michael Ruse & Joseph Travis; 2009). However, since the discovery was first publically announced, there was a fair amount of skeptism over the presented evidence by the scientific community. By 1953, over 15 years after HPL’s death, some detailed analyses revealed that the Piltdown was a fake – a fabrication. Turns out the skull was clearly human but that the mandible was that of a female orangutan.
The Piltdown skull – combination of man and orangutan (Adolf Reith, Trans. by Diana Imber – http://www.clarku.edu)
HPL was obviously familiar with the Piltdown man since he mentioned it in his stories; however, as shown below he only cited it in two of his earlier tales. The first time he cited it was in Dagon and the second was in the Rats of Walls. In Dagon while the protagonist was examining the bas-reliefs that rose from the ocean depths, he noted that the structure must have been carved out by some ancient seafaring tribe that went extinct “before the first ancestor of the Piltdown or Neanderthal Man was born.”
In The Rats in the Walls as Dr. Trask, an anthropologist, was inspecting some of the skulls in the twilit grotto, he notes that most of them were “mostly lower than the Piltdown man in the scale of evolution, but in every case definitely human.”
The Rats in the Walls – the Twilit Grotto (from i.ytimg.com)
In Dagon HPL mentioned the Piltdown man, and Neanderthals, to convey the age of the monolith that emerged from the sea. In The Rats in the Walls, HPL mentioned the Piltdown man again to convey age; here the issue is that this subterranean community has been feeding on humans and other similar species for hundreds of thousands of years. While I am sure there was some public debate over the Piltdown man in HPL’s time, I don’t think there were any direct accusations that it was an outright hoax in the 1920’s and 1930’s
What makes the Piltdown man situation so unnerving is that it was an intentional and fabricated hoax. This wasn’t a hypothesis that was proved incorrect and that some in the scientific community were still clinging to; this was an outright lie. Knowing how HPL would adjust his fiction to ensure that the most up-to-date scientific information were included (e.g. At the Mountains of Madness), I’m sure he would have been disgusted over the hoax.
Next time, I will more than likely initiate discussions on The Shadow Out of Time. Thank you – Fred