Piltdown man is the name given to the "fossil" bones found in England that turned out to be the greatest hoax in the history of science. When discovered in 1912, these remains were claimed to provide evidence of the missing link between apes and humans. It was not until the 1950s, however, that scientists were able to prove that Piltdown man was a complete fake.
Around 1900, science knew that Neanderthal man was an extinct form of Homo sapiens who was similar to modern humans. Many scientists then believed that, according to evolutionary theory (the belief that all living things change over generations), since man evolved from apes, there must be some link or in-between stage that came between this Neanderthal and the apes themselves. Scientists, therefore, assumed that the next great discovery would be this "missing link." Although most paleoanthropologists (scientists who study fossils to try to discover how humans evolved) thought that if this link were found it would be in Africa or Asia, in 1912 it was suddenly found at a dig on Piltdown Common in Sussex, England. An amateur archaeologist (one who studies the material remains of past cultures) named Charles Dawson supposedly stumbled upon nine fossilized pieces of a skull, as well as a jawbone and molars. When he put them together, it appeared that he had discovered actual evidence of the "missing link" between apes and humans.
What Dawson's discovery showed was a complete skull that was literally half man and half ape. Its upper skull was definitely human, since it had the high brow typical of intelligent humans. Its lower part was surely that of an ape since it had both a protruding jaw (jutting out) and a receding chin. Besides the bones themselves, Dawson found crude flint (a substance used to make fire) and bone tools along with the bones of other, long-extinct animals. Piltdown man was soon hailed as evidence of evolution's missing link, and this new fossil, dated at about 200,000 years old, was given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni, meaning "dawn man of Dawson."
During the next thirty-five years, many hominid (human-like species) fossils were found in other parts of the world, but none ever came close to matching the features that Piltdown man displayed. This gave many a scientist a reason for doubting the find, and in 1948, testing began on Piltdown man that used new dating techniques. When preliminary results suggested that the bones were of very recent origin, they were tested again each time a new dating method was invented. By the time the new and highly reliable carbon-14 method was used in 1959 to confirm those conclusions, it was apparent to all that Piltdown man was a deliberate forgery. The jaw belonged to an orangutan that probably was killed in the Middle Ages (500–1450), and the cranium was human, but only slightly older than the jaw. Someone also had deliberately filed the molar teeth to make them look old and used, and someone had purposely stained the fragments. Eventually, no one could dispute the fact that the entire discovery had been planted, and that one or more persons had decided to make their own "missing link." Since then, the strangest and most unexplainable piece of paleontology has been resolved, and Piltdown man is now regarded only as a hoax that fooled people for forty years. Conclusive proof
of who planned and carried out the hoax was never obtained, and despite several books about Piltdown man, no one has ever been able to absolutely link one or more persons to this deception.
The Piltdown man was beneficial to science in two ways, however. First was the fact that new methods of dating were demonstrated and proven in the field. Second, it forced scientists to become more rigorous and demanding when confronted with sudden, new discoveries.
Piltdown man, name given to human remains found during excavations (1908–15) at Piltdown, Sussex, England, by Charles Dawson. The find led to much speculation and argument. Since they were found with remains of mammals of the Lower Pleistocene epoch, they were supposed to belong to a
who lived 200,000 to 1,000,000 years ago. Many scientists doubted the whole proposition. They were justified when fluorine tests showed in 1950 that the Piltdown fossil was no more than 50,000 years old. X-ray analysis proved that the jaw was from a chimpanzee; further tests demonstrated conclusively that the jaw and tooth were of modern origin.
There has been much speculation concerning who was responsible for the hoax: Dawson; Arthur Smith Woodward, the paleontologist who identified the fossils as hominid remains; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was present during some of the excavations; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived nearby and knew Dawson; and others. In 1996, on the basis of evidence found in a trunk in the British Museum, it was suggested that the zoologist Martin A. C. Hinton planted the remains to embarrass Woodward.
See J. S. Weiner, The Piltdown Forgery (1955); R. W. Millar, The Piltdown Men (1972); F. Spencer, Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery (1990).