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The Piltdown Man, The Greatest Scientific Hoax of All Time

Updated on November 27, 2016
Piltdown Man
Piltdown Man

In 1912 a man named Charles Dawson claimed to have found portions of a human skull in a small gravel pit at Piltdown. The gravel pit is located in East Sussex, England and this discovery would touch off a scientific scandal which would not be fully disclosed for over forty years. His claims of discovery would fool scientist, writers, and confound even his most animate skeptics for decades. NOVA called it "The Boldest Hoax" when they produced a documentary on the subject going on to say it was the greatest scientific hoodwinking of all time. The only thing more confusing than how Dawson managed to fool so many scholars, is the length of time it took to expose the fraud.

The discovery was of a skull complete with jawbone. When the skull pieces were assembled it was proclaimed as the great missing link in the evolutionary chain. It was thought someone had finally found the proof man evolved from apes. It was also thought the human brain was smaller in early man. The brain cavity of the Piltdown skull was smaller than modern man and the jaw bone matched that of an ape. Even teeth were found which seemed to confirm the skull and jawbone were part of something science had never seen before. The skull had been broken into several small pieces and was re-assembled by Authur Woodward. Woodward was the keeper of the geological department at the British Museum and he claimed the smaller size of the skull showed it came from early man and the jawbone, with the exception of two human teeth, perfectly matched the jawbone of an ape. Despite the claims of Woodward, many critics felt the claims were in error. One source of criticism was the Royal College of Surgeons, which assembled duplicate skull pieces and produced a completely different model. To prove his theory and Dawson's discovery were genuine, Woodward needed more proof.

Piltdown Man Supporters
Piltdown Man Supporters

In 1913 Dawson, Woodward and a Jesuit priest named Teilhard began searching for additional artifacts. Amazingly, they were able to find additional teeth that Woodward expected to end any debate regarding his theory and reconstruction of the skull. Surprisingly to Woodward, Professor Arthur Keith disputed the new findings claiming the teeth did not properly match the jawbone and original teeth. Keith presented his findings at a meeting of the Royal Society. After hearing the evidence the members accused Keith of having a rabid ambition and this was the reason for his disagreement with Woodward. It was in fact a case of Keith attempting to fight the establishment which desperately wanted the discovery to be authentic, evidence be damned.

Woodward continued to have a number of critics, even as the scholarly mainstream touted the find as authentic. Before the entire scam fell apart, more than 250 scholarly papers were written based on the Piltdown skull and jawbone. Some scholars based their entire careers' on the Piltdown Man discovery. The support for the authenticity of the find was bolstered even further when a second skull was discovered, amazingly this was also found by Dawson. Woodward did not, however, present this second find until five months after Dawson's death in 1916.

Charles Dawson
Charles Dawson

With a second skull so closely matching the first the critics had to fall silent. To this point critics had claimed the skull and jawbone did not belong together, that they had simply been found together by chance. The chance of an ape jawbone being found with a human skull would be rare, for it to happen twice in such a limited area was considered mathematically impossible. To this point the critics had been claiming Woodward's interpretation of the findings were in error, they were not yet claiming the find was a complete hoax.

The deception continued until 1953 when the scandal finally began to unravel. While most critics had been silenced, many remained convinced the find was a mistake, and some now even began considering the possibility of the find being a deliberate hoax. Investigations launched in 1953 found the fossil was actually a composite of three distinct species. The skull was that of a modern man, the jawbone had belonged to an orangutan and the teeth came from a chimpanzee. It was also found the bones had been aged with a mixture of a solution of iron and chromic acid. One of the primary reasons the fraud was exposed were file marks found on the teeth. Apparently the teeth had been filed down in order to make them compatible with the jawbone.

Interesting Side Note: Some scholars believe the true culprit is neither Dawson or Woodard. Some believe the true mastermind behind the hoax was Sir Author Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Doyle lived only a short distance from where the artifacts were found and he had a grudge against the scientific community, giving him both motive and opportunity. (Doyle had been criticized by the scientific community for his spiritualist research.) If in fact Doyle was behind the hoax it may have well been one of his greatest mysteries, one which would not be solved for more than forty years.

Piltdown Man Memorial Marker, still in place today.
Piltdown Man Memorial Marker, still in place today.

It does seem strange Dawson, with a somewhat spotted past, could convince a scholar of such an astounding discovery. The blame seems to rest mostly on the shoulders of Dawson and Woodward. It appears Woodward was either aware of the hoax, or was so blinded by his ambition and desire to be a part of a significant find he ignored the evidence and pushed forward. Unfortunately the action of these men damaged the reputation and work of other honest hard working scholars. Even today, 100 years after the original discover was made, some critics of evolution use the Piltdown Man fraud as a warning against accepting the findings of scholars. They would have you believe scholars will modify their findings and deceive the general public in order to advance their own personal beliefs. It was certainly true in this case, but it is unfair to say the scholarly community as a whole is dishonest. Of course when working with the unknown and with limited evidence, a person's work will always be subjected to second guessing and criticism.

It should be noted that in the early twentieth century there was a strong sense competition between many scholars based on nationality, gender and even race. In the case of the Piltdown Man there had been several discoveries made on mainland Europe which were considered significant. It was therefore very important to some to have a discovery of equal or greater importance to be made in England. The majority of British scientist claimed the Piltdown man finding to be the "Earliest Englishman". It turns out to have been nothing more than a lie meant to advance the beliefs and ambitions of dishonest men.


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