Low Down on Piltdown

In 1912, Charles Dawson uncovered some skull fragments, a jaw, and other artifacts in a gravel pit at Piltdown, on the Sussex Weald of England. When the pieces were put together, an interesting mosaic emerged: the creature had the brain of a modern human and the jaw of an ape. The fossil “ape-man” looked relatively old, based on other Pliocene mammal fossils found at the site. All these factors suited a favorite theory of British anatomist Sir Arthur Keith. He held that humans evolved their big brains first, and that other modern features came later. Other respected scientists put their weight behind the “Piltdown man,” including Arthur Smith-Woodward, keeper of paleontology at the British Museum of Natural History, and Teilhard de Chardin, the renowned Jesuit priest/paleontologist.

But as the years went by, the Piltdown man looked less and less plausible. Finally, in the early 1950s, a battery of tests confirmed that the “discovery” had been a grand hoax. The cranium belonged to a human alright, but the jaw belonged to an equally modern orangutan. All the artifacts had been treated chemically to make them appear authentic. Some of them had even been shaped with a metal tool, including an object made from elephant bone that looked like a cricket bat (how appropriate for the “earliest Englishman”!).

With the hoax laid bare, studies shifted into a second phase. The question was not, “Where does this fossil fit into evolution?,” but “Whodunit?” Practically everyone who had anything to do with the objects has come under suspicion. No one seems to doubt that Dawson played a key role. As a lawyer and antiquarian, he risked the least scientific credibility, and he is known to have palmed off other fake objects.

However, the prank had a sophistication (the artificial aging process and other important details, including the selection of bones and the geological stratum) that implied an insider’s knowledge of the field. For all his ingenuity, it is unlikely that Dawson acted alone.

The plot took another twist in recent years with the discovery of a trunk in the attic of the Natural History Museum (Gee, 1996). At the bottom, hidden under the preserved remains of rodent dissections, lay an assortment of carved and stained fossils and bones. Further analysis revealed a close match to the Piltdown collection. The trunk is known to have belonged to Martin A.C. Hinton—curator of zoology at the museum during the time of the hoax. Just two years earlier, Smith-Woodward had turned Hinton down for a job in the paleontology department. Revenge, it seems, could have been Hinton’s motivation. Of course, there are still questions about his relationship to Dawson, and the other ten or so suspects are not off the hook yet.

Evolutionists get annoyed when creationists talk about this hoax. After all, everyone knows that the Piltdown man is not genuine. And besides, it was the evolutionists themselves, using rigorous scientific methods, who finally exposed the deception. However, as we have just seen, the scandal remains a live issue, especially among paleontologists. They have a need to understand how such frauds and hoaxes can persist for so long, or appear in the first place. Piltdown man was perpetrated by experts in the field, and unwittingly endorsed by many others. It was accepted readily because it fit the preconceptions of the time, a fact on which the tricksters probably were relying. From the Piltdown saga we learn that scientists are not exempt from human failings, and we should not be surprised to find more skeletons among the highly contentious closets of human evolution.


Gee, Henry (1996), “Box of Bones ‘Clinches’ Identity of Piltdown Paleontology Hoaxer,” Nature, 381:261-262, May 23.


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