History Girls

{May 16, 2010}   Piltdown Man: Britain’s Greatest Hoax

The story of Piltdown Man came out at just the time when scientists were in a desperate race to find the missing link in the theory of evolution. Since Charles Darwin had published his theory on the origin of species in 1859, the hunt had been on for clues to the ancient ancestor that linked apes to humans.

Sensational finds of fossil ancestors, named Neanderthals, had already occurred in Germany and France. British Scientists, however, were desperate to prove that Britain had also played its part in the story of human evolution, and Piltdown Man was the answer to their prayers – because of him, Britain could claim to be the birthplace of mankind.

Charles Dawson had made a name for himself by finding fossils in Sussex, and passing them on to Sir Arthur Smith Woodward at what is now the Natural History Museum, London. Dawson now claimed that at some point before 1910, a workman had handed him a dark-stained and thick piece of human skull. He said that recognising that this might be part of an ancient human, he had continued to dig at the site and collected more pieces of skull.

On 14 February 1912, he wrote to Woodward with news of exciting discoveries, and that summer Woodward joined him to excavate at Piltdown. They found more fragments of skull, and the bones and teeth of extinct British animals such as elephants, rhinos and beavers. They also found primitive stone tools, and a remarkable ape-like jaw.

On the basis of these finds, Woodward constructed a skull that seemed to supply the missing link in the evolutionary path between humans and the apes. With a brain the same size as that of modern humans, and a very ape-like jaw, Piltdown Man was born….

It was not until new technology for the dating of fossils was developed, in the late 1940s, that Piltdown Man came to be seriously questioned once again. In 1949, Dr Kenneth Oakley, a member of the staff at the Natural History Museum, tested the Piltdown fossils and found that the skull and jaw were not that ancient.

He joined forces with Professor Joe Weiner and Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark from Oxford, to apply stringent tests to all the Piltdown remains. They realised that the human-like wear pattern on the teeth had been created by artificially filing down the teeth from an orang-utan jaw. The skull pieces were found to have come from an unusually thick-boned – but quite recent – human skull. It had simply been boiled and stained to match the colour and antiquity of the Piltdown gravels.

Although many of the mammal fossils were genuine, they had also been stained to match the skull and came from all over the world. It turned out that every single one of the 40 odd finds at Piltdown had been planted.

On 21 November 1953 the news broke, and headline writers revelled in the Natural History Museum‘s embarrassment: ‘Fossil Hoax Makes Monkeys Out Of Scientists!’ Weiner and Oakley quickly began an investigation to uncover the identity of the hoaxer. Who had had the access, the expertise and the motive to carry out such an outrageous forgery?

Read more at the bbc.co.uk


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