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Perpetrator of Piltdown Man ‘Missing Link’ Hoax Identified

It has been called the greatest hoax in the history of palaeoanthropology. In 1912, two men announced the discovery of Eoanthropus dawsoni, the remains of what they claimed was the missing link between humans and apes. Because the fossils were found in the town of  Piltdown in East Sussex, England, this half-human-half-ape was named the Piltdown Man and the discovery was hailed as one of the greatest moments in archeological history for decades … until the 1950s when it was proven to be an elaborate hoax. Now the perpetrator of the hoax has finally been identified. It was …

Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. Back row (from left): F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A S Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Ray Lankester.

Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. Back row (from left): F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A S Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Ray Lankester.

Not so fast. Let’s look at what led up to the revelation. Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist at the British Museum, and Charles Dawson, an antiquarian and lawyer, announced their discovery of the remains of a human ancestor with an ape-like mandible and a human-like cranium. They also claimed to have found stone tools but no other fossils or artifacts were ever uncovered at the site, although Dawson claimed to have discovered others at an unidentified second site. He died in 1916 and the original remains are still on display at the British Natural History Museum.

The Piltdown Man display at the museum

The Piltdown Man display at the museum

Doubts about the authenticity of Piltdown Man persisted but no proof was found until the 1950s when Oxford scientists showed that the jaw was from a modern ape, the human skull and the tools were also modern and all were modified to look prehistoric. It was an excellent forgery because it fooled scientists for 40 years. Some suspects included Arthur Smith Woodward, anthropologist and French Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, and even Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived nearby. Who really did it and how?

That remained a mystery until recently when a team of researchers from a number of British universities used DNA analysis and 3D X-ray imaging to examine the fakes. The DNA test showed that a canine tooth from the original site and a molar claimed to have come from the second site were from the jawbone found, which all belonged to one modern orangutan. They also discovered evidence that the bones and skull fragments had been filled with Piltdown dirt or dental putty in attempts to make them look whole.

Micro-CT scans and radiographs of the Piltdown teeth and bones, showing gravel inclusions.

Micro-CT scans and radiographs of the Piltdown teeth and bones, showing gravel inclusions.

Based on this evidence, Dr. Isabelle De Groote from Liverpool John Moores University and lead author of the research paper published in Royal Society Open Science, definitively identified the hoaxer.

Although multiple individuals have been accused of producing the fake fossils, our analyses to understand the modus operandi show consistency between all the different specimens and on both sites. It is clear from our analysis that this work was likely all carried out by one forger: Charles Dawson.

Dawson was apparently disillusioned with his career and found that fraud brought him the fame he desired. At least 38 forgeries have been attributed to him. The damage done by the Piltdown Man hoax was serious. Many legitimate fossils found at the same time were ignored because they didn’t resemble Piltdown Man.

More archeologists looking for fossils at the Piltdown site in 1913

More archeologists looking for fossils at the Piltdown site in 1913

Dr. De Groote gives this sad epitaph for Charles Dawson:

If he hadn’t given in to this dark side of himself that wanted fame and fooled scientists, he could have been a well-established scientist.

Does this sound like anyone you know?