Piltdown Man: One of Archaeology's Greatest Hoaxes

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On December 18, 1912, Great Britain announced Piltdown Man to the world. It was the first public acknowledgement of a set of bones that at first electrified the science community but then were later proved to be a hoax.

The man doing the announcing that night, at meeting of the Geological Society of London, was Charles Dawson, an amateur scientist who found or was given a jawbone, several human-like teeth and other parts of a skull, and other remains found in a gravel pit in Piltdown, East Sussex, that he and others claimed was an evolutionary “missing link” between humans and apes. The bones, Dawson said, were at least 500,000 years old.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was less than 50 years old at this point. Also up to this point, all of the other remains of early humans were found in Asia, Africa, and other areas of the globe that were certainly not Western Europe and definitely not in Great Britain.

Also speaking at the Geological Society meeting that night was Arthur Smith Woodward, who was in charge of the British Museum’s geological department. Woodward had accompanied Dawson on a few occasions earlier in 1912, digging in the gravel pits and unearthing various bone fraguments. Actually, Woodward wasn’t there when Dawson uncovered his finds. Dawson got the idea to dig in the Piltdown gravel pits, he said, because a workman at the site had found bits of a skull in 1908.

The combination of the skull fragments and jawbone convinced the British Museum’s Woodward and other prominent scientists that Dawson had indeed found a primitive human specimen. They even named it after him, calling it Eoanthropus dawsoni.

The announcement was met with skepticism in some corners of the scientific community and admiration in other corners. Testing of the jawbone and skull fragments revealed nothing out of the ordinary to many.

Dawson later found more bone fragments in a nearby location, and a find of a similar skull in Australia in 1914 convinced many scientists that Dawson’s case was a good one. Dawson’s claim of finding a “missing link” went unchallenged seriously for decades.

The idea of Piltdown Man was attractive because it fit the pattern of what many scientists, particularly in Britain, were hoping to find: evidence of a part of the evolutionary theory that suggested that human evolution began with the brain. The skull that Dawson presented had room for a brain that was two-thirds as big as a modern human brain. As well, the jawbone looked very much like one from a modern, young chimpanzee.

The skeptics reported their findings. Not a year after Dawson’s public announcement, a scientist at King’s College London published findings that identified the jawbone as from an ape and the skull from a human – in other words, two different things entirely. Similar conclusions came from other scientists, in France and Germany and the United States.

But Dawson’s claim that the Piltdown Man represented a missing link had support from important people in the anthropology field, including not only the British Museum’s Woodward but also Henry Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History.

These supporting claims and skeptical claims were issued in the 1920s. Dawson had died in 1916.

Anthropological Institute President Sir Arthur Keith in 1938 unveiled a memorial at the site where Dawson had discovered the Piltdown Man. Keith certainly supported Dawson’s claim. But doubts persisted.

In the meantime, Dawson’s discovery had been, in effect, bypassed by subsequent discoveries, in China and Africa, that more accurately showed human evolutionary patterns.

In 1953, the American magazine Time published evidence from three scientists showing that the Piltdown Man was, in fact, a forgery. The skull, the evidence showed, was human but of a person who lived in the Middle Ages, not long, long ago. The evidence also swed that the jawbone was that of an orangutan and was “only” 500 years old. The teeth, morever, which scientists listed as the clearest proof of the Piltdown Man’s veracity, were proved to have belonged to a chimpanzee and also showed evidence of being filed down to look like human teeth. Moreover, the bones had been stained with chromic acid and iron to simulate aging.

Why were scientists fooled initially? The tests on the bones and fragments initially caused no suspicion. Any irregularities shown were either expected because of the limits of existing technology or were ignored as being insignificant or were just missed entirely. The forger would have suspected that this would be the case.

Moreover, theories at the time predicted exactly the kind of find that Dawson reported. In this light, that the testing wasn’t as rigorous as would be today is not surprising, many modern observers say.

An innovative method of testing for fluorine absorption in 1949 revealed the relatively young age of the Piltdown Man’s bones. But it wasn’t until four years later the truth came to light in the public eye.

Although the scientists who published their evidence proving the forgery did not name the forger, many people have pointed the finger at Dawson, particularly since he alone was given the original bone fragments and he alone found the subsequent bones and other fragments. Other researchers have published evidence in recent years suggesting that Dawson had a history of forgeries, of other bones and of pottery.

Other suspects have emerged through the years:

Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest and amateur paleontologist, helped Dawson and Woodward dig at one point and later took part in the discovery of Peking Man

Martin A. C. Hinton, a zoology curator at the British Museum, was an expert on fossils and gravel pits yet offered up no objections to Dawson’s claim; Hinton was also known to be a practical joker, and a trunk found in his belongings after his death revealed sets of bones stained to simulate aging

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the author of The Lost World and the Sherlock Holmes stories) was Dawson’s neighbor and an amateur paleontologist; he also participated in the Piltdown digs.

Although evidence exists to prove the forgery, no evidence exists to prove the identity (or identities) of the forger (or forgers).

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