Kenneth Page Oakley was born on April 7, 1911 in Amersham, England. He received an undergraduate degree in geology in 1933 and a Ph.D. from University College, London in 1938. From 1935 to 1969 he was curator of paleontology at the British Museum of Natural History. While Dr. Oakley carried out research in the fields of physical anthropology, geology, and paleontology, his considerable fame today can be attributed to his practical work on a relative dating technique that relies on the differential fluorine content of fossils. Although this concept had been around since 1893 when French mineralogist A. Carnot demonstrated its utility for sorting relative ages of buried materials, the chemistry was imperfectly understood. But with the awareness that hydroxyl ions in bone apatite are replaced by groundwater-bearing fluorides to form a relatively insoluble form of fluorapatite (the same principle that is used in tooth anti-decay arguments), application of the concept became a reasonable relative dating possibility. Although early experiments with the technique had been unsuccessful, in 1947 at the Pan-African Congress on Prehistory, Oakley proposed that fluorine dating might solve the riddle of the Piltdown man (found 1911-1912), which for almost 40 years was considered by many scholars to represent the “missing link” in human evolution. In 1949, Oakley had the mandible and cranial fragments of Piltdown man tested at a government forensic science laboratory, and the results were ambiguous, suggesting that the two items were of a similar age but younger than originally thought. He voiced his concerns about the genuineness of the fossil in the first edition of his 1949 British Museum of Natural History handbook, Man the Toolmaker. The decoding of the Piltdown man enigma was a team effort. In July, 1953, J. S. Weiner, a South African anthropologist and visiting researcher at Oxford, was the first to propose that Piltdown man was a hoax. Weiner reasoned that the teeth had been artificially ground and conveyed his thoughts to Oakley through Sir Wilfred Le Gros Clark of the Anatomy Department at Oxford. It was readily apparent to all concerned that if Piltdown man was a fake, the fallout from an uncoordinated release of information on the subject could have local (museum), national, and international implications. Between July and November, 1953 a second round of fluorine analyses was carried out at a government lab.
The results showed that the skull and mandible were of different ages. In addition, the flint artifacts were examined by E. T. Hall of Clarendon Labs, Oxford, using X-ray fluorescence analysis. Hall found Fe-based paint on the cherts, with the exception of one that had chromate applied, which when removed looked like normal unweathered chert. Indirectly, Oakley contributed to the establishment of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford and established the career of Hall, its first director. Oakley, as the chief proponent of the fluorine dating technique and spokesman for the Piltdown research group, was catapulted into the limelight in late 1953 with the official announcement of the fraud. He and his colleagues wrote numerous articles and books that gave the public a clear picture of the results. Radiocarbon dating in 1959 showed the age of the Piltdown modern human braincase to be 620 ± 100 BP (GRO 2203) and the Piltdown orangutan jawbone to be 500 ± 100 BP (GRO 2204). Oakley, over his long career, had a wide range of interests in which he published, but he is remembered today for his fluorine dating of Piltdown man. He died on November 2,1981.
- Oakley, K. P. (1949). Man the Toolmaker. London: British Museum (Natural History).
- Oakley, K. P., & Hoskins, C. R. (1950, March). New evidence on the antiquity of Piltdown man. Nature, 165, 379-382.
- Weiner, W. S., Oakley, K. P., & Le Gros Clark, W. E. (1953, Nov.). The solution of the Piltdown problem. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Geology.