Piltdown Man: The scandal that delayed the study of human origins by decades

Piltdown Man: The scandal that delayed the study of human origins by decades

For a long time in archaeology, and even in the popular media, there was discussion of a missing link in the archaeological/paleontological fossil record between apes and humans. In 1911, Englishman Charles Dawson made the dramatic announcement that he had found the link in the 500,000-year-old bones of the Piltdown man, dubbed “the first Englishman.” The discovery led to extensive study of Piltdown Man, and debate about its implications lasted for decades. However, in the early 1950s, following the development of scientific dating methods and the discovery of new evidence, it was proved that the Piltdown man was all just a hoax – it became one of the biggest scandals in archaeological history.

In 1925, a man named Raymond Dart found a fossilized skull in South Africa that he recognized as Homo Sapiens’ earliest known ancestor. This Taung skull was the first Australopithecus fossil found, and it is now recognized as such. At the time, however, many scientists did not accept it because it just didn’t fit in with the finding of Piltdown Man and archaeologists at the time preferred to believe England was the birthplace of the human race—not Africa.

Australopithecus fossils (Photo by Véronique Pagnier/ Wikimedia Commons )

The Alleged Discovery of Piltdown Man

Workers supposedly found the bones of Piltdown Man while digging a pit in Piltdown, England, and gave them to Charles Dawson, an amateur geologist. He enlisted the help of scientists, including Arthrur Woodward Smith, Teilhard de Chardin and Arthur Keith, who were excited that such an apparent missing link was found in England. They concluded part of a skull, a jawbone and a few teeth were all from one ancient hominid. They also said primitive tools they found when they did further excavations were associated with Piltdown Man.

Unravelling the Hoax

In 1939, paleontologist Kenneth Oakley developed a new method of dating using fluorine. Fossils and bones absorb fluorine from the surrounding soil and water. Therefore, fossils in situ should have the same amount of fluorine as the surrounding media, which can be dated geologically. The Piltdown jaw and skull fragment, tested in 1949, had about the same amount of fluorine, so it appeared they belonged together. However, dating in that year revealed that the fossils were only about 50,000 years old —from a time when there were known fossils of modern humans. This would mean the Piltdown fossils were an anachronism, not an evolutionary breakthrough.

Two scientists involved in the Piltdown Man case attempted to reconstruct Piltdown man’s cranium and mandible. ( British Natural History Museum photo )

In 1953, an Oxford professor of physical anthropology, Joseph Weiner, entered the picture. He met Oakley at a banquet and the two talked about the Piltdown Man case. Weiner couldn’t stop thinking about it and puzzling over it. He examined casts of the fossils and studied the research. It looked to him as though the teeth had been ground down with an abrasive tool to make them look worn. He contacted Oakley and asked him to re-examine the real fossils.

The two men used chemical analysis and an improved fluorine test to examine the jaw, teeth and skull. They determined the teeth and jaw were of a different age as the skull and weren’t even fossils. They were bones, and not 50,000 years old, but only hundreds. It appeared Dawson had stained some of them with chemicals and ordinary paint to make it seem like they matched each other and the surrounding soil in which he said the workers found them. Even more shocking was the discovery that the Piltdown Man skull actually consisted of the lower jawbone of an orangutan deliberately combined with the cranium of a modern human!

Dawson’s Fraudulent Career

Piltdown Man, which had been given the name Eoantrhopus dawsoni, Dawson’s dawn man, was a hoax. Criticisms had been raised about Piltdown man almost from the time Dawson first announced its discovery. In his career, Dawson also was believed to have made other important fossil, archaeological and historical finds, but in 2003 a paleontologist announced that 38 items in his antiquarian collection were fakes. Dawson’s entire hobby as a geologist was based on deceit and fraud. He had also been trained as a lawyer, adding further irony to his story. Dawson had died in 1916, happy in the belief that his hoax had been a success.

Featured image: A portrait painted by John Cooke in 1915 showing scientists involved in the Piltdown man case: F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A. S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Sir Ray Lankester.

By Mark Miller


The (so-called) “Missing Link” in Human Evolution!

The Piltdown Man skull, partially original (dark) and partially theoretical (beige).

The “missing link” in human evolution? Well, that’s what English archaeologists believed for many years had been discovered when a skull with both human and ape characteristics was revealed by an amateur archaeologist, Charles Dawson. Unfortunately, for decades this hoax would confuse scientists’ insight into the course of human evolution.

In 1912, Dawson announced that he had pieced together parts of a skull found near Piltdown village while it had an ape-like jaw and teeth, the brain cavity of the skull was large, similar in size to that of a modern human. This seemed to fit perfectly with the idea of humankind’s intelligence pushing forward its evolution. In addition to the skull, the Piltdown site produced animal bones and primitive tools (as well as an artifact that looked suspiciously like a cricket bat), adding to its apparent validity. Many years after Dawson’s death however, scientists working at the Natural History Museum in London proved that the skull was faked not only were the bones more recent than initially believe, but while the skull fragments were human, the jaw bone had probably belonged to an orangutan. These scientists also found scrape marks on the teeth, suggesting that someone had filed the teeth to give them a more human appearance.

Piltdown Man’s Jaw and Teeth

The trust in this hoax created a false understanding of human evolution, demonstrating the danger of fraudulent archaeology. British scientists may have been particularly accepting of the new discovery, since they had not yet found any significant prehistoric human remains, unlike their European counterparts not only that, the new discovery seemed the closest link to modern man yet. Their belief was strong enough that when a scientist in Africa discovered a radically different early human skull, some scientists failed to acknowledge that true step on humankind’s evolutionary path. Until the skull was proved a fake in 1949, this hoax represented one of the biggest anomalies of the evolutionary sequence, hindering scientists trying to comprehend humankind’s past.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of this entire story is that the true perpetrator or perpetrators of this hoax have never been definitively identified. Dawson almost certainly was involved, as many of his other “discoveries” have also since been proven fraudulent however, any number of other leading scientists and philosophers may have had a hand in the deception. Regardless of whether their intentions where to deceive or merely to play a practical joke on the scientific community, this hoax shaped and disrupted understanding of human evolution for nearly forty years, signifying the true menace of archaeological hoaxes.

Interesting Links
This link contains details on a number of the suspects, including Dawson and Arthur Conan Doyle: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/feb/05/piltdown-man-archaeologys-greatest-hoax

A somewhat over-dramatic BBC documentary about the Piltdown Man, focusing primarily on the later discovery of the fraud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOn97lU21L4


Scientists seek to solve mystery of Piltdown Man

This is an undated image released by the Natural History Museum in on Wednesday Dec. 12, 2012 of the Piltdown skull. It was an archaeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. A century on, researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for Piltdown Man, the missing link that never was. In December 1912, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson announced he'd made an astonishing discovery in a gravel pit in southern England -- prehistoric remains, up to 1 million years old, that combined the skull of a human and the jaw of an ape. It was 40 years before the find was exposed as a hoax by scientists at London's Natural History Museum -- the same institution that had announced the find in 1912. The museum is marking the 100th anniversary of the hoax with a new push to find out who did it -- and why. (AP Photo/Natural History Museum)

It was an archaeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. A century on, researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for Piltdown Man, the missing link that never was.

In December 1912, it was announced that a lawyer and amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson had made an astonishing discovery in a gravel pit in southern England—prehistoric remains, up to 1 million years old, that combined the skull of a human and the jaw of an ape.

Piltdown Man—named for the village where the remains were found—set the scientific world ablaze. It was hailed as the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans, and proof that humans' enlarged brains had evolved earlier than had been supposed.

It was 40 years before the find was definitively exposed as a hoax, and speculation about who did it rages to this day. Now scientists at London's Natural History Museum—whose predecessors trumpeted the Piltdown find and may be suspects in the fraud— are marking the 100th anniversary with a new push to settle the argument for good.

The goal, lead scientist Chris Stringer wrote in a comment piece published Wednesday in the journal Nature, is to find out "who did it and what drove them"—whether scientific ambition, humor or malice.

Stringer heads a team of 15 researchers—including experts in ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating and isotope studies—examining the remains with the latest techniques and equipment and combing the museum's archives for overlooked evidence about the evidence unearthed at sites around Piltdown.

"Although Charles Dawson is the prime suspect, it's a complex story," Stringer, the museum's research leader in human origins, told The Associated Press. "The amount of material planted at two different sites makes some people—and that includes me—wonder whether there were at least two people involved."

Doubts grew about Piltdown Man's authenticity in the years after 1912, as more remains were found around the world that contradicted its evidence. In 1953, scientists from London's Natural History Museum and Oxford University conducted tests that showed the find was a cleverly assembled fake, combining a human skull a few hundred years old with the jaw of an orangutan, stained to make it look ancient.

Ever since, speculation had swirled about possible perpetrators. Many people think the evidence points to Dawson, who died in 1916.

Other long-dead suspects identified by researchers include Arthur Smith Woodward, the museum's keeper of geology, who championed Dawson's discoveries and gave them vital scientific credibility. The finger has also been pointed at museum zoologist Martin Hinton Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and even "Sherlock Holmes" author Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Piltdown.

Stringer said the key may lie in a later find nearby—a slab of elephant bone nicknamed the "cricket bat"—that seemed to back up the first Piltdown discovery. It was revealed as a clumsy fake, carved with a steel knife from a fossilized elephant femur.

One theory is that Hinton—skeptical but afraid to openly question Woodward, his boss at the museum—might have planted it thinking it would be spotted as a hoax and discredit the whole find. A trunk with Hinton's initials found in a loft at the museum a decade after his death in 1961 contained animal bones stained the same way as the Piltdown fossils.

Miles Russell, senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University, thinks the museum's work may shed new light on how the forgery was done. But he thinks there is little doubt Dawson was the perpetrator.

"He is the only person who is always on site every time a find is made," Russell said. "And when he died in 1916, Piltdown Man died with him."

Russell is author of the new book "The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed"—though he doubts speculation about the century-old fraud will stop.

"People love conspiracy theories," he said. "And this is one of the biggest scientific hoaxes of all time."

Whoever was behind it, the hoax delayed consensus on human origins, leading some scientists to question the authenticity of later finds because they did not fit with Piltdown Man.

Stringer said Piltdown Man stands as a warning to scientists always to be on their guard—especially when evidence seems to back up their theories.

"There was a huge gap in evidence and Piltdown at the time neatly filled that gap," he said. "It was what people expected to be found. In a sense you could say it was manufactured to fit the scientific agenda.

"That lesson of Piltdown is always worth learning—when something seems too good to be true, maybe it is."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Piltdown Man: The scandal that delayed the study of human origins by decades - History

Piltdown Man: The Great English Mystery Story

American Scientist May-June 1991

[194] The Piltdown man forgery of 1912 was one of the most successful and wicked of all scientific frauds. Although the discovery of the supposedly primitive British "dawn man"–scientifically christened Eoanthropus dawsoni– was announced almost 80 years ago, the forgery continues to attract attention because it has never been satisfactorily resolved. Even though the main culprit has probably been identified, there remain nagging doubts and obscure hints that the true story may be more complicated.

There has been a steady flow of books attempting to expose the Piltdown affair. After having been very dissatisfied by the latest of these (1), I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own I now believe that an answer to the Piltdown riddle can be given. The answer fits every requirement of a classic English mystery story–including some high comedy. It may well be that a simply marvelous solution has been sitting in front of us all for a long time.

The bare bones, so to speak, of the Piltdown hoax begin with a country solicitor by the name of Charles Dawson (1864-1916), who practiced law in the county of Sussex, England. Dawson was a somewhat pretentious man who, though not especially popular, was quite influential. He made significant contributions to his lifelong hobbies of geology and anthropology, including the discovery of the first Mesozoic mammals in Britain. In the decades before Piltdown, Dawson had built up an important collection of fossils for the British Museum (Natural History) and had developed a professional relationship with Arthur Smith Woodward of the Department of Geology at the Museum. But Dawson also had a less scrupulous side. He plagiarized a historical account of Hastings Castle, Sussex, from an earlier unpublished manuscript. And he apparently bought his elegant house on the grounds of Lewes Castle by pretending to act on behalf of the Sussex Archaeological Society.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Dawson, like many of his contemporaries, was actively searching for the fossil and artifactual remains of early humans. It was a time in which several discoveries of human ancestral remains were made throughout Europe. However, the most important discoveries–such as the Heidelberg jaw found in 1907–were being made on the European continent. No preglacial human remains had been found in Britain. There was also considerable argument over the significance of so-called "eoliths," simple stone artifacts that might logically have preceded the more finished "paleoliths," but which were also crude enough to have been caused naturally by abrasion. While many Pleistocene sites–dating from about 10,000 years ago to two million years ago–were being uncovered in Britain, there was a dire lack of Pliocene deposits–in the epoch spanning two million to five million years ago. But the fossil hunters believed they knew where the remains of early humans would be found they focused their attention on the gravel beds of southern England and their counterparts on the European continent.

Dawson came upon one such gravel bed in 1898 when he became Steward of Barkham Manor, near the village of Piltdown, Sussex. Along the drive to the manor a small exposure of gravel had been partially excavated for a pond. Although Dawson held court at the manor only once every four years, he apparently took a keen interest in the gravel bed. In 1908 Dawson invited another enthusiastic amateur–a local chemistry instructor, Samuel Allinson Woodhead–to join him on an investigation of the Piltdown gravel bed. Dawson had told Woodhead that workmen had found peculiar flints and something "like a coconut," presumably a skull, in the gravel bed. The two of them searched the gravel, but ultimately found nothing except "pieces of dark brown ironstone closely resembling the piece of a skull" (2).

In May, 1909, Dawson was searching for bones in one of his favorite quarries near Hastings, when he met two strangers who were also exploring the deposits. The two other fossil hunters were Jesuit priests: Father Felix Pelletier and a young seminary student, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It was an auspicious occasion Dawson and Teilhard became friends who would collect fossils together for several years afterward.

A series of other noteworthy events occurred during a six-year period leading up to the public announcement of the Piltdown find in 1912. In 1906 Dawson acquired a human skull, lacking a jaw, from a Mr. Burley of Nutley (3). Sometime between 1908 and 1912, Dawson asked the chemist Samuel Woodhead how one might treat a bone to make it look like a fossil (4). Between 1908 and 1911 Dawson showed pieces of a human skull–said to have been found at the Piltdown site–to members in his circle of amateur geologists, anthropologists and antiquarians. Among those who saw the remains were Teilhard, Henry J. Sargent, a [195] museum curator, and Lewis Abbott, who kept a jewelry and curio shop in Hastings. Abbott was a leading player in the "eolith" controversy and had an important collection of fossils. It has since become known that Abbott had Dawson's Piltdown fossils for a while during this period and soaked at least some of them in potassium dichromate solution "to harden them." Dawson also exchanged artifacts with another major collector of implements, Harry Morris.

Figure 1. Principal participants are gathered around the fossil remains of Piltdown man–the supposed "dawn man" of Britain, and one of the most embarrassing and successful scientific frauds in history–in this oil painting by the Chelsea artist John Cooke. The discovery of Piltdown man was announced in 1912, but its fraudulence was not uncovered until 1953. The forgery misled some of the leading anthropologists and paleontologists of the period. Even today, the identity of the perpetrators and the means by which the fraud was committed have not been satisfactorily resolved. The painting, entitled "A Discussion on the Piltdown Skull," is based on a meeting at the Royal College of Surgeons on the afternoon of August 11, 1913, during which the participants presented their views on the anatomy of Piltdown man. One or more of these men may have been involved in committing the fraud, while others were the unwitting victims. The anthropologist Arthur Keith (wearing the white laboratory coat) is seated at the table examining the Piltdown skull. Seated to Keith's left are the osteologist William Pycraft and the zoologist Ray Lankester. The dentist Arthur Underwood stands in front, to Keith's right. Standing in the back (from Keith's far left) are the geologist Arthur Smith Woodward, the amateur paleontologist Charles Dawson, the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith, and Frank Barlow, an assistant to Woodward. Other notables in the Piltdown affair, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Lewis Abbot and Martin Hinton, were not present at the discussion. On the back wall, a portrait of Charles Darwin presides over the meeting. (Photograph courtesy of the Geological Society of London.)

Then, in February of 1912, Dawson wrote to his colleague, the geologist Arthur Smith Woodward, telling him that he had discovered a fragment of a human skull at Piltdown (3). A month later Dawson sent Woodward one of the associated Piltdown specimens, which Woodward identified as a premolar from a hippopotamus. In late May, Dawson showed his human and animal specimens to Woodward and on June 2, Dawson, Woodward and Teilhard visited the Piltdown site together. At the site, Dawson picked up another skull fragment, while Teilhard found part of an elephant molar when Woodward saw the tooth, he "jumped on the piece with the enthusiasm of a youth and all the fire that his apparent coldness covered came out" (1). Teilhard, who had apparently been asked along as someone who could be trusted not to make the find public, also picked up a paleolith.

During the month of June–while Teilhard had left for France–Woodward and Dawson worked at the gravel bed, finding three pieces of a right parietal bone and a broken lower jaw, which was uncovered by Dawson. With the aid of various assistants, including the chemist Woodhead, Dawson and Woodward eventually assembled a collection of animal bones and what appeared to be eoliths. In July Dawson showed his Piltdown eoliths to the local expert Lewis Abbott, who pronounced them "man all over" (1).

[196] Back at the British Museum, Woodward and his assistant Frank Barlow attempted to reconstruct the Piltdown skull. It is not clear who saw the remains then, as Woodward was somewhat secretive. But at least two people certainly did: Arthur Keith, who was Conservator of the Hunterian Museum, at the Royal College of Surgeons, and E. Ray Lankester, a zoologist and popular author. Keith correctly foresaw a rivalry for the remains between the British Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons–particularly because Woodward was not a trained anthropologist. Keith was also annoyed, however, because Dawson did not bring the remains to him (5).

At this point only a small circle of specialists and amateurs knew of the Piltdown remains. On November 21, however, an unknown source leaked the story to the Manchester Guardian, which brought news of the find to the public. A month later, on December 18, 1912, the discovery was officially announced at a meeting of the Geological Society of London. Within several months, the British Museum made casts of the finds available for study.

The availability of the casts now meant that the fossils, or copies of them, could be examined by a number of specialists. The anthropologist Arthur Keith reconstructed the remains in such a manner as to give the skull an extremely modern appearance. In contrast, the geologist Arthur Smith Woodward put the fragments together in a more primitive shape. On July 12, 1913, Keith and Woodward had a meeting at the Royal College of Surgeons, and the battle over their respective interpretations of the skull began. Later, a number of other major and minor players entered the fray, including Grafton Elliott Smith, a professor of anatomy at Manchester University.

Even at this early point in the controversy some doubted that the jaw and the skull really belonged together. Although the combination of a modern cranium and a primitive mandible was what one might expect for an ancestral type, the match between the two was imperfect, and some even suspected that the jaw came from an ape. David Wateston, an anatomist at King's College in London, was one who never accepted that the jaw and skull were from the same animal. Nevertheless, many others, including Keith and Woodward, merely argued over how the skull should be reconstructed. Keith also disagreed with Woodward over the ape-like reconstruction of the missing canine teeth. Keith concluded that Woodward was totally mistaken about their probable shape and wear patterns, especially in view of the unusually modern wear pattern on the moles of the mandible. Keith and Woodward were so caught up in their anatomical reconstructions that they never questioned the origin of the remains.

Still, the possibility that the remains were a hoax was apparent to some. In May of 1913 two amateur archaeologists, Captain Guy St. Barbe and Major Reginald Marriot, discovered Dawson in his law office working with dishes of chemicals and pieces of bones. They suspected fraud but said nothing in deference to Dawson's wife and family. One of them may have told the story to Martin Allistair Campbell Hinton, junior zoologist at the British Museum (Natural History)–but only after Dawson's death. The observations of St. Barbe and Marriot came fully to light only in 1953 (3).

Perhaps not surprisingly, more fossil discoveries were made in 1913. In July, Dawson wrote Woodward that he had found some fragmentary human remains at a second site, Barcombe Mills, south of Piltdown. However, this discovery was largely ignored–possibly because so much was happening back at the original Piltdown site. Shortly thereafter, Teilhard resumed to England for a brief period, during which he again joined Woodward and Dawson in an exploration of the site. During one such expedition in August, Teilhard found a brown canine tooth: one that exactly matched Woodward's reconstruction. With this new find, Woodward began to carry the day in debates over the interpretation of the skull.

Figure 2. Two views of Piltdown man portray the supposed human ancestor as either ape-like (left), in a reconstruction by Arthur Smith Woodward, or more human (right), in Arthur Keith's restoration. Woodward constructed a jutting jaw, a large lower canine and a small cranial capacity, whereas Keith made the jaw less ape-like, the canine much smaller and the braincase much larger. The Piltdown bones–consisting of a human skull associated with an orangutan jaw–were stained with potassium dichromate to make them look older. The dark areas represent the original bone fragments, whereas the reconstructed regions are white. The diagnostic part of the ape jaw–the chin and the condyle that articulates with the skull–were broken off by the forger.

Figure 3. Fossilized elephant-bone implement discovered at Piltdown looks strikingly like a cricket bat. The "bat" may have been planted at Piltdown by a knowing prankster in response to claims that Piltdown man was the first Englishman. In an attempt to reveal the fraud, the prankster decided that as a proper Englishman, Piltdown man must have had his own cricket bat. The nicks and cuts on the bone implement were made with a steel knife. (Photograph courtesy of The Natural History Museum, London.)

The anatomist William King Gregory of the American Museum of Natural History also studied the material in September 1913. Gregory made one of the clearest statements concerning the possibility of fraud: "It has been suspected by some that geologically they are not old at all that they may represent a deliberate hoax, a Negro or Australian skull and a broken ape jaw, artificially fossilized and planted in the gravel-bed to fool the scientists" (6). Oddly, despite this apparent wariness, Gregory's initial response was to endorse the find.

Others also publicly expressed their doubts about Piltdown Man. In 1915, the zoologist Gerrit S. Miller, of the U. S. National Museum of Natural History, published a paper stating that the jaw was that of a chimpanzee (7). Although Miller's work was savagely attacked by the osteologist, William Plane Pycraft–a friend of Woodward–it did make an impression on some (8). William King Gregory, for example, reversed his decision and agreed with Miller's observations. Further evidence against the case for Piltdown man came from George Grant McCurdy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, who marshalled strong arguments showing that the skull and jaw could not be from the same animal. A Birmingham dentist, W. Courtney Lyne, also published a paper noting serious inconsistencies concerning the canine tooth that Teilhard had discovered. There was, however, more to come that would silence the critics.

In January, 1915, Dawson wrote to Woodward that he had found the remains of a second dawn man, "Piltdown II," at another site in nearby Sheffield Park. Dawson wrote that he found part of a left frontal bone, an occipital bone, a molar tooth and the molar of a rhinoceros. However, this discovery was not formally announced until February, 1917. The two-year delay was partly due to the war and partly due to Dawson's death on August 10, 1916. He left no information on the precise location where he made this new find. Nevertheless, Piltdown II silenced the skeptics. Many of those who had expressed doubts, including William King Gregory–who reversed his position again–now came to accept the association of the jaw and the skull.

In addition to the controversy concerning the anatomy of Piltdown man, anthropologists had heated debates about the association of Eoanthropus dawsoni with the stone implements found at the site. Was Piltdown man the maker of these eoliths? One especially remarkable artifact was uncovered in 1914 by Dawson and Woodward during one of their frequent expeditions (Woodward actually unearthed the object). The extraordinary item was shaped like nothing less than the business end of a cricket bat. It was made from a piece of fossilized elephant bone that showed various nicks and cuts. No primitive tools were known that could have produced such scars, and no obvious use for the object could be suggested.

One of the reasons the forgery was so successful was that there were so many internal inconsistencies scientists spent more time arguing over the interpretation of details than they did on validating the whole matter. For example, there were no systematic excavations at the site of Piltdown I, and the Piltdown II site was never found. The forger had also cleverly salted the gravel bed with faunal elements that indicated up to four separate horizons for geologists to fit into the existing Pliocene-Pleistocene chronology.

As the years went on, other paleontological finds– especially the discovery of Peking man in the 1920s and 1930s by W. C. Pei and Teilhard de Chardin, the australopithecine facial skeleton discovered by Raymond Dart in 1924, and many other European remains showed that Piltdown man's combination of an advanced cranium and a primitive jaw was anomalous. Piltdown man became very much a side issue.

In 1953, the Piltdown man controversy was revived at a London conference on human origins convened by the Weiner-Gren Foundation. Notably, the conference brought together two men: Kenneth Oakley, a geologist from the British Museum, who had been using various novel chemical analyses to test the age associations of fossil remains including Piltdown, and Joseph Weiner, a South-African-born anthropologist of Oxford University. The two shared a skepticism about the age of the Piltdown remains, the association of the jaw and the skull, and the haphazard pattern by which the fossils were collected. Oakley, for instance, had already shown that the remains were not very old at all.

After dining at the conference one evening with Oakley and the Chicago anthropologist Sherwood Washburn, Weiner found himself unable to sleep. The dinner conversation had turned to the subject of Piltdown man, and afterwards his thoughts stayed with the topic. A number of hypotheses raced through his mind–all led him with inexorable logic to one "repellent" idea: Piltdown man was a forgery (3). After this, all the pieces fell into place.

With remarkable speed, Oakley's chemical analyses exposed the whole fraud (3, 9). Not a single bone or artifact from Piltdown was authentic. Many had been stained with potassium dichromate to make them look older, but also so that they might resemble remains from another Pleistocene site, Red Crag in Sussex. As it happens, some of the animal remains were from Red Crag! The jaw was actually from a sub-fossil orangutan (Oakley thought it might have been stolen from the Museum) the cranium was modern, if unusually thick (perhaps that of an Australian aborigine), whereas the canine discovered by Teilhard came from a modern ape.

The faking of the other items also became apparent. Some of the bone elements had also been treated chemically to change the calcium phosphate to gypsum, or calcium sulphate. The Piltdown II material turned out to be from the same individual as Piltdown I. The Barcombe Mills material was also modern and chemically treated. The bone implement was from a fossil elephant femur that had been cut with a steel knife. The molar teeth on the jaw had all been shaped with a steel file. The canine that Teilhard had discovered was unusual because it had not been stained with potassium dichromate. It had merely been colored with artist's Vandyke brown oil paint. One of the elephant molars was particularly interesting because it had almost certainly come from a site in Tunisia.

In the course of the investigation Weiner located the collection of implements Harry Morris had accumulated–some of which he had traded with Dawson. Among the collection were undated notes stating that Dawson had cheated Morris of his best specimens. The notes also stated that his specimens had been chemically treated, and that he had overhead a conversation to the effect that the canine tooth had come from France (3). All in all, the suspicions that William King Gregory had reported in 1913 were remarkably accurate.

In Weiner's 1955 book–still by far the best treatment of the hoax–the question of responsibility was dealt with somewhat circumspectly. Weiner may not have wanted to rub salt into a 40-year-old wound although Woodward had died in 1948, many of the participants or their families were still living. Weiner did, however, strongly point to Dawson as the perpetrator of the fraud. But he was also not perfectly sure about the number of forgers. The forgery was exposed, but the mystery was not solved.

Now, nearly 40 years after Weiner's book, we still lack first-hand witnesses and death-bed confessions. If we are to find any more culprits, it will be through armchair detective work, focusing on the three classic questions of the roman policier: means, motive and opportunity.

Although the list of suspects has grown since Weiner's time, there is no question that Dawson was the central actor in the Piltdown hoax. Dawson had both the means and the opportunity to perpetrate the fraud. He could easily have obtained all the forged specimens he had been observed chemically treating bones as the Steward of Barkham Manor he had free access and every opportunity to salt the gravel beds and he was the only person present on every occasion when specimens were found. Moreover, nothing more was found after he died.

What could have been Dawson's motive? It could simply have been a practical joke that worked unexpectedly well, and was ultimately taken too seriously for the joker to back out. But the fraud was a little too systematic for this to be likely. The next most probable motive may be found in Dawson's ambition. He longed to be accepted as a scientist and to belong to the Royal Society. The only reason he was not elected to the Royal Society may be because he died too soon. But he did pull off a fraud that made him famous for 40 years.

Dawson's ambition may have been a sufficient motive, but was the fraud also aimed at someone? Because the fraud was not unmasked until 1953, none of the principals–Arthur Smith Woodward, Arthur Keith or Grafton Elliott Smith– really suffered. But these men would have been ruined if the forgery had been exposed earlier. Dawson obviously chose Woodward (a cold man whom no one seems to have liked) as his scientific collaborator–or unwitting tool. Is it possible that Dawson meant to reveal his forgery as a great joke on Woodward, but then backed off in dismay when everyone swallowed the bait so completely? Probably not, because the forgeries continued to appear for two years. Actually, if any part of the fraud was aimed at an individual, it would have been at Arthur Keith, whose theories were shot down by the canine tooth. But Dawson scarcely knew Keith, if at all, before 1912. Overall, it is difficult to imagine that any of the scientists were deliberate targets of the forgery. To be sure they were taken in by the fraud, but they were also the most willing of all victims, greedily using Piltdown for their own ends.

[199] Did any of the scientists conspire with Dawson to perpetrate the fraud? Such possibilities have been raised, and many notable names have been dragged in on the flimsiest bit of evidence. But we can pretty much rule them out. Everyone agrees that Woodward was far too stuffy and boring to effect a forgery such as this. His career was already quite secure before the incident (10). Moreover, he was still dictating his "Piltdown" book on his death-bed. The attempts to incriminate Keith in a recently published book are very unconvincing (1). Grafton Elliot Smith entered the fray rather late suspiciously hovering on the sidelines for a time–but he is not known to have been connected with Dawson in 1911 or 1912.

Other possible conspirators have been sought among Dawson's circle of amateur scientists. The eolith specialist Lewis Abbott is a very likely choice, for example. He surely had the means to obtain the material and apparently did treat some of it chemically for Dawson–though perhaps not knowing its intended use. But it is hard to see his motive. Abbott is not known to have had any malice toward any of the scientists, and he did not benefit from the fraud. It is hard to imagine him sitting still while Dawson gathered all the fame. If he intended to double-cross Dawson, he failed to do so. And significantly, Abbott was not present at any of the Piltdown excavations.

In addition to the obvious suspects, there have been some obviously false confessions, and some very late accusations against a number of figures–ranging from the Oxford geologist William Johnson Sollas to Woodward's technician Frank Barlow. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Piltdown, has been accused of the fraud. None of these theories holds water. The search for other conspirators continues, however, fueled by vague and disquieting rumors. There are only two principal figures left: Martin Hinton, the British Museum zoologist, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Martin Hinton is a suspect who has recently been favored as a villain (11,12, 13). Not only did he strongly dislike Woodward, but it was well known that he was a practical joker. He was also familiar with Dawson and the amateur circle. He once claimed to know who had done it: not Dawson but "someone in the British Museum" (11). This has been understood by some to be a coded confession. But the same has been suspected of Teilhard. After the fakery had been revealed, Teilhard wrote a cryptic letter to Weiner concerning the finding of the canine: "it was so inconspicuous that it seems to me quite unlikely that the tooth could have been planted" (14). If no one else could have planted it, then it must have been Teilhard. Was this some sort of Jesuitical way of admitting that he put it there?

Surprisingly little attention was paid to the suspicion of forgery that William King Gregory reported in 1913. There was even the precedent of a similar forgery in France in 1863. With experience, paleontologists can usually ascertain where a particular fossil has come from they may even recognize individual specimens if they have seen them before. One of the most puzzling aspects of the affair is that none of Dawson's specimens were recognized as ringers. Did someone, perhaps Barlow or Hinton, actually spot the fraud? In a letter to The Times of London in 1955, Hinton claimed that the zoologists at the British Museum would have recognized that the jaw and the canine were from an ape if they had been allowed to see them. But Hinton certainly saw them and failed to mention any suspicions when he listed Piltdown as an authentic element of the British Pleistocene fauna in 1926 (15). If Hinton was involved in the conspiracy, it appears that he backed away from springing the trap.

Figure 4. Charles Dawson, a country solicitor and amateur paleontologist, stands as the prime suspect in forging the Piltdown man remains. The case against Dawson is quite strong. As a collector of fossils and antiquities, he could easily have obtained the false specimens. He had frequent access to the Piltdown gravel bed where he could have planted the fossils, and he had been observed chemically treating bones. Dawson was also the only person present at the discovery of all the fossil bones and implements thought to be associated with Piltdown man. Nothing more was found after he died in 1916. Still, it is not at all clear that Dawson was acting alone. (Photograph courtesy of the Geological Society of London.)

Without better evidence on Hinton, let us now reconsider Teilhard de Chardin as a possible accomplice. Stephen Jay Gould accuses Teilhard directly, on the basis of a letter in which Teilhard reveals some information about Piltdown II that he could only have had as part of the fraud (16). [200] Moreover, Teilhard did have the means and the opportunity to be a conspirator. He may be the source of the Tunisian elephant molars uncovered at Piltdown I–a fragment of which he found at the site. And we must remember that he also found the painted brown canine. But in defense of Teilhard, let us consider the circumstances. Teilhard had no feuds with any of the principals in the case. He stood to gain no fame or other benefit from a fraud. He was not even in the country for many of the discoveries. It is also difficult to see why Dawson would have needed Teilhard for that matter, it is hard to imagine Teilhard's motive for conspiring with Dawson. If Teilhard too part in the hoax thinking it was to be a joke, he would surely have revealed the fraud quickly. As far as the slip about Piltdown II in the letter, it was written nearly 40 years after the initial discovery– perhaps Teilhard's memory was faulty with respect to what he knew and when he knew it.

There is also another possibility: the whole affair was actually aimed at Charles Dawson himself. Was Dawson set up or double-crossed, perhaps by one of his amateur friends? There were certainly enough local people who disliked him. The biggest problem with this theory is that no one really had the opportunity to pull it off. How could Abbott, Woodhead or any of the others surreptitiously salt the gravel bed, while also making sure that the salted specimens would be found?

I believe the most plausible answer to all this has been sitting around for about 10 years–unappreciated perhaps because everyone else has been pursuing their own pet theories. Back in 1980, Leonard Harrison Matthews devised a devilishly ingenious scheme that explains nearly all of the anomalies and motives. Matthews scheme can be modified and woven into an account of the whole affair, making the perfect English crime.

Once the extent to which he carefully prepared his story is appreciated, Dawson has to be seen as the sole instigator of the fraud. Perhaps the pieces of ironstone resembling a skull that he found at Piltdown in 1908 ultimately planted the seed in his mind. The discovery of the Heidelberg jaw may also have given him some impetus. The skull Dawson acquired from Mr. Burley in 1906 presented him with the means, and the barren gravel bed at Piltdown provided the opportunity.

Dawson appears to have assembled the faunal remains from his own collections, as well as from the purchase and exchange of specimens with others. With these he started to lay the ground work. First, he lured the chemist Samuel Woodhead and the eolith collector Lewis Abbott with his story of the workmen who discovered the coconut-shaped skull. Then he chanced upon Teilhard–a perfect addition, something of an innocent and a priest to boot. But he carefully kept Teilhard away from Piltdown at first. By getting Lewis Abbott to treat some of the specimens, Dawson gave himself someone else to accuse, should the fraud be discovered. He eventually tested the waters with Arthur Smith Woodward, first with a letter, then with the hippopotamus premolar. Would Woodward take the bait? He did, and when he was later shown the skull specimens, Woodward was hooked.

Dawson then took Woodward into the field for the first time he made sure that Woodward himself found specimens while Teilhard served as a witness. But the skull alone, although unusually thick, was not enough. A lower jaw was also needed. It may have been during one of his visits to the British Museum at this time that Dawson stole a medieval orangutan jaw. A complete ape jaw would have been immediately recognized, so he broke off the segments that articulate with the skull as well as other diagnostic parts. Finally, he filed the teeth to simulate human wear patterns, and then he planted the specimen.

Woodward took the material to London, where he showed it to a few other scientists. They all accepted the authenticity of the find, although some questioned the association of the jaw and the cranium. It was a skillful forgery that was eagerly swallowed because now the British could claim a "dawn man" that countered continental discoveries such as the Heidelberg jaw. Dawson continued to plant material for Woodward to find at the site in 1912 and 1913. Although Dawson continued to experiment with other human material–fabricating the Barcombe Mills discovery–his work was essentially done.

At first, Woodward was very careful about who saw the Piltdown materials. In so doing he unwittingly reduced the chances that the fraud would be exposed. Even some staff members of the British Museum were not given full access to the specimens until the Geological Society meeting.

But there was probably at least one person who spotted the fraud at first sight: the zoologist Martin Hinton. Hinton had a number of things to go on: the associated fossils, the artificial color, the obviously ape-like jaw. Hinton must have realized immediately that the culprit was Dawson, and he probably suspected Woodward, Teilhard and Barlow as well. But what should he do about it? At that time he was only a temporary worker at the Museum he could scarcely mount a direct challenge to Arthur Smith Woodward, who was so firmly committed to Piltdown. Nor could he question the judgment of Arthur Keith–who had already invested much during his reconstructions of the skull. Even though Hinton may not have felt the need to help these two pompous men out of a difficult spot, he had to find another way to reveal the fraud.

First Hinton tried dropping hints to William King Gregory. But even when Gregory published these "suspicions," Woodward was undeterred. If anything, Woodward plunged harder and deeper into the fray. So Hinton decided to let the forger know he had been detected, using his favorite weapon–a practical joke. After hearing the solemn debates between Keith and Woodward about the reconstruction of the jaw and teeth, he decided to salt the gravel bed with a patently false canine tooth. Perhaps this would flush the forger into revealing himself. At least the forger would know that the game was over.

So Hinton took a canine from an ape and filed it down so that it looked preposterously like the plaster canine in Woodward's reconstruction–the one that Keith had essentially proved was impossible. Not yet knowing that Dawson had used potassium dichromate to stain the other specimens, Hinton colored the tooth with artist's brown paint.

At this point we can expand the story by bringing in Teilhard de Chardin–recently arrived from France, and eager to get up to date on Piltdown. But we should consider three possible scenarios. In the first, Teilhard also spotted the forgery–most probably because of the Tunisian tooth. But Hinton may also have mentioned his suspicions to Teilhard, as he had with Gregory. In any case, angry at being duped, Teilhard joined forces with Hinton. Teilhard agreed to plant the canine that Hinton had painted in the end it turned out to be easiest if he actually found it as well.

[201] In the second scenario, Teilhard came to conspire with Dawson some time after they met in 1909, although it is hard to imagine why. In this case, Hinton would have planted the canine himself when Teilhard found it, he saw that the fraud had been discovered. The third possibility is that Hinton directly confronted Teilhard, who then agreed to plant the canine to make amends and to help reveal the fraud. In any case, Teilhard left England very soon afterward, and did not return for many years. Gould believes that Teilhard actually warns the reader about the forgery in a 1920 paper. Teilhard was forever after rather embarrassed by any mention of Piltdown (16).

The real difficulty with these schemes is that Hinton's bold maneuver had no known effect on Dawson. Dawson neither had a stroke nor did he make a sudden confession. Nor did anyone else. It must have been a nasty moment for Dawson when Teilhard produced the canine–unless, of course, he thought that God had saved him after all, by allowing a real fossil to be found at Piltdown! But we must also appreciate that, by this point, Dawson had no options. He had gone too far, dragged in by the eagerness of virtually every scientist from New York to Paris. In any case, his creation ought to be correct–a British fossil man should exist. So he showed his anonymous challenger that he would not be warned off, and salted a few more minor finds.

Interestingly, after Teilhard discovered the canine, Dawson made several trips to Arthur Keith's anatomical museum to study gorilla canines (17). Dawson's notes to Woodward have been seen as attempts to buttress the authenticity of the canine. They might also have been an attempt to raise Woodward's suspicions–at least about the canine–but this may be stretching things too far.

Hinton decided to strike again–this time through a simply tremendous joke. Having failed to wake the zoologists, Hinton decided to catch the anthropologists' attention. Woodward had started to refer to Eoanthropus rather portentously as the "First Englishman." So Hinton decided to provide what every true Englishman needs–his very own cricket bat. Hinton appears to have carved the cricket bat from a piece of fossil elephant femur that had been filched from a museum. Woodward found the bat, covered in yellow clay but actually lodged in a soil layer–separated from the clay by a layer of gravel. Surely, Hinton must have thought, this was an obvious hoax.

Hinton's joke turned out to be another flop–no one seems to have been the slightest bit suspicious! This gave Dawson an opportunity to move in for the kill. He struck back with Piltdown II. But, cleverly, he also wrote a paper backing off from his former claims about the significance of the artifacts (1). Now everyone eagerly fell into line, without even seeing the second Piltdown site.

At this point Hinton might have given up and kept his laughter–and no doubt his admiration for Dawson's nerve–to himself. It is hard to imagine what might have happened next, because something totally unexpected occurred: Dawson died. In so doing he neatly turned the tables on Hinton. Now Hinton was trapped in an instant he and Teilhard had become the only living forgers! The two had no choice but to lie low, dropping hints.

It will be difficult to corroborate this theory of Hinton's role–but at least nothing yet falsifies it. While we can only deplore Dawson's wicked forgery, it has to be admitted that it would not have succeeded without the headlong acceptance of shoddy evidence by scientists who should have known better. As the W. C. Fields movie observes: "You can't cheat an honest man." Perhaps Dawson had the last laugh after all.

1. Spencer, F. 1990. Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. Dawson, C. 1913. The Piltdown skull. Hastings and East Sussex Naturalist 2:73-82.

3. Weiner, J. S 1955. The Piltdown Forgery. Oxford Oxford University Press.

4. Costello, P 1985. The Piltdown hoax reconsidered. Antiquity LDC 167-171.

5. Keith, A. 1950. An Autobiography. London: Watts.

6. Gregory, W. K 1914. The dawn man of Piltdown. American Museum Journal 14:189-200.

7. Miller, G. S. 1915. The jaw of Piltdown man. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 65 (12).

8. Pycraft, W. R 1917. The jaw of the Piltdown man a reply to Mr. Gerrit S. Miller. Scientific Progress 11:389 409.

9. Oakley, K R and C. R. Hoskins. 1950. New evidence on the antiquity of Piltdown man. Nature 2165:179-382.

10. Woodward, A. S. 1948. The Earliest Englishman. London: Watts.

11. Halstead, L. B. 1979. The Piltdown hoax cui bono? Nature 277:596.

12. Matthews, L. 1981. The missing links (Part 8): The planting of a tooth. New Scientist 90:785.

13. Zuckerman, S. 1990. A phony ancestor. New York Review of Books, November 8, 1990:12-16.

14. Matthews, L. H. 1981. The missing links (Part 10): Shall we ever know the truth? New Scientist 91:26-28.

15. Hinton, M. A. C. 1926. The Pleistocene Mammalia of the British Isles and their bearing upon the date of the glacial period. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society 20:325-348.

16. Gould, S. J. 1980. The Piltdown conspiracy. Natural History 89:8-28.

17. Grigson, C. 1990. Missing links m the Piltdown fraud. New Scientist 89:55-58.

Piltdown Man, the Great English Mystery Story

The Common but Less Frequent Loon and Other Essays 1993

[89] What could have been Dawson's motive? The hoax could simply have been a practical joke that worked unexpectedly well and was taken too seriously for the joker to back out. But the fraud was a little too systematic for this to be likely. The next most probable motive may be found in Dawson's ambition. He longed to be accepted as a scientist and to belong to the Royal Society. The only reason he was not elected to the membership may be that he died too soon. But he did pull off a fraud that made him famous for forty years.

Dawson's ambition may have been a sufficient motive, but was the fraud also aimed at someone? Because the fraud was not unmasked until 1953, none of the principals–Arthur Smith Woodward, Arthur Keith, or Grafton Elliott Smith–suffered. But these men would have been ruined if the forgery had been exposed earlier. Dawson chose Woodward (a cold man whom no one seems to have liked) to be his scientific collaborator–or unwitting tool. Is it [90] possible that Dawson meant to reveal his forgery as a great joke on Woodward but then backed off in dismay when everyone swallowed the bait so completely? Probably not, because the forgeries continued to appear for two years. If any part of the fraud was aimed at an individual, the target would have been Arthur Keith, whose theories were shot down by the canine tooth. But Dawson scarcely knew Keith, if at all, before 1912. Overall, it is difficult to imagine that any of the scientists were targets. To be sure, they were taken in by the fraud, but they were also the most willing of victims, greedily using Piltdown for their own ends.

Did any of the scientists conspire with Dawson to perpetrate the fraud? The possibility has been raised, and many notable names have been dragged in on the flimsiest bit of evidence. But we can safely rule them out. Everyone agrees that Woodward was far too stuffy and boring to effect a forgery such as this. His career was already secure before the incident (10). Moreover, he was still dictating his Piltdown book on his deathbed. The attempts to incriminate Keith in a recently published book are very unconvincing (1). Grafton Elliot Smith entered the fray rather late–suspiciously hovering on the sidelines for a time–but he is not known to have been connected with Dawson in 1911 or 1912.

Other possible conspirators have been sought among Dawson's circle of amateur scientists. The eolith specialist Lewis Abbott is a likely choice, for example. He surely had the means to obtain the material and apparently did treat some of it chemically for Dawson–though perhaps not knowing its intended use. But what would his motive have been? Abbott is not known to have borne malice toward any of the scientists, and he did not benefit from the fraud. It is hard to imagine him sitting still while Dawson gathered all the fame. If he intended to double-cross Dawson, he failed to do so. And significantly, Abbott was not present at any of the Piltdown excavations.

In addition to the obvious suspects, there have been some obviously false confessions and some very late accusations against a number of figures–ranging from the Oxford geologist William Johnson Sollas to Woodward's technician Frank Barlow. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Piltdown, has been accused of the fraud. None of these theories holds water. The search for other conspirators continues, however, fueled by vague and disquieting rumors. Only two principal figures are left: Martin Hinton, the British Museum zoologist, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Martin Hinton has recently been favored as a villain (11, 12, 13). Not only did he dislike Woodward, but he was a well-known practical joker. He was also familiar with Dawson and the amateur circle. He once claimed to know who [91] had done it: not Dawson but "someone in the British Museum" (11). Some consider this a coded confession. But the same has been suspected of Teilhard. After the fakery was revealed, Teilhard wrote a cryptic letter to Weiner about the finding of the canine: "It was so inconspicuous . . . that it seems to me quite unlikely that the tooth could have been planted" (14). If no one else could have planted it, then Teilhard must have. Was this some sort of Jesuitical way of admitting that he put it there?

Surprisingly little attention was paid to the suspicion of forgery that William King Gregory reported in 1913. There was even the precedent of a similar forgery in France in 1863. With experience, paleontologists can usually ascertain where a particular fossil has come from they may even recognize individual specimens if they have seen them before. One of the most puzzling aspects of the affair is that none of Dawson's specimens was recognized as a ringer. Did someone, perhaps Barlow or Hinton, spot the fraud? In a letter to the Times of London in 1955, Hinton claimed that the zoologists at the British Museum would have recognized that the jaw and the canine were from an ape if they had been allowed to see them. But Hinton certainly saw them, and he failed to mention any suspicions when he listed Piltdown man as an authentic element of the British Pleistocene fauna in 1926 (15). If Hinton was involved in the conspiracy, he backed away from springing the trap.

Without more conclusive evidence on Hinton, let us now reconsider Teilhard de Chardin as a possible accomplice. Stephen Jay Gould accuses Teilhard directly, on the basis of a letter in which Teilhard reveals some information about Piltdown II that he could only have had if he was part of the fraud (16). Moreover, Teilhard did have the means and the opportunity to be a conspirator. He may have been the source of the Tunisian elephant molars uncovered at Piltdown I–a fragment of which he found at the site. And we must remember that he also found the painted brown canine. But, in his defense, let us consider the circumstances. Teilhard had no feuds with any of the principals in the case. He stood to gain no fame or other benefit from a fraud. He was not even in the country when many of the discoveries were made. It is also difficult to see why Dawson would have needed Teilhard for that matter, it is hard to imagine Teilhard's motive for conspiring with Dawson. If Teilhard had participated in the hoax thinking it was a joke, he would surely have revealed the fraud quickly. As far as the slip about Piltdown II in the letter, it was written nearly forty years after the initial discovery–perhaps Teilhard's memory was faulty with respect to what he knew and when he knew it.

Another possibility exists: the whole affair was actually aimed at Charles Dawson. Was Dawson set up or double-crossed, perhaps by one of his amateur [92] friends? Certainly enough local people disliked him. The biggest problem with this theory is that no one had the opportunity to pull it off. How could Abbott, Woodhead, or any of the others surreptitiously salt the gravel bed while also making sure that the salted specimens would be found?

The most plausible answer has been sitting around for more than a dozen years–unappreciated perhaps because everyone else has been pursuing pet theories. Back in 1980, Leonard Harrison Matthews devised a devilishly ingenious scheme that explains nearly all of the anomalies and motives. Matthew's scheme can be modified and woven into an account of the whole affair, making the perfect English crime.

Once we realize the extent to which Dawson carefully prepared his story, we must see him as the sole instigator of the fraud. Perhaps the pieces of ironstone resembling a skull that he found at Piltdown in 1908 planted the seed in his mind. The discovery of the Heidelberg jaw may also have given him some impetus. The skull that Dawson acquired from Mr. Burley in 1906 presented him with the means, and the barren gravel bed at Piltdown provided the opportunity.

Dawson appears to have assembled the faunal remains from his own collections, as well as through the purchase and exchange of specimens. With these he laid the groundwork. First, he lured the chemist Samuel Woodhead and the eolith collector Lewis Abbott with his story of the workmen who discovered the cocoanut-shaped skull. Then he chanced upon Teilhard–a perfect addition, something of an innocent and a priest to boot. But he carefully kept Teilhard away from Piltdown. By persuading Abbott to treat some of the specimens, Dawson gave himself someone

else to accuse should the fraud be discovered. He eventually tested the waters with Arthur Smith Woodward, first with a letter, then with the hippopotamus premolar. Would Woodward take the bait? He did, and when he was later shown the skull specimens, he was hooked.

Dawson then took Woodward into the field for the first time he made sure that Woodward himself found specimens while Teilhard served as a witness. But the skull alone, though unusually thick, was not enough. A lower jaw was also needed. It may have been during one of his visits to the British Museum at this time that Dawson stole a medieval orangutan jaw. A complete ape jaw would have been immediately recognized, so he broke off the segments that articulate with the skull, as well as other diagnostic parts, and filed the teeth to simulate human wear patterns. Then he planted the specimen.

Woodward took the material to London, where he showed it to a few other scientists. They all accepted the authenticity of the find, although some [93] questioned the association of the jaw and the cranium. It was a skillful forgery that was eagerly swallowed because now the British could claim a dawn man to counter Continental discoveries. Dawson continued to plant material for Woodward to find at the site in 1912 and 1913. Although Dawson experimented with other human material–fabricating the Barcombe Mills discovery–his work was essentially done.

Woodward was very careful about who saw the Piltdown materials and, in so doing, unwittingly reduced the chances that the fraud would be exposed. Even some staff members of the British Museum were not given full access to the specimens until the Geological Society meeting.

But at least one person spotted the fraud at first sight: the zoologist Martin Hinton. Hinton had a number of things to go on: the associated fossils, the artificial color, the obviously apelike jaw. Hinton must have realized immediately that the culprit was Dawson, and he probably suspected Woodward, Teilhard, and Barlow as well. But what should he do about it? At that time he was only a temporary worker at the museum he could scarcely mount a direct challenge to Arthur Smith Woodward, who was so firmly committed to Piltdown man. Nor could he question the judgment of Arthur Keith–who had already invested much during his reconstructions of the skull. Even though Hinton may not have felt the need to help these two pompous men out of a difficult spot, he had to find another way to reveal the fraud.

He dropped hints to William King Gregory. But even when Gregory published these suspicions, Woodward was undeterred. If anything, Woodward plunged deeper into the fray. So Hinton decided to let the forger know that he had been detected by using his favorite weapon–a practical joke. After hearing the solemn debates between Keith and Woodward about the reconstruction of the jaw and teeth, he decided to salt the gravel bed with a patently false canine tooth. Perhaps this would flush the forger into revealing himself. At least the forger would know that the game was over.

So Hinton took a canine from an ape and filed it down so that it looked preposterously like the plaster canine in Woodward's reconstruction–the one that Keith had essentially proved was impossible. Not yet knowing that Dawson had used potassium dichromate to stain the other specimens, Hinton colored the tooth with brown paint.

At this point we can expand the story by bringing in Teilhard de Chardin–recently arrived from France and eager to update his knowledge of Piltdown. Three possible scenarios are worth considering. In the first, Teilhard also spotted the forgery–probably because of the Tunisian tooth. But Hinton may also have mentioned his suspicions to Teilhard, as he had with Gregory. In [94] any case, angry at being duped, Teilhard joined forces with Hinton. He agreed to plant the canine that Hinton had painted and in the end "found" it as well.

In the second scenario, Teilhard came to conspire with Dawson some time after they met in 1909, although it is hard to imagine why. In this case, Hinton would have planted the canine himself Teilhard, when he found it, saw that the fraud had been discovered. The third possibility is that Hinton confronted Teilhard, who agreed to plant the canine to make amends and to help reveal the fraud. In any case, Teilhard left England soon afterward and did not return for many years. Gould believes that Teilhard warns readers about the forgery in a 1920 paper. Teilhard was forever rather embarrassed by any mention of Piltdown (16).

The difficulty with these schemes is that Hinton's bold maneuver had no known effect on Dawson. Dawson neither had a stroke nor made a sudden confession. Nor did anyone else. It must have been a nasty moment for Dawson when Teilhard produced the canine–unless he thought that God had saved him after all by allowing a real fossil to be found at Piltdown! But we must also appreciate that, by this point, Dawson had no options. He had gone too far, dragged onward by the eagerness of virtually every scientist from New York to Paris. In any case, his creation ought to be correct–a British fossil man should exist. So he showed his anonymous challenger that he would not be warned off, and planted a few more minor finds.

Interestingly, after Teilhard discovered the canine, Dawson made several trips to Arthur Keith's anatomical museum to study gorilla canines (17). Dawson's notes to Woodward have been seen as attempts to buttress the authenticity of the canine. They might also have been an attempt to raise Woodward's suspicions, at least about the canine, but this may be stretching things too far.

Hinton decided to strike again–this time through a tremendous joke. Having failed to wake the zoologists, Hinton decided to catch the anthropologists' attention. Woodward had started to refer to Eoanthropus rather portentously as the First Englishman. So Hinton provided what every true Englishman needs–his very own cricket bat. Hinton appears to have carved the cricket bat from a piece of fossil elephant femur filched from a museum. Woodward found the bat covered in yellow clay but lodged in a soil layer, separated from the clay by a layer of gravel. Surely, Hinton must have thought, this was an obvious hoax.

Hinton's joke turned out to be another flop: no one seems to have been the slightest bit suspicious. This gave Dawson an opportunity to move in for the kill. He struck back with Piltdown II. But, cleverly, he also wrote a paper distancing himself from his former claims about the significance of the artifacts [95] (1). Now everyone eagerly fell into line, without even seeing the second Piltdown site.

Hinton might have given up and kept his laughter–and no doubt his admiration for Dawson's nerve–to himself. What might have happened next is open to conjecture, because something totally unexpected occurred: Dawson died. In so doing, he neatly turned the tables on Hinton. Now Hinton was trapped in an instant he and Teilhard had become the only living forgers. The two had no choice but to lie low, reduced to dropping hints.

Corroborating this theory of Hinton's role will be difficult–but at least nothing yet falsifies it. Although we can only deplore Dawson's wicked forgery, we must admit that it would not have succeeded without the headlong acceptance of shoddy evidence by scientists who should have known better. As W. C. Fields observes: "You can't cheat an honest man." Perhaps Dawson had the last laugh after all.

1. F. Spencer. 1990. Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery . New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

10. A. S. Woodward. 1948. The Earliest Englishman .. London: Watts.

11. L. B. Halstead. 1979. The Piltdown hoax: Cui bono? Nature 277:596.

12. L. H. Matthews. 1981. The missing links (Part 8): The planting of a tooth. New Scientist

13. S. Zuckerman. 1990. A phony ancestor. New York Review of Book s. 8 November:12-16.

14. L. H. Matthews. 1981. The missing links (Part 10): Shall we ever know the truth? New

15. M. A. C. Hinton. 1926. The Pleistocene mammalia of the British Isles and their bearing upon the date of the glacial period. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society 20:325-48.

16 S. J. Gould. 1980. The Piltdown conspiracy. Natural History 89:8-28.

17. C. Grigson. 1980. Missing links in the Piltdown fraud. New Scientist 89:55-58.


A patriotic missing link

The public learned of the find on December 18, 1912, when Dawson and Smith Woodward presented the skull and mandible and other specimens from the gravel pit in a ceremony at the British Geological Society. Reporters were there, along with photographers, and the story took off. The new species was nicknamed "the first Englishman" – and for a very political reason.

Britain and Germany were massing arms and propaganda and war was imminent. With Neanderthal and H. heidelbergensis bones in Germany and elsewhere on the continent, the English wanted a piece of the action. The Piltdown hypothesis was patriotic, and so the Piltdown discoverers were considered national heroes, especially Dawson since he had made the initial find of the skull. Consequently, the ancient 'species' was given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni.

There were some skeptics right from the beginning. The absence of the articulating end of the mandible was a problem. At the Geological Association meeting, one anatomist and one dentist noted that the mandible was too apish and the cranium and face too human to belong to the same individual. Also, the wearing on the teeth did not make sense, neither in a human or ape, the dentist said. Nobody took the dentist seriously, but within several months critics were pointing out how a canine tooth was missing from the mandible, and that it might settle the case – if only one could be found.

It didn’t take so long. In late summer of 1913, Teilhard de Chardin, now back from France, found a canine tooth in the Piltdown gravel pit. Its size and shape matched the characteristics predicted for it, and now the skeptical voices were mostly silenced. But the magnitude of the confirmation bias had yet to show itself in full force.


Introducing Secrets of the MMR scare, a special BMJ series

BMJ online, 5 January 2011

Brian Deer

On 21 November 1953, what is now Britain’s Natural History Museum stunned both science and the public by calling the fraud in the case of “Piltdown Man.” Fragments of fossilized jaw, skull, and tooth, unearthed shortly before World War I from gravel beds, 45 miles south of London, were not, as had been believed, the remains of an aberrant part-human, part-ape “missing link”. They were an elaborate, highly motivated hoax.

Today, the BMJ calls the fraud over medicine’s missing link: the research linking MMR with autism. Published in a five-page Lancet paper in February 1998, it triggered media campaigns which sent vaccination rates plummeting, and caused the most intractable health alarm in a generation.

The paper claimed that in two thirds of 12 consecutive child patients with “regressive developmental disorder” and enterocolitis, attending one London hospital’s paediatric gastroentreology clinic, the “apparent precipitating event” was a measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, with a temporal link between shot and symptoms of 14 days.

At first, the comparison may feel disconcerting. The Piltdown scandal lay in fossils, while the MMR scare rested on the status of young children. But the parallels are striking. The modus operandi was essentially the same: the dishonest representation of pre-assembled artifacts. The dramatis personae, meanwhile, were similar in their conduct: they contrived, or they were duped, or they failed to act.

This week, the BMJ begins a series which lays bare the MMR scandal in detail never published before. Drawing on interviews, documents, and properly obtained data, collected during seven years of inquiries, we show how one man, former gastroenterology researcher Andrew Wakefield, was able to manufacture the appearance of a purported medical syndrome, whilst not only in receipt of large sums of money, but also scheming businesses that promised him more. His was a fraud, moreover, of more than academic vanity. It unleashed fear, parental guilt, costly government intervention, and outbreaks of infectious disease.

The Piltdown contrivance involved the pre-arranged “discovery” of features brought together to be sensationally “found”. A piece of skullcap was human, a partial jaw was an orangutan’s, and a tooth was a chimpanzee’s, filed down. They were stained with chemicals and, to fabricate a temporal link, were buried with flint tools in datable gravel near the tiny village of Piltdown, East Sussex.

Some would suggest that their proximity was a matter of chance, but the odds of this would have taxed an astronomer. “That two different individuals were present,” one of the scientists who unmasked the fraud explained later, “a fossil man, represented by a cranium without a jaw, and a fossil ape, represented by a jaw without a cranium, within a few feet of each other and so similar in colour and preservation, would be a coincidence, amazing beyond belief.”

And so it was with Wakefield, eight decades after the Piltdown discoveries. Amazing beyond belief. For skullcap read “developmental disorders”, for the jaw “enterocolitis”, and for the tooth “parental complaints about MMR”. Bring them together at one hospital, with a 14-day temporal link, and another assemblage was found.

“Onset of behavioural symptoms was associated by the parents with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children,” declared the Lancet paper’s “findings” section. “In these eight children the average interval from exposure to first behavioural symptoms was 6.3 days (range 1-14),” added a “results” narrative, which adopted the “findings” as fact. “Interpretation. We identified associated gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression in a group of previously normal children, which was generally associated in time with possible environmental triggers.”

So how was it done? For a decade this remained hidden in the children’s hospital and general practice records. Only when public uproar over my first Sunday Times MMR reports led to the retraction of the paper’s “interpretation” section in March 2004, and the UK General Medical Council invoked its formidable powers under the 1983 Medical Act, were they brought to light at a fitness to practise hearing. That hearing was the longest ever, running 217 days between July 2007 and May 2010.

Some elements behind the scam were already known, as a result of my continuing investigation. Two years before the paper, Wakefield had been retained by a high street solicitor, hoping to raise a “class action” lawsuit over MMR. The doctor was contracted to be paid at the extraordinary rate of £150 an hour, grossing him £435,643, plus expenses. This was eight times his reported annual salary as a non-clinical researcher at the Royal Free medical school, London.

I also revealed – years after the paper’s publication – that the children’s parents were seeking compensation. They were mostly clients and contacts of the solicitor, based in Norfolk, and had come to the Royal Free precisely to blame MMR, wanting Wakefield to help their children and their claims. This was not, as the profession and the public had thought, merely a snapshot from a large hospital’s case load. The “finding” of complaints about the vaccine was pre-ordained.

And this was only the start of the fix.

It took the GMC’s lawyers to drill deeper into the material. Who were these 12 families? What was wrong with these children? Why were they admitted to the Royal Free? The answers tumbled out over 197 days of open sessions, focused on Wakefield and his senior colleague, John Walker-Smith. In the end, they were struck off, but only after the laying down of bitter truths, in immense detail, for the public record.

None of the families were from anywhere near London, and one had flown in from California. They had been targeted, pre-selected for the children’s symptoms. And when Wakefield’s research failed to show the “new syndrome” he was contracted by the solicitor to find, the results were “reviewed”, changed, and misreported in the Lancet – such that in not one of the 12 children’s cases can the Royal Free’s paper be reconciled with National Health Service records.

Scholars still debate the identity of the Piltdown cheat, although most agree it was an amateur fossil hunter, Charles Dawson. In the MMR case, it was plainly Wakefield, with no evidence that even the lawyer knew what was happening. As reported in my feature this week, Wakefield took clinical records and reinterpreted them to suit himself, chiseling histories and reaching clinical diagnoses not in the files. He reported unremarkable bowel histology as “non-specific colitis”. And he concealed the source and status of the children.

“In reaching its decision,” the five-member GMC tribunal ruled in January 2010, among dozens of proven findings, “the panel notes that the project reported in the Lancet paper was established with the purpose to investigate a postulated new syndrome and yet the Lancet paper did not describe this fact at all. Because you [Wakefield] drafted and wrote the final version of the paper, and omitted correct information about the purpose of the study or the patient population, the panel is satisfied that your conduct was irresponsible and dishonest.”

This was one of four charges of dishonesty found proven – to an onerous criminal standard of sureness. Another was dishonest misuse of legal aid money obtained by Wakefield to pay for the study. Two more were counts of dishonesty when responding to doctors, including a Medical Research Council panel, who asked the critical questions: what were the sources of his funding and patients?

None of Wakefield’s colleagues knew what was really going on, although some knew enough to be concerned. But it would not be fair to say that he acted alone, or that the scandal was merely due to one man. During the life of the MMR crisis, he was aided or supported by many – who themselves were generally duped. These included clinicians, research scientists, journalists, Lancet editors, hospital and medical school managers, and even the academic institution which eventually fired him.

Again, the anthropological hoax involved a similar story. The findings had rested on the most credible reputations. At a breathless Geological Society meeting at Burlington House, Piccadilly, in December 1912, for instance, it was the distinguished keeper of geology at the British Museum, Arthur Smith Woodward, who vouched for Piltdown Man. In the company of Dawson, he would personally recover fragments of the purported hominid and reputedly coined the popular phrase “missing link”.

In the MMR fraud, the big name to be misled was Walker-Smith, professor of paediatric gastroenterology. Although he slipped off on holiday when Wakefield’s findings were unveiled at a now-notorious press conference at the Royal Free, it was in part his reputation that got them published. “He was an important mentor in my career,” David Candy, professor of paediatric gastroenterology in Chichester, who peer-reviewed the paper, told the GMC panel. “In a way I knew it was going to be a good paper, I knew it was going to be well written, and I knew it was going to be data that could be believed in.”

But Walker-Smith and 11 other co-authors did not even know which child was which in the patient-anonymised text and tables of the paper. In February 2004, as the Lancet moved to head off my investigation – rushing out still-unretracted statements denying what the GMC would later prove – Walker-Smith and fellow co-author Simon Murch had to wait on Wakefield to fax them the children’s names so they could pull the records in order to frame the Lancet’s rebuttals.

And yet the Wakefield fraud had sat in plain view for six years before serious challenge. Journals, the BMJ included, had fretted over epidemiology and viral studies without giving pause to the remarkable, now fully retracted, fundamentals. Did the scientific community ever really believe that 12 families had turned up consecutively at one hospital, with no reputation for developmental disorders, and make the same highly specific allegations – with a time-link of just days – and that there was not something fishy going on?

Piltdown Man offers the salutary lesson. Polite society could not harbour such thoughts. Even as the skullcap, jaw, and tooth were first laid out for public inspection before the Great War’s outbreak, some among the audience were muttering fraud. But they were urged not to rock the establishment’s boat with the implication that a gentleman could not be trusted. “He was a delightful colleague in scientific research,” Woodward said later of the fossil-hunter Dawson.

“We all rely on trust,” Walker-Smith told the GMC panel, in words for which he will be remembered. “I trusted Dr Wakefield.”


References

Dawson, C., Woodward, A. S. & Smith, G. E. Q. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 69, 117–152 (1913).

Weiner, J. S., Oakley, K. P. & Le Gros Clark, W. E. Bull. Br. Mus. Nat. Hist. 2, 139–146 (1953).

Weiner, J. S. et al. Bull. Br. Mus. Nat. Hist. 2, 225–287 (1955).

Weiner, J. S. & Stringer, C. The Piltdown Forgery (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003).

Russell, M. Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson and the World's Greatest Archaeological Hoax (Tempus, 2003).


Scientists seek to solve mystery of Piltdown Man

LONDON (AP) — It was an archaeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. A century on, researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for Piltdown Man, the missing link that never was.

In December 1912, it was announced that a lawyer and amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson had made an astonishing discovery in a gravel pit in southern England — prehistoric remains, up to 1 million years old, that combined the skull of a human and the jaw of an ape.

Piltdown Man — named for the village where the remains were found — set the scientific world ablaze. It was hailed as the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans, and proof that humans' enlarged brains had evolved earlier than had been supposed.

It was 40 years before the find was definitively exposed as a hoax, and speculation about who did it rages to this day. Now scientists at London's Natural History Museum — whose predecessors trumpeted the Piltdown find and may be suspects in the fraud— are marking the 100th anniversary with a new push to settle the argument for good.

The goal, lead scientist Chris Stringer wrote in a comment piece published Wednesday in the journal Nature, is to find out "who did it and what drove them" — whether scientific ambition, humor or malice.

Stringer heads a team of 15 researchers — including experts in ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating and isotope studies — examining the remains with the latest techniques and equipment and combing the museum's archives for overlooked evidence about the evidence unearthed at sites around Piltdown.

"Although Charles Dawson is the prime suspect, it's a complex story," Stringer, the museum's research leader in human origins, told The Associated Press. "The amount of material planted at two different sites makes some people — and that includes me — wonder whether there were at least two people involved."

Doubts grew about Piltdown Man's authenticity in the years after 1912, as more remains were found around the world that contradicted its evidence. In 1953, scientists from London's Natural History Museum and Oxford University conducted tests that showed the find was a cleverly assembled fake, combining a human skull a few hundred years old with the jaw of an orangutan, stained to make it look ancient.

Ever since, speculation had swirled about possible perpetrators. Many people think the evidence points to Dawson, who died in 1916.

Other long-dead suspects identified by researchers include Arthur Smith Woodward, the museum's keeper of geology, who championed Dawson's discoveries and gave them vital scientific credibility. The finger has also been pointed at museum zoologist Martin Hinton Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and even "Sherlock Holmes" author Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Piltdown.

Stringer said the key may lie in a later find nearby — a slab of elephant bone nicknamed the "cricket bat" — that seemed to back up the first Piltdown discovery. It was revealed as a clumsy fake, carved with a steel knife from a fossilized elephant femur.

One theory is that Hinton — skeptical but afraid to openly question Woodward, his boss at the museum — might have planted it thinking it would be spotted as a hoax and discredit the whole find. A trunk with Hinton's initials found in a loft at the museum a decade after his death in 1961 contained animal bones stained the same way as the Piltdown fossils.

Miles Russell, senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University, thinks the museum's work may shed new light on how the forgery was done. But he thinks there is little doubt Dawson was the perpetrator.

"He is the only person who is always on site every time a find is made," Russell said. "And when he died in 1916, Piltdown Man died with him."

Russell is author of the new book "The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed" — though he doubts speculation about the century-old fraud will stop.

"People love conspiracy theories," he said. "And this is one of the biggest scientific hoaxes of all time."

Whoever was behind it, the hoax delayed consensus on human origins, leading some scientists to question the authenticity of later finds because they did not fit with Piltdown Man.

Stringer said Piltdown Man stands as a warning to scientists always to be on their guard — especially when evidence seems to back up their theories.

"There was a huge gap in evidence and Piltdown at the time neatly filled that gap," he said. "It was what people expected to be found. In a sense you could say it was manufactured to fit the scientific agenda.

"That lesson of Piltdown is always worth learning — when something seems too good to be true, maybe it is."


Scientists seek to solve mystery of Piltdown Man hoax

IT was an archaeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. Now researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for Piltdown Man, the missing link that never was.

This is an undated image released by the Natural History Museum in on Wednesday Dec. 12, 2012 of the Piltdown skull. It was an archaeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. A century on, researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for Piltdown Man, the missing link that never was. In December 1912, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson announced he'd made an astonishing discovery in a gravel pit in southern England _ prehistoric remains, up to 1 million years old, that combined the skull of a human and the jaw of an ape. It was 40 years before the find was exposed as a hoax by scientists at London's Natural History Museum _ the same institution that had announced the find in 1912. The museum is marking the 100th anniversary of the hoax with a new push to find out who did it _ and why. (AP Photo/Natural History Museum) NO ARCHIVE Source:AP

IT was an archaeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. A century on, researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for Piltdown Man, the missing link that never was.

In December 1912, it was announced that a lawyer and amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson had made an astonishing discovery in a gravel pit in southern England - prehistoric remains, up to 1 million years old, that combined the skull of a human and the jaw of an ape.

Piltdown Man - named for the village where the remains were found - set the scientific world ablaze. It was hailed as the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans, and proof that humans&apos enlarged brains had evolved earlier than had been supposed.

It was 40 years before the find was definitively exposed as a hoax, and speculation about who did it rages to this day. Now scientists at London&aposs Natural History Museum - whose predecessors trumpeted the Piltdown find and may be suspects in the fraud- are marking the 100th anniversary with a new push to settle the argument for good.

The goal, lead scientist Chris Stringer wrote in a comment piece published in the journal Nature, is to find out "who did it and what drove them" - whether scientific ambition, humour or malice.

Mr Stringer heads a team of 15 researchers - including experts in ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating and isotope studies - examining the remains with the latest techniques and equipment and combing the museum&aposs archives for overlooked evidence about the evidence unearthed at sites around Piltdown.

"Although Charles Dawson is the prime suspect, it&aposs a complex story," Mr Stringer, the museum&aposs research leader in human origins, told The Associated Press.

"The amount of material planted at two different sites makes some people - and that includes me - wonder whether there were at least two people involved."

Doubts grew about Piltdown Man&aposs authenticity in the years after 1912, as more remains were found around the world that contradicted its evidence. In 1953, scientists from London&aposs Natural History Museum and Oxford University conducted tests that showed the find was a cleverly assembled fake, combining a human skull a few hundred years old with the jaw of an orangutan, stained to make it look ancient.

Ever since, speculation had swirled about possible perpetrators. Many people think the evidence points to Dawson, who died in 1916.

Other long-dead suspects identified by researchers include Arthur Smith Woodward, the museum&aposs keeper of geology, who championed Dawson&aposs discoveries and gave them vital scientific credibility. The finger has also been pointed at museum zoologist Martin Hinton Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and even Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Piltdown.

Mr Stringer said the key may lie in a later find nearby - a slab of elephant bone nicknamed the "cricket bat" - that seemed to back up the first Piltdown discovery. It was revealed as a clumsy fake, carved with a steel knife from a fossilized elephant femur.

One theory is that Hinton - skeptical but afraid to openly question Woodward, his boss at the museum - might have planted it thinking it would be spotted as a hoax and discredit the whole find. A trunk with Hinton&aposs initials found in a loft at the museum a decade after his death in 1961 contained animal bones stained the same way as the Piltdown fossils.

Miles Russell, senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University, thinks the museum&aposs work may shed new light on how the forgery was done. But he thinks there is little doubt Dawson was the perpetrator.

"He is the only person who is always on site every time a find is made," Russell said. "And when he died in 1916, Piltdown Man died with him."

Russell is author of the new book The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed - though he doubts speculation about the century-old fraud will stop.

"People love conspiracy theories," he said. "And this is one of the biggest scientific hoaxes of all time."

Whoever was behind it, the hoax delayed consensus on human origins, leading some scientists to question the authenticity of later finds because they did not fit with Piltdown Man.

Mr Stringer said Piltdown Man stands as a warning to scientists always to be on their guard - especially when evidence seems to back up their theories.

"There was a huge gap in evidence and Piltdown at the time neatly filled that gap," he said.

"It was what people expected to be found. In a sense you could say it was manufactured to fit the scientific agenda.

"That lesson of Piltdown is always worth learning - when something seems too good to be true, maybe it is."


By T. Douglas Price


Science works in mysterious ways. Sometimes that’s even truer in the study of the origins of the human race.

Piltdown is a small village south of London where the skull of a reputed ancient human ancestor turned up in some gravel diggings a century ago. The find was made by Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist, with an unusual knack for major discoveries. Shortly thereafter a lower jaw that fit the skull turned up and, voilá — the missing link between the apes and man had been found in the British Isles.

The Manchester Guardian headlined “The earliest man? Remarkable discovery in Sussex. A skull millions of years old.” The find was widely regarded as the most important of its time. The discovery of Piltdown Man made Europe, and especially Great Britain, the home of the “first humans”. The find fit the expectations of the time and resolved certain racist and nationalist biases against evidence for human ancestry elsewhere. Early humans had large brains and originated in Europe.

Piltdown Gang by John Cooke (1915). Back row: (left to right) F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A. S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Sir Ray Lankester.

For 40 years this Piltdown Man was generally accepted as an important ancestor of the human race. Various authorities raised doubt and critiqued the evidence, but Piltdown kept its place in our early lineage until a curator at the British Museum, Kenneth Oakley, took a closer look. Oakley and several other scientists assembled incontrovertible evidence to the show that Piltdown was a forgery. The chemistry of the jaw and skull were different and could not have come from the same individual. The teeth of the lower jaw had been filed down to make them fit with the skull. The skull was human but the jaw came from an ape. The bones had been stained to enhance the appearance of antiquity. In 1953, Time magazine published this evidence gathered by Oakley and others. Piltdown was stricken from the record and placed in ignominy, a testimony to the gullibility of those scientists who see what they want to see.

Hoax, fraud, crime? Perhaps the designation is not so important, but the identity of the perpetrator appears to be. More than 100 books and articles have been written over the years, trying to solve the mystery of who forged Piltdown. Various individuals have been implicated, but the pointing finger of justice always returns to Charles Dawson. Dawson’s knack for finding strange and unusual things was more than just luck. His sense of intuition was fortified by a home workshop for constructing or modifying these finds before he put them in the ground. A recent book by Miles Russell, The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed, documents Dawson’s numerous other archaeological and paleontological “discoveries” that have been revealed as forgeries. As Russell noted, the case is closed. That fact, however, is not keeping British scientists from throwing a good bit of money and energy into the whodunit, using the latest scientific technology to try to unmask the culprit.

So, 100 years of Piltdown. Not exactly a cause for celebration — or is it? Science does work in mysterious ways. Although Piltdown misled the pursuit of our early human ancestors for decades, much good has come from the confusion. Greater care is exercised in the acceptance of evidence for early human ancestors. Scientific methods have moved to the forefront in the investigation of ancient human remains. The field of paleoanthropology — the study of early human behavior and evolution — has emerged wiser and stronger. The earliest human ancestors are now known to have come from Africa and begun to appear more than six million years ago. Evolution, after all, is about learning from our mistakes.

T. Douglas Price is Weinstein Professor of European Archaeology Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include Europe before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages Principles of Archaeology Europe’s First Farmers and the leading introductory textbook in the discipline, Images of the Past.

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