Thursday, November 21, 2013

This Day in History: Nov 21,1953: "Piltdown Man" skull is a hoax

 File:Piltdown gang (dark).jpg

The Piltdown Man was a hoax in which bone fragments were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human. These fragments consisted of parts of a skull and jawbone, said to have been collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, England. The Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man", after the collector Charles Dawson) was given to the specimen. The significance of the specimen remained the subject of controversy until it was exposed in 1953 as a forgery, consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan deliberately combined with the skull of a fully developed modern human.

File:Piltdown man.jpg

The Piltdown hoax is perhaps the most famous paleoanthropological hoax ever to have been perpetrated. It is prominent for two reasons: the attention paid to the issue of human evolution, and the length of time (more than 40 years) that elapsed from its discovery to its full exposure as a forgery.

 Piltdown Skull Fragments


 Excavation: Charles Dawson (sitting) poses at the Piltdown gravel pit in 1913 alongside Robert Kenwood Jr, left, Arthur Smith Woodward, far right, and 'Chipper' the goose

At a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 18 December 1912, Charles Dawson claimed that a workman at the Piltdown gravel pit had given him a fragment of the skull four years earlier. According to Dawson, workmen at the site discovered the skull shortly before his visit and broke it up in the belief that it was a fossilised coconut. 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. Though the two worked together between June and September 1912, Dawson alone recovered more skull fragments and half of the lower jaw bone.[1][2]

 Piltdown Skull

The skull unearthed in 1908 was the only find discovered in situ, with most of the other pieces found in the gravel pits' spoil heaps.

At the same meeting, Woodward announced that a reconstruction of the fragments indicated that the skull was in many ways similar to that of a modern human, except for the occiput (the part of the skull that sits on the spinal column) and for brain size, which was about two-thirds that of a modern human. He went on to indicate that save for the presence of two human-like molar teeth, the jaw bone found would be indistinguishable from that of a modern, young chimpanzee. From the British Museum's reconstruction of the skull, Woodward proposed that Piltdown man represented an evolutionary missing link between apes and humans, 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 began with the brain.

Almost from the outset, Woodward's reconstruction of the Piltdown fragments was strongly challenged. At the Royal College of Surgeons copies of the same fragments used by the British Museum in their reconstruction were used to produce an entirely different model, one that in brain size and other features resembled a modern human. This reconstruction, by Prof. (later Sir) Arthur Keith, was called Homo piltdownensis in reflection of its more human appearance.[3]

 Piltdown Molar Surface

 Features of Human Skull and Teeth

Woodward's reconstruction included apelike canine teeth, which was itself controversial. In August 1913, Woodward, Dawson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and friend of Dawson who had trained as a paleontologist and geologist, began a systematic search of the spoil heaps specifically to find the missing canines. Teilhard soon found a canine that, according to Woodward, fitted the jaw perfectly. A few days later Teilhard moved to France and took no further part in the discoveries. Noting that the tooth "corresponds exactly with that of an ape",[4] Woodward expected the find to end any dispute over his reconstruction of the skull. However, Keith attacked the find. Keith pointed out that human molars are the result of side to side movement when chewing. The canine in the Piltdown jaw was impossible as it prevented side to side movement. To explain the wear on the molar teeth, the canine could not have been any higher than the molars. Grafton Elliot Smith, a fellow anthropologist, sided with Woodward, and at the next Royal Society meeting claimed that Keith's opposition was motivated entirely by ambition. Keith later recalled, "Such was the end of our long friendship."[5]

 Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward sieving excavated material at Piltdown in Sussex.


As early as 1913, David Waterston of King's College London published in Nature his conclusion that the sample consisted of an ape mandible and human skull.[6] Likewise, French paleontologist Marcellin Boule concluded the same thing in 1915. A third opinion from American zoologist Gerrit Smith Miller concluded Piltdown's jaw came from a fossil ape. In 1923, Franz Weidenreich examined the remains and correctly reported that they consisted of a modern human cranium and an orangutan jaw with filed-down teeth.[7]


Sheffield Park find

In 1915, Dawson claimed to have found three fragments of a second skull (Piltdown II) at a new site about two miles away from the original finds.[1] Woodward attempted several times to elicit the location from Dawson but was unsuccessful. So far as is known, the site was never identified and the finds appear largely undocumented. Woodward did not present the new finds to the Society until five months after Dawson's death in August 1916 and deliberately implied that he knew where they had been found. In 1921, Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History, examined the Piltdown and Sheffield Park finds and declared that the jaw and skull belonged together "without question" and that the Sheffield Park fragments "were exactly those which we should have selected to confirm the comparison with the original type."[5]


The Sheffield Park finds were taken as proof of the authenticity of the Piltdown Man; it may have been chance that brought an ape's jaw and a human skull together, but the odds of it happening twice were slim. Even Keith conceded to this new evidence, though he still harbored personal doubts.[8]


  File:Piltdown man memorial.jpg

On 23 July 1938, at Barkham Manor, Piltdown, Sir Arthur Keith unveiled a memorial to mark the site where Piltdown Man was discovered by Charles Dawson. Sir Arthur finished his speech saying:
So long as man is interested in his long past history, in the vicissitudes which our early forerunners passed through, and the varying fare which overtook them, the name of Charles Dawson is certain of remembrance. We do well to link his name to this picturesque corner of Sussex–the scene of his discovery. I have now the honour of unveiling this monolith dedicated to his memory.[9]
The inscription on the memorial stone reads:
Here in the old river gravel Mr Charles Dawson, FSA found the fossil skull of Piltdown Man, 1912–1913, The discovery was described by Mr Charles Dawson and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1913–15.


 Exposed: The 1953 meeting in which Geological Society revealed the Piltdown Man to be a hoax

Scientific investigation

From the outset, some scientists expressed skepticism about the Piltdown find (see above). G.S. Miller, for example, observed in 1915 that "deliberate malice could hardly have been more successful than the hazards of deposition in so breaking the fossils as to give free scope to individual judgment in fitting the parts together."[10] In the decades prior to its exposure as a forgery in 1953, scientists increasingly regarded Piltdown as an enigmatic aberration inconsistent with the path of hominid evolution as demonstrated by fossils found elsewhere.[1] Skeptical scientists only increased in number as more fossils were found.[citation needed]

Piltdown skull fragments. They were found to have been stained to match the local Piltdown gravels.

In November 1953, Time published evidence gathered variously by Kenneth Page Oakley, Sir Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark and Joseph Weiner proving that the Piltdown Man was a forgery[11] and demonstrating that the fossil was a composite of three distinct species. It consisted of a human skull of medieval age, the 500-year-old lower jaw of a Sarawak orangutan and chimpanzee fossil teeth. Someone had created the appearance of age by staining the bones with an iron solution and chromic acid. Microscopic examination revealed file-marks on the teeth, and it was deduced from this that someone had modified the teeth to a shape more suited to a human diet.

The Piltdown man hoax succeeded so well because, at the time of its discovery, the scientific establishment believed that the large modern brain preceded the modern omnivorous diet, and the forgery provided exactly that evidence. It has also been thought that nationalism and cultural prejudice played a role in the less-than-critical acceptance of the fossil as genuine by some British scientists.[6] It satisfied European expectations that the earliest humans would be found in Eurasia, and the British, it has been claimed,[6] also wanted a first Briton to set against fossil hominids found elsewhere in Europe, including France and Germany.

Identity of the forger


The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown, but suspects have included Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Arthur Keith, Martin A. C. Hinton, Horace de Vere Cole and Arthur Conan Doyle.[12][13]

Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, who lived near the site, was one of the people rumoured to have been involved in the hoax

 File:Arthur Keith.jpg

Teilhard had travelled to regions of Africa where one of the anomalous finds originated, and resided in the Wealden area from the date of the earliest finds. Hinton left a trunk in storage at the Natural History Museum in London that in 1970 was found to contain animal bones and teeth carved and stained in a manner similar to the carving and staining on the Piltdown finds. Phillip Tobias implicated Arthur Keith by detailing the history of the investigation of the hoax, dismissing other theories, and listing inconsistencies in Keith's statements and actions.[14] Other investigations suggest the hoax involved accomplices rather than a single forger.[15]

The focus on Charles Dawson as the main forger is supported by the accumulation of evidence regarding other archaeological hoaxes he perpetrated in the decade or two prior to the Piltdown discovery. Archaeologist Miles Russell of Bournemouth University analyzed Dawson's antiquarian collection and determined at least 38 were fakes.[16][17] Among these were the teeth of a reptile/mammal hybrid, Plagiaulax dawsoni, "found" in 1891 (and whose teeth had been filed down in the same way that the teeth of Piltdown man would be some 20 years later), the so-called "shadow figures" on the walls of Hastings Castle, a unique hafted stone axe, the Bexhill boat (a hybrid seafaring vessel), the Pevensey bricks (allegedly the latest datable "finds" from Roman Britain), the contents of the Lavant Caves (a fraudulent "flint mine"), the Beauport Park "Roman" statuette (a hybrid iron object), the Bulverhythe Hammer (shaped with an iron knife in the same way as the Piltdown elephant bone implement would later be), a fraudulent "Chinese" bronze vase, the Brighton "Toad in the Hole" (a toad entombed within a flint nodule), the English Channel sea serpent, the Uckfield Horseshoe (another hybrid iron object) and the Lewes Prick Spur. Of his antiquarian publications, most demonstrate evidence of plagiarism or at least naive referencing. Russell wrote: "Piltdown was not a 'one-off' hoax, more the culmination of a life's work."[18] In addition, Harry Morris, an acquaintaince of Dawson, had come into possession of one of the flints obtained by Dawson at the Piltdown gravel pit. He suspected that it had been artificially aged—"stained by C. Dawson with intent to defraud." He remained deeply suspicious of Dawson for many years to come, though he never sought to discredit him publicly.[19]

 File:Sterkfontein Piltdown man2.jpg


  • 1908: Dawson claims discovery of first Piltdown fragments.
  • 1912 February: Dawson contacts Woodward about first skull fragments.
  • 1912 June: Dawson, Woodward, and Teilhard form digging team.
  • 1912 June: Team finds elephant molar, skull fragment.
  • 1912 June: Right parietal skull bones and the jaw bone discovered.
  • 1912 November: News breaks in the popular press.
  • 1912 December: Official presentation of Piltdown man.
  • 1913: David Waterston concludes the sample to be an ape mandible and a human skull.
  • 1914: Talgai skull (Australia) found, considered, at the time, to confirm Piltdown.
  • 1915: Marcellin Boule concludes the sample to be an ape mandible and a human skull. Gerrit Smith Miller concludes the jaw is from a fossil ape.
  • 1923: Franz Weidenreich reports the remains consist of a modern human cranium and orang utan jaw with filed-down teeth.
  • 1925: Edmonds reports Piltdown geology error. Report ignored.
  • 1943: Fluorine content test is first proposed.
  • 1948: The Earliest Englishman by Woodward is published (posthumously).
  • 1949: Fluorine content test establishes Piltdown man as relatively recent.
  • 1953: Weiner, Le Gros Clark, and Oakley expose the hoax.
  • 2003: Full nature of Charles Dawson's career in fakes is exposed.

Taken from and references on: [21.11.2013]

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