Bare Bones of the Great Ape-Man Hoax

A replica of the Piltdown skull.
A replica of the Piltdown skull.

by Ray Setterfield

November 21, 1953 — On this day the Piltdown Man skull, which had been hailed as the missing link proving an evolutionary relationship between man and apes, was revealed as a hoax.

Charles Dawson, a solicitor who was also a keen amateur paleontologist, was excavating a gravel pit at Piltdown in southern England in 1912 when he found two skull fragments which were definitely human, and an ape-like jawbone.

Later that year, Arthur Woodward, keeper of the Department of Geology at the British Museum, who had been enlisted by Dawson to help, put a reconstruction of the complete skull on display at a meeting of the Geological Society of London. Woodward claimed that it came from a human who had probably lived about half a million years ago. Scientists accepted the claim and the species was officially recorded as Eoanthropus Dawson, or “Dawson's Dawn Man.”

But it was all untrue. Some 40 years later, researchers at the British Museum carried out rigorous tests on the artifact and found that it was a fake. Though human, the upper skull was only about 50,000 years old, while the jawbone was less than 100 years old. What’s more, it had come from an orangutan and had been stained with a chemical to make it seem older.

The “Piltdown Man” has been described as one of the most damaging scientific hoaxes of all time because it set back for years the development of evolutionary theory. Dawson made no money out of the scam, so why did he do it? There is speculation that others might have been involved but the likelihood is that Dawson simply craved scientific fame and recognition.

For a while he got just that, culminating in a formal honour. In 1938, Sir Arthur Keith, President of the Royal Anthropological Institute, unveiled a memorial at the site where “Piltdown Man” was discovered by Dawson. Sir Arthur said in his speech: “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. I have now the honour of unveiling this monolith dedicated to his memory.”

Published: April 24, 2016

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