Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The skull and jawbone of a prehistoric human was found in 1912 at a rock quarry. Long accepted as evidence of an evolutionary link between humans and apelike creatures, evidence came to light forty years later that human and orangutan bones and fossilized chimpanzee teeth had been combined to create a fake. Revelation of the hoax encouraged public skepticism about subsequent paleontological discoveries.

Summary of Event

At a meeting of the London Geological Society held on December 18, 1912, Charles Dawson, an attorney and amateur archaeologist from Lewes in Sussex, announced the finding of a skull at Piltdown quarry (the skull had been broken up by workers) in 1908. He then told his audience that he brought the skull fragments to Arthur Smith Woodward, the curator responsible for geological specimens at the British Museum. Woodward then accompanied Dawson to Piltdown in the summer of 1912, and they recovered more fragments, including part of a lower jawbone. After reconstructing the skull to the best of his ability, Woodward proclaimed that it was a new species intermediate between apelike beings and humans. [kw]Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax (Nov. 21, 1953) [kw]Hoax, Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a (Nov. 21, 1953) Woodward, Arthur Smith Weidenreich, Franz Oakley, Kenneth Piltdown man Paleontology Archaeology Woodward, Arthur Smith Weidenreich, Franz Oakley, Kenneth Piltdown man Paleontology Archaeology [g]Europe;Nov. 21, 1953: Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax[00960] [g]England;Nov. 21, 1953: Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax[00960] [c]Forgery;Nov. 21, 1953: Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax[00960] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Nov. 21, 1953: Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax[00960] [c]Science and technology;Nov. 21, 1953: Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax[00960] [c]Literature;Nov. 21, 1953: Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax[00960] [c]Education;Nov. 21, 1953: Piltdown Man Is Revealed to Be a Hoax[00960] Dawson, Charles Weiner, Joseph Le Gros Clark, Wilfrid

The Piltdown quarry excavation site in England in 1911, three years after the skull of a prehistoric man was allegedly found in 1908.

The find was extremely important in the context of the enduring controversy between evolutionists and creationists, whose arguments often crystallized around the notion of the so-called missing link that might prove the evolutionary descent of human beings from apelike ancestors. The skull of Piltdown man, as the find came to be known, became the subject of immediate controversy. Woodward’s reconstruction was challenged by the Royal College of Surgeons, a challenge later dismissed by enthusiasts as mere quibble. By the time more serious criticisms were made during the 1920’s, Dawson was dead and could no longer be called upon to answer criticism. In his absence, the evolving doubts about the skull’s nature and provenance seemed incapable of resolution.

In 1920, anatomist Franz Weidenreich asserted that the Piltdown fragments came from two different skulls: the cranium from a modern human being and the jaw from an orangutan. The following decade saw a series of further discoveries of early hominid skeletal remains, including Peking man Peking man in China and the Taung child Taung child in Africa. These remains indicated an evolutionary descent incompatible with the Piltdown skull, but that only caused Piltdown man’s supporters to be skeptical of the import of the new discoveries.

In 1948, Kenneth Oakley, Woodward’s successor as keeper of geological specimens at the British Museum, used recently developed carbon-dating techniques on a considerable number of protohuman specimens. Oakley found that the Piltdown skull, unlike the others, showed no evidence of antiquity, but the authority and accuracy of carbon dating were still viewed with some suspicion, so the publication of Oakley’s data in 1950 was thought insufficient to prove that the skull was a fake.

In June, 1953, Oakley mentioned his findings to Oxford University biologist Joseph Weiner, who then reexamined the skull in collaboration with his colleague, anthropologist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark. They found that the skull was a composite of three sources, as chimpanzee teeth had been added to the orangutan jaw and human cranium. More crucially, however, they found definite evidence that the teeth had been reshaped with a file and that the bones had been artificially stained to make them seem old.

On November 21, 1953, the Bulletin of the British Museum published the findings of Weiner and Le Gros Clark, who used Oakley’s data, and Times of London The Times of London broke the story to the public the same day. The Times news story, “Piltdown Man Forgery, Jaw and Tooth of Modern Ape [an] ’Elaborate Hoax,’” would lead to a global scandal. Other British and European newspapers picked up the story on subsequent days, as did newspapers in the United States. The public outcry was sufficient to provoke a motion to the House of Commons that proposed a vote of no confidence in the British Museum’s trustees; the motion, however, was not carried. It is likely that the lasting effects of the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee brought the conflicts of evolutionary theory to the fore once again, even a quarter century later. Theories of human evolution could still stir the public.

Although it seemed likely that Dawson had been the faker and Woodward his victim, the lapse of time since the alleged discovery of Piltdown man made that conclusion difficult to prove. Hypotheses regarding alternative culprits and a wider conspiracy were soon proposed. Arthur Conan Doyle, who had taken an interest in the find because of its relevance to his 1912 scientific romance novel The Lost World, was soon a suspect.

More attention was focused, however, on Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit and a paleontologist who had reportedly visited the Piltdown site with Dawson. Teilhard had been forbidden by the Society of Jesus to publish his own theories regarding human evolution—theories that were equally unorthodox from the scientific and Roman Catholic viewpoints—and the posthumous publication of his ideas in Le Phénomène humaine (1955; The Phenomenon of Man, 1959) caused a mild sensation not long after the revelation of the Piltdown hoax. The argument for Teilhard’s involvement won support from the successful popularizer of science Stephen Jay Gould.

The nagging enigma of the hoaxer’s identity was resolved beyond all reasonable doubt when abundant evidence was uncovered of Dawson’s inveterate habit of faking archaeological and fossil finds, apparently as a mere matter of attention-seeking. Piltdown man had been by far his most daring contrivance and Woodward his most prestigious victim, but he probably had no idea of the fuss that his hoax would cause so long after his death. He would doubtless have been delighted to know that the hoax would eventually win him an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. The argument lasted long enough to maintain the public profile of the scandal, which was still simmering at the end of the twentieth century. In 2003, the British Broadcasting Company produced a television documentary to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the revelation, in which the presentation of detailed and cogent arguments proving Dawson’s culpability was still deemed necessary and newsworthy.

Impact

The Piltdown hoax of 1953 was generated by the discomfiting suggestion that there had been ready, willing, and able scientists who perpetrated gross deceptions to support the theories in which they believed. In a purely scientific context, the Bulletin of the British Museum merely supplied a coup de grÂce to an awkward embarrassment. That such a significant scientific fraud had been perpetrated, and its fakery accepted as truth—at least by some observers—for forty years seemed scandalous to many of the newspaper reporters who commented on the revelation, and to their readers. The hoax undermined the trust to which the entire scientific community laid claim.

Sincere evolutionists were upset because the Piltdown hoax provided useful argumentative ammunition to creationists. As creationism enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in the second half of the twentieth century, its adherents continued to point to the Piltdown hoax as evidence of the lengths to which their opponents were prepared to go. That Dawson was an amateur and a habitual trickster rather than a professional scientist could not detract from the fact that many of his dedicated supporters were professionals, whose commitment to evolutionary theory swayed their judgment of what was very poor evidence. Woodward, Arthur Smith Weidenreich, Franz Oakley, Kenneth Piltdown man Paleontology Archaeology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewin, Roger. Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Although primarily concerned with the history of archaeological discovery in Africa and with how researchers struggled for acceptance, this work provides a good overview of the quest for human origins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Miles. Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson and the World’s Greatest Archaeological Hoax. Stroud, England: Tempus, 2003. Russell, featured in the 2003 BBC documentary, painstakingly enumerates sixteen other forgeries perpetrated by Dawson to establish the case that Dawson, acting alone, perpetrated the hoax.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walsh, John. Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution. New York: Random House, 1996. Walsh treats the hoax as a mystery, initially rejecting the hypothesis that Dawson was the culprit, but he finds Stephen Jay Gould’s suspicions of Teilhard de Chardin unconvincing and similarly rejects all the other candidates, eventually falling back on Dawson for lack of an alternative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiner, Joseph S. The Piltdown Forgery. New ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A new edition of Weiner’s popular account of the revelation of the hoax, initially published in 1955. The new introduction and afterword by Chris Stringer provide additional context and an update on the techniques employed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiner, Joseph S., with Kenneth P. Oakley and Wilfrid E. Le Gros Clark. “The Solution of the Piltdown Problem.” Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Geology 2, no. 3 (November, 1953). The article that sparked the scandal. Remains a classic item of closely argued scientific discourse.

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