The "Piltdown Man" is a famous hoax consisting of fragments of a skull and jawbone collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, a village near Uckfield, East Sussex, in England. The fragments were thought by many experts of the day to be the fossilised remains of a hitherto unknown form of early human. The Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man", after the collector Charles Dawson) was given to the specimen. The significance of the specimen remained the subject of controversy until it was exposed in 1953 as a forgery, consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan combined with the skull of a fully developed, modern man.
The Piltdown hoax is perhaps the most famous archaeological hoax in history. It has been prominent for two reasons: the attention paid to the issue of human evolution, and the length of time (more than 40 years) that elapsed from its discovery to its full exposure as a forgery.
The finding of the Piltdown skull was poorly documented, but at a meeting of the Geological Society of London held on December 18, 1912, Dawson claimed to have been given a fragment of the skull four years earlier by a workman at the Piltdown gravel pit. According to Dawson, workmen at the site had discovered the skull shortly before his visit and had broken it up. Revisiting the site on several occasions, Dawson found further fragments of the skull and took them to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. Greatly interested by the finds, Woodward accompanied Dawson to the site, where between June and September 1912 they together recovered more fragments of the skull and half of the lower jaw bone.
At the same meeting, Woodward announced that a reconstruction of the fragments had been prepared that indicated that the skull was in many ways similar to that of modern man, except for the occiput (the part of the skull that sits on the spinal column) and for brain size, which was about two-thirds that of modern man. He then went on to indicate that save for the presence of two human-like molar teeth the jaw bone found would be indistinguishable from that of a modern, young chimpanzee. From the British Museum's reconstruction of the skull, Woodward proposed that Piltdown man represented an evolutionary missing link between ape and man, since the combination of a human-like cranium with an ape-like jaw tended to support the notion then prevailing in England that human evolution was brain-led.
Almost from the outset, Woodward's reconstruction of the Piltdown fragments was strongly challenged. At the Royal College of Surgeons copies of the same fragments used by the British Museum in their reconstruction were used to produce an entirely different model, one that in brain size and other features resembled modern man. Despite these differences however, it does not appear that the possibility of outright forgery arose in connection with the skull.
In 1923, Franz Weidenreich examined the remains and correctly reported that they consisted of a modern human cranium and an orangutan jaw with filed-down teeth. Weidenreich, being an anatomist, had easily exposed the hoax for what it was. However, it took thirty years for the scientific community to concede that Weidenreich was correct.
In 1915, Dawson claimed to have found fragments of a second skull (Piltdown II) at a site about two miles away from the original finds. So far as is known the site has never been identified and the finds appear to be entirely undocumented. Woodward does not appear ever to have visited the site.
The inscription on the memorial stone reads:
The nearby pub was renamed The Piltdown Man in honour of it. It is still in business.
In November, 1953, The Times published evidence gathered by Kenneth Page Oakley, a professor of anthropology from Oxford University demonstrating that the fossil was a composite of three distinct species. It consisted of a human skull of medieval age, the 500-year-old lower jaw of a Sarawak orangutan and chimpanzee fossil teeth. The appearance of age had been created by staining the bones with an iron solution and chromic acid. Microscopic examination revealed file-marks on the teeth, and it was deduced from this someone had modified the teeth to give them a shape more suited to a human diet.
The Piltdown man hoax had succeeded so well because at the time of its discovery, the scientific establishment had believed that the large modern brain had preceded the modern omnivorous diet, and the forgery had provided exactly that evidence. It has also been thought that nationalism and racism also played a role in the less-than-critical acceptance of the fossil as genuine by some British scientists. It satisfied European expectations that the earliest humans would be found in Eurasia, and the British, it has been claimed, also wanted a first Briton to set against fossil hominids found elsewhere in Europe, including France and Germany.
The recent focus on Charles Dawson as the sole forger is supported by the gradual accumulation of evidence regarding other archaeological hoaxes he perpetrated in the decade or two prior to the Piltdown discovery. Dr Miles Russell of Bournemouth University has recently conducted a detailed analysis of Charles Dawson's antiquarian collection and it is clear at least 38 are obvious fakes. Among these are the teeth of a reptile/mammal hybrid, Plagiaulax dawsoni, 'found' in 1895 (and whose teeth had been filed down in the same way that the teeth of Piltdown man would be some twenty years later), the so-called 'shadow figures' on the walls of Hastings Castle, a unique hafted stone axe, the Bexhill boat (a hybrid sea faring vessel), the Pevensey bricks (allegedly the latest datable 'finds' from Roman Britain), the contents of the Lavant Caves (a fraudulent 'flint mine'), the Beauport Park 'Roman' statuette (a hybrid iron object), the Bulverhythe Hammer (shaped with an iron knife in the same way as Piltdown elephant bone implement would later be), a fraudulent 'Chinese' bronze vase, the Brighton 'Toad in the Hole' (a toad entombed within a flint nodule), the English Channel sea serpent, the Uckfield Horseshoe (another hybrid iron object) and the Lewes Prick Spur. Of his antiquarian publications, most demonstrate evidence of plagiarism or at least naïve referencing. At Piltdown itself, of the faked skull, jaw, teeth, animal bone assemblage, flint tools, and other remains, Dr Russell has shown that the only clear suspect is Charles Dawson, stating that: "Piltdown was not a 'one-off' hoax, more the culmination of a life's work".
Dawson was in fact a suspect from the very beginning. On one occasion, as an example, a collection of flints he exchanged with another collector, Hugh Morris, turned out to have been aged with chemicals, a point Morris noted down at the time and which was later unearthed. There were also numerous individuals in the Sussex area well-acquainted with Dawson who long held doubts about Piltdown and of Dawson's role in the matter, but given the sheer weight of scholarly affirmation regarding the find few if any were willing to publicly speak out for fear of being ridiculed for their trouble.
His initial motivations may well have lain along the lines of gaining further fame and notoriety in his native Sussex, but it is clear that his increasingly successful early frauds may well have emboldened him to pull off the master stroke that would have landed him his most cherished goal, that of a fellowship in the prestigious Royal Society. It was a long ambition that ultimately went unfulfilled.
In 1912, the Piltdown man was believed to be the “missing link” between apes and humans by the majority of the scientific community. However, over time the Piltdown man lost its validity, as other discoveries such as Taung Child and Peking Man were found. R.W. Ehrich and G.M. Henderson note, “To those who are not completely disillusioned by the work of their predecessors, the disqualification of the Piltdown skull changes little in the broad evolutionary pattern. The validity of the specimen has always been questioned.” Eventually, in the 40s and 50s, more advanced dating technologies, such as the fluorine absorption test, scientifically proved that this skull was actually a fraud.
The Piltdown man fraud had a significant impact on early research on human evolution. Notably, it led scientists down a blind alley in the belief that the human brain expanded in size before the jaw adapted to new types of food. Discoveries of Australopithecine fossils found in the 1920s in South Africa were ignored owing to Piltdown man, and the reconstruction of human evolution was thrown off track for decades. The examination and debate over Piltdown man led to a vast expenditure of time and effort on the fossil, with an estimated 250+ papers written on the topic.
The fossil was sufficiently influential for Clarence Darrow to introduce it as evidence in defense of Scopes during the Scopes Monkey Trial. Darrow died in 1938, more than ten years before Piltdown Man was exposed as a fraud. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard met less fortunate timing, listing Piltdown Man as one of the ancestors of humanity in his book Scientology: A History of Man, and describing him as having "enormous" teeth and being "quite careless as to whom and what he bit." Piltdown Man would be exposed as a hoax just months after the publication of Hubbard's book.
The hoax is still cited by creationists in support of their view that the theory of evolution cannot address the origins of man. Many cite it as evidence of the frequent acceptance in the scientific community of viewpoints with very little evidence. (Other fossils cited include Nebraska Man, Homo rudolfensis, Homo cepranensis, Homo antecessor, the Gawin cranium and Rhodesia Man) albeit after an extremely long time. The notoriety of the hoax remains strong and in November 2003, the Natural History Museum held an exhibition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its exposure.