On this day in 1953, the British Museum published a scientific report invalidating perhaps the greatest paleontological hoax ever, the Piltdown Man.
The story of Piltdown Man began some 50 years earlier when a labourer digging in the Piltdown gravel pits in East Sussex, England, found skull fragments, which he passed on to Charles Dawson, a local amateur archaeologist. Dawson believed they were the remains of an ancient human and approached Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist and keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. Over the next couple of years, the two collected more bone fragments from the site and proudly presented the reconstructed skull as humankind’s earliest ancestor to the prestigious Geological Society of London meeting on 18 December 1912.
With its human-like cranium and ape-like jaw, Piltdown Man was thought to be the missing link between apes and humans. (At the time, the scientific establishment thought the modern brain preceded the modern diet, a hypothesis the forgery “proved.”) The scientific community–and the whole of England, which smugly enjoyed the backyard discovery of the historical treasure–was beside itself at the import of the finding, named Eoanthropus dawsoni, or “Dawson’s dawn man,” after Charles Dawson.
For more than four decades Piltdown Man was hailed as “the missing link” and entire careers were built on its study. But doubts were building. In 1949, paleontologist Kenneth Oakley used a new system of chemical analysis called fluorine testing to determine that the remains were much younger than originally thought–perhaps only 50,000 years old rather than 500,000 (Carbon dating later showed that the remains were actually only 520-720 years old). Later, in 1953, upon seeing casts of the fossil teeth, one Oxford anthropologist, Joseph Weiner, was struck by how they seemed to have been deliberately ground down with an abrasive, as if to give them a worn appearance. Scientists also performed an improved fluorine test on the remains and concluded that the jaw and teeth were not the same age as the skull. In fact, the fragments were not even fossils, but old bones, and some of the bones had been stained with chemicals to look old. Weiner, Oakley, and another Oxford anthropologist, Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, were convinced Piltdown Man was a hoax.
On 21 November 1953, the men presented a report to the British Museum proving Piltdown Man was a hoax. Piltdown Man’s early discoverers, they said, had been victims of “a most elaborate and carefully prepared hoax. The faking of the mandible [jawbone],” they wrote, “is so extraordinarily skilful and the perpetration of the hoax appears to have been so entirely unscrupulous and inexplicable as to find no parallel in the history of paleontological discovery.”
Although many people–from Dawson himself, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries–have come under suspicion, to this day, the identity of the Piltdown Man forger remains unknown.
Credit: Alamy BBXAJ8
Caption: Originally thought to be the missing link between apes and humans, the Piltdown Man turned out to be a hoax.