Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Piltdown Man

Smith Woodward (centre) and Dawson (right) digging at the Piltdown site c 1912.

On this day in 1953 The British Museum authorities announced that "Piltdown Man" was a hoax, over 40 years after its discovery. Tests by a BM geologist and a South African anthropologist showed the specimen to be a fraud.

"Piltdown Man" consisted of fragments of a skull and jawbone collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, a village near Uckfield in East Sussex.. The fragments were thought by many experts of the day to be the fossilised remains of a hitherto unknown form of early human. The scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson's dawn-man) was given to the specimen in recognition of its finder Charles Dawson.

Smith Woodward's reconstruction

The specimen remained the subject of controversy until it was exposed in 1953 as a forgery, consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan with filed down teeth, combined with the skull of a fully developed, medieval man, chemically treated to age them. Piltdown Man went from being a “missing link” in the evolutionary chain to the most famous archaeological hoax in history.

The finding of the Piltdown skull was poorly documented, but at a meeting of the Geological Society of London in 1912, Dawson claimed to have been given a fragment of the skull four years earlier by a workman at the Piltdown gravel pit. According to Dawson, workmen at the site had discovered the skull shortly before his visit and had broken it up. Revisiting the site on several occasions, Dawson found further fragments of the skull and took them to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. Greatly interested by the finds, Woodward accompanied Dawson to the site, where between June and September 1912 they together recovered more fragments of the skull and half of the lower jaw bone. From the British Museum's reconstruction of the skull, Woodward proposed that Piltdown man represented a missing link between ape and man, since the combination of a human-like cranium with an ape-like jaw tended to support the notion then prevailing in England that human evolution was brain-led.

A sketch of the supposed Piltdown Man

The Piltdown man fraud had a significant impact on early research on human evolution. Notably, it led scientists down a blind alley in the belief that the human brain expanded in size before the jaw adapted to new types of food. Discoveries of Australopithecine fossils found in South Africa in the 1920s in were ignored due to Piltdown Man, and the reconstruction of human evolution was thrown off track for decades.

The Piltdown gravel trench became a protected national site in the mid 1930s, and in 1938 Sir Arthur Keith unveiled a monument commemorating this acclaimed spot.

The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown, but suspects have included Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, the most likely suspect is Dawson himself as he has been shown to have perpetrated other hoaxes over the years. Ironically the name of the ‘bad scientist’ Dawson will live as long as Piltdown is remembered whereas those of geologist Kenneth Oakley and anthropologist Joseph Weiner (the ‘good scientists’ who exposed the fraud) are already fading into oblivion.

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