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
British Natural History Museum: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/departments-and-staff/library-and-archives/collections/piltdown-man.html