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People and Discoveries

Piltdown Man is revealed as fake

"Piltdown Man Hoax Is Exposed," announced the New York Times on November 21, 1953. "Part of the skull of the Piltdown man, one of the most famous fossil skulls in the world, has been declared a hoax by authorities at the British Natural History Museum," the article said.

The Piltdown fossils, including a portion of the skull, a jawbone, and a few teeth, were found in 1911 and 1912. This "Piltdown Man" was believed by many to be "the earliest Englishman," and in fact, the missing link between apes and humans. But in 1953, the jawbone was found to be that of a modern ape -- orangutan, most likely -- that had been treated with chemicals to make it look as though it had been lying in the ground for hundreds of centuries. The cap of the skull was still thought to be a genuine fossil, but far more recent than originally believed.

"This declaration . . . has been made after twenty years of rumors and uneasy speculation among European paleontologists about the authenticity of the bones," the New York Times stated. The London Star headlines shouted, "The Biggest Scientific Hoax of the Century!"

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.

The New York Times in 1953 further reported, "Sir Arthur Keith, famous British paleontologist, spent more than five years piecing together the fragments of what he called a 'remarkable' discovery. He said the brain case was 'primitive in some respects but in all its characteristics distinctly human.' The Piltdown man was named Eoanthropus dawsonii, or Dawn man, in honor of its discoverer, and paleontologists throughout the world handled it with reverence.

"Although the fossil was generally accepted as the earliest known specimen of sapient man, as opposed to the apeman of China and Java, many research workers reserved their opinions about the disputatious jawbone."

Actually, Piltdown Man threw a wrench into the works of investigating human evolution. In 1925, Raymond Dart found the Taung skull, a fossil in South Africa that he believed was the earliest human ancestor (now known as Australopithecus). But few people accepted his find; it didn't fit in with Piltdown, for one thing. It had a small brain, yet a human-like jaw. But mostly, it came from Africa, and many European scientists preferred to have England be the cradle of humanity. Dart was ultimately proved correct.

Around 1939, paleontologist Kenneth Oakley devised a new chemical analysis called fluorine testing. Fossil bones absorb fluorine from soil and water, so fossils that have been in the same soil for the same amount of time should have roughly the same amount of fluorine. To authenticate that the jaw and skull of Piltdown Man belonged together, the Natural History Museum had Oakley, a scientist uninvolved in Piltdown's discovery, test them in 1949. As it turned out, the remains seemed to have similar amounts of fluorine, suggesting they belonged together, but surprisingly they appeared to be much younger than was originally thought -- perhaps only 50,000 instead of 500,000 years old. This made matters even more confusing, since there were fossil examples of modern humans from 50,000 years ago. That would have made Piltdown Man a freakish throwback, not a missing link.

In 1953, Joseph Weiner, an Oxford professor of physical anthropology, met Kenneth Oakley at a banquet. They got chatting about the Piltdown puzzle and Weiner couldn't get it out of his mind. He had reports on the research and casts of the fossils and began examining each minutely. He was amazed to see that the fossil teeth seemed to have been deliberately ground down with something abrasive to give them a unique wear pattern. He called Oakley, who had access to the real fossils and asked him to look at them with a magnifier. He too became convinced the teeth had been purposely changed to fit the Piltdown Man. Weiner and Oakley now undertook new chemical analyses, including an improved fluorine test, and found that the jaw and teeth were not the same age as the skull and were not even fossils, just old bones. Some of the bones had been stained with chemicals and some with ordinary paint to make them match each other and the color of the soil where they were found. Weiner, Oakley, and Oxford anthropologist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark were now certain that the Piltdown fossil collection was a fake, and not just that, but a hoax.

On November 20, 1953, they reported their findings in the bulletin of the Natural History Museum. The scientists of 40 years before, they explained, had been victims of "a most elaborate and carefully prepared hoax. The faking of the mandible [jawbone]," they wrote, "is so extraordinarily skillful and the perpetration of the hoax appears to have been so entirely unscrupulous and inexplicable as to find no parallel in the history of paleontological discovery."

The newspaper headlines the following day shared the story with the world. At that time, the skullcap was still believed to be about 50,000 years old. In 1959, however, the recently discovered carbon-14 dating technique was used to show that it was between 520 and 720 years old, the jawbone slightly younger! While different individuals have been accused of being the perpetrator of the hoax, there is no agreement upon who it might have been.

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