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The Piltdown research team

On This Day: Piltdown Man, Supposed “Missing Link,” Exposed as Hoax

November 21, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Nov. 21, 1953, British scientists revealed that the fragments from the skull of the Piltdown man, discovered in 1912, were taken from human and orangutan skulls and doctored to look like an early human skull.

The Piltdown Man Hoax

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In 1912, British antiquarian Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the British Museum of Natural History, announced that Dawson had found fragments from a skull of an early human in the village of Piltdown in Sussex, England. The two presented the skull at a meeting of the Geological Society of London in December 1912, declaring that the new species, dubbed Eoanthropus dawsoni, could represent the “missing link” between apes and humans.

Their discovery came 50 years after Darwin published his theory of evolution, just when many people were beginning to think about our ancestors and question what kind of creature might have bridged the gap between apes and us,” explains the British Museum. “The only evidence we had of early humans was the skull cap of Java Man, thought to have lived 700,000 years ago, and the jaw of Heidelberg Man, estimated to have lived about 500,000 years ago.”

The Manchester Guardian hailed it as “One of the most important prehistoric finds of our time,” and declared, “There is no doubt at all of it authenticity.” Nature magazine wrote that it was “found in circumstances which seem to leave no doubt as to its geological age, and the characters it shows are themselves sufficient to denote its extreme antiquity.”

Many British scientists archaeologists, including Arthur Keith and Elliot Smith, supported the authenticity of the Piltdown man. Evan Hadingham, science editor for PBS’ NOVA, says that their willingness to corroborate the findings was due in part to a feeling of nationalist pride that man could have originated in Britain.

Dawson and Woodward continued working in the gravel pits at Piltdown, discovering parts a second skull and what appeared to be a cricket bat. However, inconsistencies in the Piltdown man story began to show. “In 1926 … the Piltdown gravels were found to be much less ancient than supposed, and, from 1930, more finds of Pithecanthropus, the discoveries of the more primitive Australopithecus, and further examples of Neanderthal man left Piltdown man completely isolated in the evolutionary sequence,” explains Encyclopedia Britannica.
Though many had held doubts about the Piltdown man, few directly challenged its authenticity. German paleontologist Franz Weidenreich correctly predicted as early as the 1920s that the Piltdown man skull was a composite of orangutan and human skulls.

Woodward kept the Piltdown man fossils under his close supervision until his death in 1944. “He did allow other scholars to look at them, but not for prolonged periods of time,” says Hadingham. “If indeed the access to the bones been a little more open, it seems highly probable that somebody would have spotted the telltale signs.”

The Piltdown myth was finally exposed in 1953 by Joseph Weiner, Wilfred Edward Le Gros Clark and Kenneth Oakley, who proved not only that the Eoanthropus dawsoni didn’t exist, but also that the Piltdown skull was a deliberate hoax.

They found that the teeth, which were taken from an ape, had been artificially worn down to more resemble human teeth. They also found that the bones had been dyed to make them appear older than they actually were. Lastly, a fluorine content test confirmed the results of a 1949 test that showed that the bones were only about 500 years old.

They published their findings in the November edition of the Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Geology. Their work was revealed to the public in a Nov. 21, 1953, article in The Times of London,

“That the jaw and tooth were those of an ape has been maintained before now by several distinguished anthropologists, but they have always assumed them to be genuine fossils, and have merely thought that, though found in association with the cranium fragments, they had wrongly been presumed to belong to the same creature,” wrote the Times. “Never until now has it been suspected that they represent a deliberate attempt to mislead.”

Who Was Responsible for the Hoax?

It is still not known for certain who was behind the Piltdown man hoax. While Dawson and Woodward are the obvious suspects, it is not clear if they knew the bones they found were fake.

One notable suspect is author Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Dawson. “Some still believe that, as an ardent spiritualist, Doyle wanted to discredit the science profession by faking the evidence of something they wanted to believe in to prove they knew less than they claimed,” writes the BBC, which provides a list of the main suspects.

In 1996, Brian Gardiner, a professor of paleontology at King’s College, put forth the theory that Martin A.C. Hinton, a Natural History Museum employee who was disgruntled over his pay, planted the bones in an attempt to discredit Woodward. The evidence for this theory is a chest belonging to Hinton that contained a collection of bones and teeth stained with the same chemicals applied to the Piltdown man fossils.

Miles Russell, author of the book “Piltdown Man: The Secret Life Of Charles Dawson,” argues that “it is clear that Charles Dawson cannot have been innocent.” He looks back at Dawson’s amateur antiquarian career, which was full of amazing discoveries.

“Dawson’s whole antiquarian career appears to have been one built upon deceit, sleight of hand, fraud and academic deception, the ultimate gain being international recognition. … Piltdown was not a ‘one-off’ hoax, more the culmination of a life’s work,” he concludes.

Researching and Teaching the Piltdown Man

Clark University professors Charles Blinderman and David Joyce have compiled a large collection of articles and reports on the Piltdown man from its initial discovery to the present day. It includes a detailed look at the arguments for and against each suspected hoaxster.

PBS offers a five-page guide on how to use its NOVA documentary “The Boldest Hoax” in teaching about the Piltdown man.
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