The Magnificent Evolutionary Fraud of Piltdown Man
The true identity of the person responsible for the extraordinary fraud that supposedly linked modern humans with ape ancestors.
For more than 40 years, the history of human evolution was narrated from the perspective of one of the greatest frauds in the history of science. On December 18, 1912 the skeletal remains of a legendary “missing link” which supposedly connected human beings with their ape ancestors were presented at a meeting of the Geological Society of London. The remains consisted of a fossilized skull, a tooth and a jawbone which had been found by a worker in a gravel pit at Piltdown in the southeast of England. Paleontologists Charles Dawson and Smith Woodward presented themselves as the discoverers and caused a stir by publishing their findings. The controversy arose mainly because England was among few countries in Europe in which human fossils had not been thus far found. At the time, it was widely believed that every country needed to be part of the history of human evolution.
The discovery of Eoanthropus dawsonii, their scientific name, affected thought on the subject for decades. The remains were more popularly known as Piltdown Man, which seemed to prove that humans had first developed intelligence and only then their physical development evolved into the human forms we think of today. This meant that mentally modern humans had to somehow inhabit the bodies of apes.
The proof of the existence of Piltdown Man led to other hominid fossils discoveries actually being ignored for decades because they couldn’t quite coincide with the Piltdownian theory in which humankind’s brains developed before the rest of the body. From the outset, though, the scientific community watched the discovery of this enigmatic link, one which completely broke from the pattern of all previously discovered hominid fossils, with suspicion.
Finally in November, 1953, scientists Kenneth Oakley, Wilfrid Le Gros and Joseph Weiner published an article in TIME magazine which showed that Piltdown Man was unquestionably a fraud. Applying modern methods in their research, they proved that the skull had belonged to a medieval man, the jaw was that of an orangutan, and the tooth had come from a chimpanzee. Those responsible for the deception had treated the bones with an iron solution and chromic acid to make them more similar and to make them seem much older. Under the light of microscopic analysis, Oakley et al showed that the teeth had been carved to give them a human form. But then, with all of these discoveries a new enigma emerged: who could the architects of such a scam have been?
Many have been suspected of having created the fraud. Certainly the most notable, both for his fame and for the evidence against him, was the famous writer, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), who wrote the Sherlock Holmes novels. Doyle was an amateur paleontologist, a member of the same archaeological society to which Charles Dawson belonged, and he lived just 11 kilometers from Piltdown. A regular collector of fossils, he was also a fervent believer in spiritualism. In fact, he’d been deeply, publicly humiliated after scientists accused him of falsifying photographs aimed at showing that spiritualistic séances were real. This history is reflected in his work The Lost World, published precisely in 1912. The protagonists, preparing to leave an island inhabited by dinosaurs, wished to take a bone as proof that what they’d seen was real, all the while fearing that a photo might be considered a fake. In what might be taken as a clue to the mystery of Piltdown, the main character, Professor Challenger, says “If you know what you’re doing, you can fake a bone as easily as a picture.”
More than 100 years after the “discovery” of Piltdown Man, an August 10, 2016, an article published in the journal, Royal Society Open Science, unmasked the man truly responsible for the deception. According to the authors, the modus operandi and the limited number of specimens point to a solitary forger. DNA analysis performed on the Piltdown Man bones prove that the orangutan bones came from a specimen originally found by Dawson.
The extraordinary quality of the fraud indicates that only one person among all those involved had the skill to deceive so many experts: and that was Charles Dawson himself. His motive was likely to achieve acceptance as a member of the Royal Society. In 1909, he’d even written to his friend, Woodward: “I’ve been waiting for a big breakthrough that never comes.”
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