Scientists seek to solve mystery of Piltdown Man

Dec 12, 2012 by Jill Lawless
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 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 —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 , 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 , 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 , 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."

Explore further: Short-necked Triassic marine reptile discovered in China

More information: Nature: www.nature.com/nature
Piltdown Man at the Natural History Museum: www.nhm.ac.uk/piltdown

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tadchem
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 12, 2012
"who did it and what drove them"?
The urge to humiliate the proud is strong, especially if the 'proud' act condescendingly/patronizingly towards the humble.
The humble may be even more intelligent and sensible in some ways than the proud, and resent the attitude of the proud that they are somehow better than everyone else. This motivation has driven hoaxes before, such as the 'crop circle' of rural UK. I do not see why it cannot apply here.
Claudius
2.8 / 5 (9) Dec 12, 2012
"...the hoax delayed consensus on human origins..."

Even then, consensus was considered an important factor. When will we ever learn?
Scryer
1 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2012
I wonder why this abomination of science wasn't simply destroyed by whoever buried it in those gravel pits. If they wanted it to be found later to make a fool of people they certainly did their job.

It looks like this was discovered 30 years after Darwin's death, so it certainly had to of been well hidden.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 12, 2012
"leading some scientists to question the authenticity of later finds because they did not fit with Piltdown Man."

That was as stupid as when creationists says it later. The ability to predict the fake before the tools to observe it was available is a huge test of the field, especially as it was the main method used that enabled the prediction.

@ tadchem: But there were no proudness at the time, finding human remains was new and anthropologhy was in its infancy. That is why the hoax could happen in the first place. The article suggests the main motivations can be found elsewhere.

For Dawson, it was the possibility to become "proud", the reverse of your claim.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
4 / 5 (4) Dec 12, 2012
@ Claudius: Consensus its _the outsider's test_ of an area, besides that it is needed for a useful theory to come on its own. So it works fantastically well, and we have learned that to our advantage.

But don't confuse consensus with certainty, as uncertainty is the name of the game in science. There are never any guarantees (and outsiders should know that as well).

@ Scryer: I'm sorry, I can't make sense out of any of your sentences.

The fake was planted right before discovery, as fake or spent mines were "seeded" with nuggets in gold mining. IIRC they have evidence of that (no old, contextual sediments on the bones).
Urgelt
5 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2012
Scryer: You are confusing 'Charles Darwin' with 'Charles Dawson.'

Darwin had nothing to do with the hoax.
Scryer
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2012
Thanks for the correction.
Pattern_chaser
3 / 5 (2) Dec 13, 2012
We already knew it was a hoax. No new information has been discovered. I don't like to be so completely negative, but this isn't news.
Sigh
3 / 5 (2) Dec 13, 2012
Even then, consensus was considered an important factor. When will we ever learn?

A key element of the scientific method is replication. Replication in turn is an important factor in creating consensus. Paleontology is not an experimental science, replication consists of finding relevant fossils, and you simply didn't get that many. Therefore it took while until it was clear that the combination of features of Piltdown man could not be replicated. Do you see a fundamental problem with that?

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