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Piltdown Man

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In 1912, fragments of a skull belonging to an ancient human were discovered in Piltdown, a discovery which would influence British archaeology for a generation. There was just one problem: the fragments – named Piltdown Man - were a hoax, and the conclusions were entirely wrong.

The 'Discovery' of Piltdown Man

The story of Piltdown Man begins with Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist and professional lawyer whose interest in history and luck at making discoveries earned him the nickname ‘The Wizard of Sussex.’ According to letters Dawson sent in 1912 to Arthur Smith Woodward, an official at Britain’s Natural History Museum, Dawson had experienced further luck around a place called Piltdown. He had been dining there ay Barkham Manor, when he had gone for a piece of exercise. During this walk, he noticed flints left lying around from recent building work, and asked the workers in the gravel pit to bring straight to him anything that looked archaeological.

They duly did so, and Dawson was presented a thick piece of human skull. A further examination caused Dawson to find another fragment, and caused him to write to Smith Woodward. The labourers who made the find were never named, and the dates never given, just the vague suggestion it was before 1910. Smith Woodward examined the skull pieces, and concluded they must be evidence of a brand new discovery: a human ancestor previously unknown to modern science. He thus called it Eoanthropus dawsoni, and digging began at the manor. During these more flint tools were found, along with more bone, human (teeth played a key role) and animal (including creatures now extinct on the island), and soon the discovery was headline news: Piltdown Man was the oldest human ancestor ever found in Britain, from half a million to a million years old.

Over the years 1912 – 15 finds came in small numbers from the site, until in 1915 Dawson claimed to have found more fragments from the same era and species at a site just two miles away. When the Geological Society met in 1912, most agreed the find was genuine and very important. Only one man, David Waterson, objected, suggesting the first piece looked like a modern human, while the second, a piece of jawbone, looked like that of a chimp.

The Reality of Piltdown Man: The Great Hoax

Unfortunately for much of the British archaeological establishment, Waterson was right. When the two skull fragments were subjected to a detailed analysis, it was discovered that the top half of the skull was indeed a human, and the bottom half was indeed a chimpanzee or orang-utan. Both pieces had been carefully stained to make them look like they were of the same body, and had experienced the same life below ground, and the teeth had been worked with a file to make them look more human. But, embarrassingly, this debunking only took place in 1953. Everything from the site was now studied, and everything was found to have been planted fraudulently.

Piltdown Man was accepted by many in the British establishment from about 1915, after which no more finds were found. Why did the hoax work? European diggers were busy looking for the missing links in human evolution, and French experts had discovered remains at Cro-Magnon, German ones similar at Neaderthal. Britain was desperate for a comparative find to boost them in the eyes of their imperial colleagues. That Piltdown man seemed to have a large skull, thus fitting in with the idea that the brain of humans had developed first and powered the rest of their evolution, and that the discovery was on English soil, blinded many to the need for a closer look. The French and Germans had discovered human teeth and small brains, the English adopted their Piltdown Man as superior. When a piece of elephant bone shaped like a cricket bat was found, this fitted the ‘first Englishmen’ story well and people ran with it. (The supposed tool is genuine elephant bone fossil, but shaped by modern blades.)

Some in Britain stuck to the view that Dawson’s discovery was real as many more experts from around the world made finds that created a timeline of human evolution that clearly didn’t fit Piltdown Man at all, and this was why Joseph Weiner , Kenneth Oakley, and Wilfrid Le Gros Clark made their damning examination in the 1950s. Now the name is synonymous with fraud, and one of the greatest embarrassments in British archaeological history.

Who Did It?

The BBC called Piltdown Man “the greatest whodunit in science”, but point out it “remains unsolved.” (Cited from here)The question of who created the Piltdown fakes is still very much unanswered. Dawson is widely believed to have been involved, because investigators have been able to show much of his ‘wizardry’ was actually fraud. He didn’t find a lot because he was lucky or skilled, but by fixing it. That nothing more was found after Dawson died of septicaemia in 1916 might be telling.

British Museum volunteer Martin Hinton is often mentioned, because someone carved his initials into a trunk he may have hidden that contained stained and filed teeth and bones. Was he trying to replicate the fraud to debunk it, as some have said, or was he partly behind it? Basically everyone involved in the early part of the ‘discovery’ has come in for examination and others besides, including Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived and played golf, and shared membership of an archaeological society with Dawson. Conan Doyle is accused of having the knowhow, the motive (getting back at scientists who mocked his spiritualism) and having talked about the ease of faking bones in one of his stories. Yet this remains entirely without hard evidence.

The situation has been complicated by accusations that the ‘cricket bat’ was placed by someone hoping to subtly expose Piltdown, but who got caught up when the establishment accepted it as real.

Further Reading

The Natural History Museum offer a site which compares how the bones were treated then and now, and asks you to draw conclusions about why people fell for it.

Piltdown Man is still currency in debates over science and evolution. Here Austin Cline makes a statement on the issue.

Tom Turritin’s ‘A Mostly Complete Piltdown Man Bibliography’ was compiled in 1995-6, so is dated, but is still absorbing reading and come recommended by your Guide to Archaeology.

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