Piltdown Hoax

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Piltdown Hoax

On December 18, 1912, Charles Dawson (1865 1916) announced to the geological Society in London that he had discovered skull fragments and a partial jaw in a gravel formation in Piltdown Common, Fletching, near Lewes, Sussex, England. The skull fragments were accompanied by bones of relatively recent hippopotamus, deer, beaver, and horse, as well as ancient bones of extinct mastodon and rhinoceros. Collected over a period of years, the skull fragments had an unusually thick brain case but were otherwise considered to be human. The jaw remnant was clearly primitive.

This spectacular announcement was considered evidence, found in Britain (much to the satisfaction of nationalistic British minds), that provided a link from ancient to modern man. Dawn man (Eoanthropus dawsoni ), eventually known as Piltdown man, was actually one of the most successful (and damaging) scientific hoaxes of the twentieth century. It would take 40 years to prove that this was a fraud.

At first, there was skepticism. Scientists proposed that the jaw and cranium fragments were from two creatures, rather than one. However, in 1915, a second Piltdown man was discovered 2 mi (3.2 km) from the original site. The second set of fossil remains seemed to indicate that the possibility of a human cranium and an ape jaw coming together purely by chance was unlikely. Clearly, both jaw and cranium fragments were from one type of human ancestor that provided evidence of an intermediary stage between ape and human, however when compared to other authentic prehuman fossils, it was unclear where Piltdown man fit in the evolutionary development of man.

Even with the lack of continuity between Piltdown man and other pre-human fossil remains, the authenticity of Piltdown man was not disproved until 1953, when dating techniques unequivocally proved it a fraud. Piltdown man was merely a hoax made up of an ancient human skull and a contemporary orangutan jaw. The dark color of the fragments that was representative of fossil find in the area was artificial. The teeth in the orangutan jaw had been mechanically ground down to resemble humanlike wear, rather than that of apes. In 1912, accurate dating techniques were unavailable and the fervor to provide evidence to support the cherished belief that humans had first developed a big brain, and then later developed other human characteristics was great. The identity of the perpetrator of the hoax remains uncertain to this day.