Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Unmissable anniversary of a missing link

Cast your minds back a century and imagine how different the world looked. 

It still seemed, particularly to people living there, that Britain ruled the roost, globally. It was sitting at the top of a colossal Empire. It was resting on some impressive laurels as a trading nation. It had a track record for innovation and scientific advance that led the world.

The reality was that the temple of British greatness was already nothing but an imposing façade. Inside, the rot had been working for decades and it would only take the impact of the First World War to bring down the whole edifice. As 1066 and All That points out, by the end of that war ‘America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a .’

It sometimes seems to me that in the years leading up to the Great War, many in Britain could already see that full stop approaching. It may have made them a little defensive, anxious to find ways of bolstering their country’s prestige. Anything that seemed to detract from its air of superiority was an embarrassment and a matter to correct if at all possible.

The work of Darwin and his successors suggested that man had developed from apes and it was a matter of some interest to find the ‘missing link’ between apes and men. Many remains of early humans had been discovered, in particular in some of Britain’s neighbours in Europe – and, as is still the case today, ‘European neighbour’ is just a euphemism for ‘deadly rival’.

That made it galling that Britain had no such remains. None of those ancestors had chosen to come and live in this blessed country, superior to any other on Earth. Frankly, a bit off, my dear.

So it was a the best of news when, on 18 December 1912, a hundred years ago today, Charles Dawson, amateur archaeologist, told the Geological Society of London that he had found remains of a pre-human hominid in a gravel pit at Piltdown in Sussex.

This was simply marvellous news, don’t you know. Not only did Britain now have its own prehistoric inhabitant, within Britain he had chosen to inhabit England. And not any old bit England, either. Not the cold North where those working class people lived and kept ugly industry going to make the fortunes of the wealthy people wise enough either to have been born in the South, or to have moved there when they’d amassed enough money. No, he had chosen the delectable counties near London where those fortunes were spent. And not just any part of the South but the fragrant county of Sussex, all gentle countryside rolling prettily down to the English Channel to cock a snook at the French.

There are always killjoys, of course. Some character called David Waterston published an article in Nature suggesting that what Dawson had presented was an ape jaw and fragments of a human skull. But who was going to accept such a preposterous suggestion and lose their very own national missing link?

The party sadly came to an end in 1953. It took 41 years, which is pretty good going, but it couldn’t be kept up forever. To add insult to injury, the offending article was published in some American magazine called, I believe, Time. And to everyone’s astonishment it announced that what Dawson had presented was an orangutan jaw and fragments of a human skull. Who could have guessed?

By then, of course, Britain had already had to give up the jewel in its crown, India, and the rest of the Empire was rapidly unravelling. Giving up Piltdown man no longer really mattered. Just another one of the blows that accompany national decline.

Eoanthropus dawsoni: Piltdown man.
Not so much a missing link between apes and man
as a symbolic link between imperial grandeur and national decline

It had been a good hoax as hoaxes go. A lot better, say, than the hoax call to the King Edward VII hospital in London which drove a nurse to suicide ten days ago (coincidentally, she was buried yesterday, the eve of the Piltdown anniversary).

A hoax that worked and really did very little harm. Sounds like a centenary worth celebrating. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

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