The hoax of the Piltdown Man is one of the great scandals and mysteries of the 20th century. In the early 1900’s, archaeologists were desperate to find what has been come to be known as “the missing link” between man and ape. Darwin’s theory was quite controversial and some were desperate to find the proof that would end the controversy.
Then guess what happened? Archaeologists announced they’d discovered exactly what was needed. Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward who made the initial discovery were celebrated along with a young Jesuit named Tielhard de Chardin. For years, it took its place as one of the great archaeological discoveries.
Dawson’s discovery was profound. The Piltdown specimen had an ape-like mandible and a human-like cranium, suggesting that humans evolved large brains early on. The new find was assumed to be earlier than other European ancestors for this reason, and reset what researchers thought they were looking for from a “missing link.” The site also produced primitive stone tools and a carved slab of bone, bolstering the idea that Eoanthropus was intelligent but still ape-like.
Unfortunately, it later turned out to be, as Forbes calls it, “the greatest fraud in the history of palaeoanthropology.”
In 1953, the New York Times reported on the discovery of the fraud:
It was big. Several highly respected and serious scientists were deceived and their reputations forever tarnished, and years of research and thought had been wasted on trying to analyze and fit the fake fossils into the record of human evolution. The relics were said to have been found in Piltdown, England by workers digging a pit. They handed over the bones to Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur geologist. He recruited the help of Arthur Woodward Smith, Tielhard de Chardin, Arthur Keith, and other notable scientists, who were very excited about the find. It was easy for them to believe that the bones, a very thick skull about the size of a modern human’s and a large, apelike jaw, were part of the same individual because that physiology was what they expected from a “missing link.” It also suited them — perhaps subconsciously — because it was found in England.
So for years, the mystery has been who engineered this fraud?
Tielhard de Chardin was often named as one of the leading suspects. None other than Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University wrote a piece essentially indicting him:
It is often hard to remember a man in his youth after old age imposes a different persona. Teilhard de Chardin became an austere and almost Godlike figure to many in his later years; he was widely hailed as a leading prophet of our age. But he was once a fun-loving young student. He knew Dawson for three years before Smith Wcodward entered the story. He may have had access, from a previous assignment in Egypt, to mammalian bones (probably from Tunisia and Malta) that formed part of the “imported” fauna at Piltdown. I can easily imagine Dawson and Teilhard, over long hours in field and pub, hatching a plot for different reasons: Dawson to expose the gullibility of pompous professionals; Teilhard to rub English noses once again with the taunt that their nation had no legitimate human fossils, while France reveled in a superabundance that made her the queen of anthropology. Perhaps they worked together, never expecting that the leading lights of English science would fasten to Piltdown with such gusto. Perhaps they expected to come clean but could not.
Teilhard left England to become a stretcher bearer during World War 1. Dawson, on this view, persevered and completed the plot with a second Piltdown find in 1915. But then the joke ran away and became a nightmare. Dawson sickened unexpectedly and died in 1916. Teilhard could not return before the war’s end. By that time, the three leading lights of British anthropology and paleontology-Arthur Srnith Woodward, Grafton Elliot Smith, and Arthur Keith-had staked their careers on the reality of Piltdown. (Indeed they ended up as two Sir Arthurs and one Sir Grafton, largely for their part in putting England on the anthropological map.) Had Teilhard confessed in 1918, his promising career (which later included a major role in describing the legitimate Peking man) would have ended abruptly. So he followed the Psalmist and the motto of Sussex University, later established just a few miles from Piltdown-”Be still, and know….”-to his dying day. Possible. Just possible.
But now Forbes is saying that they think someone acted alone and that it likely wasn’t de Chardin.
After Dawson died in 1916, however, no new bones or artifacts associated with Piltdown were found. From then, the concern over the veracity of Piltdown grew. The unraveling started in the 1950s, when Oxford scientists demonstrated that the jaw was from a recent ape, and that someone filed down the teeth and stained it to look old. The modern human skull, the stone tools and the carved stone had also been modified to appear ancient.
But until now, scientists have not fully understood how, why and by whom the fraud was committed. In an article published today in Royal Society Open Science, lead author Isabelle De Groote and more than a dozen British scientists reanalyzed the Piltdown Man remains using DNA analysis, spectroscopy and 3D reconstructions to show that one person committed this famous fraud — and that it was most likely Charles Dawson.
You can read more about it here.
I’ll admit it. I thought he was in on it. And I’m still not completely sure Forbes closes the book on this mystery. Something tells me this book has many more chapters.