Dawson, Charles

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Dawson, Charles

(b. Fulkeith Hall, Lancashire, England, 11 July 1864; d. Uckfield, Sussex, England, 10 August 1916)


The son of Hugh Dawson, a barrister, Charles Dawson followed his father into the legal profession and became a solicitor upon his graduation from the Royal Academy, Gosport, in 1880. He practiced in Hastings from 1880 to 1890, moving thence to Uckfield, where he remained until his death.

Dawson’s avocation, pursued diligently from boyhood, was paleontology. By the age of twenty he had assembled a sizable collection of fossils from the Weald formations around Hastings, which he donated to the British Museum. The Dawson Collection, as it is known, contains several valuable specimens, among them one of the finest extant examples of Lepidotus mantelli, the Weald ganoid fish. In recognition of his acumen the museum made Dawson an honorary collector.

He discovered a new species of dinosaur, Iguanodon dawsoni, and a new Weald mammal, Plaugiaulax dawsoni. At his urging Felix Pelletier and Teilhard de Chardin, then students at the Jesuit college in Hastings, explored the Weald bone beds, finding there Diprioden valensis, a second new Weald mammal form.

Dawson was interested in geology as well as paleontology. He reported his discovery of natural gas at Heathfield to the Geological Society of London in 1898 and exhibited zinc blende from the Weald to the same body in 1913. He was elected fellow of the Geology Society at the age of twenty-one, a remarkable achievement for an amateur and one so young.

Archaeology was another field in which Dawson became renowned. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a member of the Sussex Archaeological Society. His esteem among the members of the latter group suffered considerably when some excavations he did at their request at the Lavant caves were of exceedingly poor quality. In 1909 Dawson published a two-volume history of Hastings Castle that received wide circulation. Of it Weiner notes, however, that it was “less a product of genuine scholarship than of extensive plagiarism” (p. 176)

Dawson’s name is associated, moreover, with one of the blacker events in the history of human paleontology: the Piltdown fraud. It was he who discovered the fragments of Eoanthropus in what was supposed to be Red Crag gravel at Barkham Manor between 1909 and 1912, and it was most likely he who had planted them there.

Reconstruction of Piltdown man from Dawson’s fragments yielded a creature with a more recent human cranium coupled to a simian mandible. This provoked lively controversy between those who accepted a genetic association of skull and jaw and those who did not. The latter group did not in general challenge the authenticity of the bones, merely their occurrence in the same individual. Dawson had a solid reputation, was respected by many, and was championed by such esteemed scientists as Arthur Smith Woodward and Arthur Keith. Moreover, his claims were reinforced by his discovery of a second Piltdown specimen at Sheffield Park in 1915.

At the time only three forms of early man had been brought to light, and they were in incomplete and imperfect condition: Neanderthal man (1856), Java man (1891), and Heidelberg man (1907). The discovery of fossil forms in China, Java, and Africa in the following decades rendered the Piltdown reconstruction utterly incredible, for in these forms development of jaw preceded development of brain. This left the Eoanthropus the sole example of a completely divergent evolutionary line, a bizarre freak rather than an ancestor.

An alternative solution to the puzzle was to reject the assumption that the bones were of great antiquity. By the early 1950’s techniques for accurately determining a fossil’s age had been developed. Using them, Kenneth P. Oakley, J. S. Weiner, and W. E. Le Gros Clark found that Piltdown man was nothing but an elaborate fraud. Cranium and mandible were from different species: the former from an Upper Pleistocene human, the latter from a modern orangutan. The fragments had been stained with iron sulfate so that they would be the same color and the teeth had been artificially abraded to simulate human wear. Even the “credentials” of Eoanthropus—the bone and flint tools and the Villefranchian fauna discovered with it—were shown to be deliberate intrusions.

If Dawson did not actually mastermind this hoax, his complicity is indicated. He could scarcely have been an innocent bystander, for his actions always placed him in circumstances where he could not have avoided knowing what the forger was about to do. He died long before the mystery was solved, so the motives for his involvement could not be ascertained. It is unlikely that they will ever be known.


I. Original Works. Dawson’s papers include “Discovery of a Large Supply of Natural Gas at Waldron, Sussex,” in Nature, 57 (1897–1898), 150–151; “Ancient and Modern ‘Dene Holes’ and Their Makers,” in Geological Magazine, 4th dec. 5 (1898), 293–302; “On the Discovery of Natural Gas in East Sussex,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 54 (1898), 564–571; “List of Wealden and Purbeck-Wealden Fossils,” in Brighton Natural History Society Reports (1898), 31–37; “On the Discovery of a Palaeolithic Skull and Mandible in a Flint-Bearing Gravel at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex),” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 69 (1913), 117–151, written with A. S. Woodward; “Supplementary Note on the Discovery of a Palaeolithic Skull and Mandible at Piltdown,” ibid., 70 (1914), 82–99, written with A. S. Woodward; and “On a Bone Implement From Piltdown (Sussex),” ibid., 71, no. 1 (1915), 143–149, written with A. S. Woodward. A book by Dawson is History of Hastings Castle, 2 vols. (London, 1909).

II. Secondary Literature. On Dawson or his work, see Aleš Hrdlička, “Skeletal Remains of Early Man,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 81 (1930), 65–90; J. S. Weiner, The Piltdown Forgery (London, 1955); and A. S. Woodward, “Charles Dawson,” in Geological Magazine, 6th dec., 3 (1916), 477–479.

Martha B. Kendall