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Piltdown Man Hoax

Updated on January 8, 2012

In December 1912 Arthur Smith Woodward and Charles Dawson announced the discovery of a remote ancestral form of Man, the 'Dawn Man of Piltdown'. The discovery aroused great scientific interest because it appeared to provide absolute proof of Man's direct evolution from the apes. Piltdown Man was represented by an almost complete skull. It was discovered by Charles Dawson, a keen amateur archaeologist, in a gravel pit on a farm in Sussex.

The fossil was unique in that it had an apelike jaw and a human-like brain case. The anatomist Arthur Smith Woodward studied the skull in detail and proposed that a new genus and species of Man should be allocated to it. The scientific name given to Piltdown Man was Eoanthropus dawsonii, in honor of its discoverer. Excavations at the Piltdown site during 1913-15 revealed an extensive toolkit, fossil animal bones, including rhinoceros and elephant and, most spectacularly, fragments of another skull very similar to the original one.

The authenticity and therefore the scientific importance of the Piltdown discoveries were debated for many years but were accepted by most people. A few, such as Sir Arthur Keith, were doubtful. During the 1930s and 1940s these doubts increased, as new finds of hominid fossils from China and Africa showed a pattern of human evolution very different from that presented by Piltdown Man. Piltdown Man showed Homo sapiens to have developed a large brain capacity early in the evolutionary process, while still retaining many apelike characteristics in the jaws and teeth. Other fossil discoveries showed that the reverse was more likely to have occurred.

The Piltdown skull came under further close scrutiny. In 1949 a fluorine test showed that the jaw and cranium had a fluorine content comparable to other bones that were no more than 50,000 years old, much younger than the 500,000 years which had been believed. The possibility of a hominid with such ape-like characteristics at such a recent date created further conflict and confusion in scientific circles.

By 1953 Dr J. S. Weiner had arrived at the hypothesis that the jaw and cranium of Piltdown Man might belong to two separate individuals, possibly even to different species. Further fluorine tests by Dr Kenneth Oakley proved him correct. Not only were the skull fragments from separate individuals, they were of a markedly different age.

While the cranium was probably about 50 000 years old, the jaw was that of a modern ape. Further tests showed that Piltdown Man was an elaborate hoax. A relatively recent, but genuine, human fossil skull and a modern ape jaw had been treated chemically and the teeth had been filed to give them the appearance of great age and unape-like wear patterns. Similarly, although some of the tools and bones found in association with the skull were genuine fossils, many had been artificially treated to give the appearance of great age and most had come from other sites unrelated to Piltdown or even the Sussex area.

After the exposure of the hoax, public and scientific interest shifted from the skull itself to the identity of the hoaxer.

This has never been discovered, although Dawson, Smith Woodward and many others associated with the discovery and study of the skull have been implicated.

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