Provoking controversy for a little over four decades, Piltdown Man was one of the most prodigious hoaxes ever unloaded on the scientific community.
In 1912, it was announced to the world that partial skeletal remains of a missing link in the evolution from ape to ancient human had been discovered in Sussex County, England. The statement was issued by Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum, and the alleged discoverer was a British lawyer by the name of Charles Dawson. Also an aspiring archaeologist, Dawson claimed to have unearthed the remains through a series of excavations that began in 1910. Along with a skull, primitive flint tools and fossils of extinct creatures were also reported to have been found in the vicinity. The purported discoveries were made in the Piltdown Commons gravel pit, thus this apparent protohuman was dubbed Piltdown Man.
Initially the discovery was a popular phenomenon, and Piltdown Man became an accepted member of the prehuman family tree. Although there were some dissenting voices, few scientists questioned its validity, yet more questions arose as time passed and comparisons were made with fossils of species like that of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon. Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Chris Stringer explained the difference between Piltdown Man and other discoveries of the time:
These had small skulls but relatively humanlike teeth – the opposite of Piltdown, but many British scientists did not take them seriously because of Piltdown. They dismissed these discoveries which we now know are genuine and important. It really damaged British science.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that adequate technology existed to accurately test the claim.
In the fall of 1953, a team of English scientists lead by Dr. Kenneth Oakley revealed that the Piltdown Man skull was actually a human cranium that several hundred years old which had been altered with an orangutan jaw and what was probably teeth from a chimpanzee. The con had been exposed, and Piltdown Man was expunged from the ancestral tree of hominids.
Since that time, there has been much speculation regarding the motivation and identity of the charlatan(s) who may have perpetrated the hoax, but no definitive answers exist. “The trouble is that after 100 years we still do not know the identities or motives of those responsible…”, said Southampton University geochemist, Justin Dix. It has been suggested that a trunk discovered in 1970 may have indicated a keeper of zoology at the British Museum by the name of Martin A.C. Hinton. He had been working as a volunteer at the museum in 1912 and may have planted the bones there to embarrass Woodward, who refused to give Hinton a raise.
The Google Trends chart below shows search history for Piltdown Man since 2004. Although it has evoked continued interest over the years, interest in the topic has steadily declining, perhaps due to the rise of other internet hoaxes.
Still a source of curiosity for some modern scientists, the skills of those who doctored the Piltdown Man skull are acknowledged as those that were able to dupe the process of science for over forty years. Ultimately, this affirms that the process of science is one that is generally flexible to change as new information is recognized and authenticated. Overall, it is a self-correcting association in which error and misconception are revised through the logic of the scientific method. Otherwise, most might still believe in the Piltdown Man.
Updated April 17, 2015
Originally published May 2014