The story of the Piltdown Man begins in a gravel pit near the village of Piltdown, in East Sussex. Workers at the gravel pit uncovered a skull, and one of them gave a fragment to a local archaeologist, Charles Dawson. Or so the story goes.
Charles Dawson was an amateur archaeologist who had become famous for a string of impressive finds. A lawyer by profession, he had been elected as a fellow of the Geological Society in 1885, and of the Society for Antiquaries London in 1895. Dawson’s discoveries were legendary. His discoveries ranged from the molars of previously unknown mammals, to rare Roman statuettes. But Dawson was apparently not satisfied. In a letter to a friend, he said he was still waiting for the “big one.”
And at a meeting of the Geological Society on December 8, 1912, Charles Dawson claimed that he had found it. He presented a fragmented, partial skull that appeared to be a missing link between humans and other apes. Dawson claimed that workers had discovered the skull a short time before he had visited the gravel pit for the first time. Seeing the fragment provided by the worker, Dawson combed the area, finding several more fragments. He took his finds to Arthur Woodward, of the Geological department of the British Museum. Woodward’s interest was piqued, and the two of them recovered more fragments from the gravel pit between June and September 1912.
By the time Dawson made his announcement, Woodward had completed an initial reconstruction of the skull. According to Woodward, the find appeared to be a transitional fossil, very much similar to a chimpanzee skull, but possessing human molars.
Alas, the fossil was a fake. In fact, at least 38 of Dawson’s discoveries are fake, including the new mammal molars, and the roman statuette. It was to take the scientific community 40 years to prove that Piltdown Man was a fraud.
That isn’t to say that doubts didn’t begin to surface immediately. Using the same pieces as Woodward had, the Royal College of Surgeons correctly concluded that Piltdown Man was nothing more than the skull of a modern human, and the jaw of an ape. In 1915, G.S. Miller, curator of Mammals at the US National Museum, commented 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.”
The Piltdown hoax was finally conclusively exposed in 1953 by Kenneth P. Oakley, professor of anthropology at Oxford University. Oakley showed that the Piltdown skull was actually composed of three different species. The skull was that of a medieval human, chemically treated to look older. The jaw was of a 500 year old Orangutan, also chemically aged. Lastly, the teeth came from a fossilized chimpanzee. Microscopic study revealed file marks. The teeth were modified to look more human.
The length of time that it took to expose the Piltdown hoax, especially considering the early doubts expressed, doesn’t really reflect well on science. However, it should be noted that long before the conclusion that the find was fake, Piltdown man had been largely written off. New discoveries shed doubt on the Piltdown Man’s place in the evolution of man, and by the time it was exposed as a fake, it was considered an oddity, not really fitting into the fossil record, and of doubtful authenticity.
And how did Charles Dawson fit into the picture? He never got to enjoy the fruits of his greatest discovery – and greatest fraud. He died of septicaemia in 1916.