New study suggests a single miscreant, Charles Dawson, created the “Piltdown Man” hoax

The story of the fraudulent skull known as “Piltdown Man” is well known. In 1912, lawyer and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson turned up at the London Natural History Museum with a specimen he claimed to have found at a site in Sussex. He and Arthur Smith Woodward, the head geologist at the Museum, further excavated the site and turned up more bone fragments, including bits of a skull, teeth, jawbones, and even a piece of carved bone—an “artifact” of human devising.

Woodward reconstructed the “skull” and announced with Dawson that the skull, jawbone, and two molar teeth constituted the “missing link” between apes and humans: a 500,000-year old specimen they named Eoanthropus dawsoni. Dawson later reported finding an “intermediate” canine tooth at the site, as well as similar teeth and skull bits (“Piltdown II”) from a site 3 km away. The bones were darkly stained, matching the gravels at the site.

Here’s a reconstruction of the Piltdown Man (Piltdown I), with the original bits in brown and the rest added to fill in the gaps:


Subsequent findings of genuine early hominins marginalized this fossil (Austalopithecus africanus was described in 1924), but many still believed that E. dawsoni was real. (There were, however, many doubters from the outset.) That lasted until 1953, when scientists showed beyond doubt that “Piltdown Man” comprised, as some had surmised, skull bits from modern humans combined with a recent ape jaw (likely an orangutan), with the ape teeth filed down to look intermediate between those of apes and humans. The jaw, as well as a modern human skull, had been artificially stained, and fossils of other species had been planted at the Sussex locality, along with a bogus “artifact” (probably an elephant bone carved with a steel knife) to give credibility to the fossils. By 1955, after a second publication, Piltdown Man was universally rejected as a hoax.

Yet some creationists still tout the early acceptance of Piltdown Man as evidence for the credulity of scientists who accepted a fake simply because they wanted to believe in human evolution. That doesn’t wash, though, in light of the doubts that accompanied the fossil’s original discovery, the subsequent uncovering of the duplicity by scientists (not creationists), and the dozens of genuine hominin fossils that have turned up since then. This is an example of the self-correcting nature of science, something not seen in the religious belief of those creationists who still tout this example.

Some questions remain. Who, exactly, was responsible for the forgery? Suggestions have included Dawson himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Dawson’s neighbor), Arthur Keith, and—Steve Gould’s choice—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and amateur anthropologist. At least twenty people have been named as possible hoaxers.

A new paper by Isabelle De Groote and many colleagues, just posted at the Royal Society Open Publishing site (reference and free download below), answers other questions, and suggests that the consistency of methods used for both Piltdown I and II specimens, points to a single forger. That forger was almost surely Dawson himself.

De Groote et al. raise three questions (in bold below), and tried to answer them using a combination of morphological analysis, DNA sequencing, radiocarbon dating, and inspection of the fossils. I’ll briefly give their responses below the questions.

  • (Q1)  Lowenstein [16] showed that the mandible was likely to have come from an orang-utan (Pongo sp.). Are the ape jaw, isolated canine (both Piltdown I) and molar (Piltdown II) indeed from an orang-utan? If so, are they likely to originate from the same animal?

Yes, the jaw and teeth from Piltdown I and II came from a single orangutan, as judged by both morphology and mitochondrial DNA sequencing. Carbon dating gave results ranging from 90-500 years, so the jaw and teeth may well have come from an Edwardian skull collection, though the authors couldn’t find records of missing specimens.

The organgutans themselves were likely, given their placement in the DNA phylogeny of known individuals, to have come from southwest Sarawak.

  • (Q2)  How many crania were used to produce the various fragments found at the Piltdown sites and can we assign them to a putative source population?

The authors suggest that at least two modern human skulls, whose dates could not be determined, were used to reconstruct the fossils. No putative source population could be identified, though the authors conjecture that the skulls were from medieval humans.

  • (Q3)  Is there consistency in the modus operandi (MO) used to modify the various materials, linking them to one or more forgers?

The answer to this one is yes. The bones and tooth sockets were all plugged with gravel, originating at both sites, that were mixed with putty. And the same putty was used on the human skulls, as well as to affix the molars back into the organgutan jawbones. That, and the artificial staining that was the same on all specimens, points to a single forger—most likely Dawson, who had the means, opportunity, and anthropological knowledge to create this fake. De Groote et al. summarize their reasons for a single hoaxer:

This is largely because the story originated with [Dawson], he brought the first specimens to Dr Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History) in 1912, nothing was ever found at the site when Dawson was not there, he is the only known person directly associated with the supposed finds at the second Piltdown site, the exact whereabouts of which he never revealed, and no further significant fossils, mammal or human, were discovered in the localities after his death in 1916.

The final question is this: if it was Dawson, why did he do it? The authors tackle that question, too, and show from letters that Dawson was desperate to be elected a member of the Royal Society. Fortunately, that honor eluded him (it would have been further hay for creationists), but he might well have been elected had he lived longer.

De Groote et al. finish with a lesson: paleoanthropologists shouldn’t hoard or retain exclusive possession of their fossils, for science demands verification through independent observation. I’ll add here the words of Richard Feynman, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

h/t: Latha for the original link, also sent by several other readers

de Groote, I. et al. 2016. New genetic and morphological evidence suggest that a single hoaxer created “Pildown man.”   


  1. Posted August 11, 2016 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Very interesting, thanks for this.

  2. David Duncan
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    The creationists use of Piltdown reminds me of an article I once read debunking the alegedly intermingled human and dinosaur footprints in the Paluxy River, Texas:

    ‘Paluxy Man. The Creationist Piltdown’.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Years ago I was at a talk about the dinosaur footprints in that region, and the speaker spent some time going over how some of the dino footprints come to sort of look like human footprints. For the most part, this is from a combination of events, namely when the toe prints get filled in, and when the dinosaur also left an impression of their heel in the foot print. The result looks vaguely like a human footprint. This was noticed even by indians living in the area before the white settlers. Later, the settlers would even carve into some of the prints to make them look more human.

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Yeah paleo anthropologists – stop hoarding fossils. We know your garages are full of skills — give them up!! 😀

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Probably not the 15 minutes of fame Dawson was looking for.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      I pity the poor bastard. What a sad ego.

  5. E.A. Blair
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    When I first glanced through morning fog at the subject line in my inbox, I thought that it read, “New study suggests a single hoaxer, Charles Darwin, created the “Piltdown Man” hoax”. Glad I was wrong.

  6. Posted August 11, 2016 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I have a book purchased in a second-hand bookshop in Norwich a while back called Unravelling Piltdown which points the finger squarely at Dawson (backed by impressive quantities of evidence), so this is hardly news.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      It’s new evidence in a case which was already pretty strong. (That Dawson was the main forger – that there had been a forgery was clearly established in 1953.)

    • Tom
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, it was Dawson, although de Chardin gained the most advantage from the hoax

  7. µ
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Re “self-correcting nature of science”:

    True. But I am also impressed by the inefficiency of self-correction, that it took 40+ years to begin debunking the Piltdown hoax; that we are still wasting time debating whether MMR-vaccine causes autism, whether resveratrol (and other such dietary supplements) reduce risk of heart-disease and cancer, and many other such factoids wasting research-$$.

    BF Skinner seems right: behavior and beliefs entrained by random reinforcement are very difficult to extinguish, even in highly trained scientists.

    Too much ego, perhaps; not enough bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      It’s not the scientists wasting time debating the efficacy of vaccines. It’s the hoi polloi. The science is clear; some just don’t want to accept the science.

      • colnago80
        Posted August 11, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Egged on by “physicians” like Jill Stein.

    • Posted August 11, 2016 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      “I am also impressed by the inefficiency of self-correction… that we are still wasting time debating whether MMR-vaccine causes autism…”

      Science has settled the vaccine-autism question decades ago. The debate is still persisting because of the wish of parents of autistic children to lay the blame on a definite target, preferably the vaccines.

  8. Posted August 11, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Very cool! I would expand on De Groote, et al.’s lesson though as: “researchers shouldn’t hoard or retain exclusive possession of their data, for science demands verification through independent observation.” Except when privacy concerns are present, people need to make their raw data available for scrutiny and further analysis. This would help us avoid further hoaxes and temper the general scourge of confirmation bias.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Strangly, I was making that very point in an email half a cup of tea ago.

  9. Posted August 11, 2016 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I agree that a single main perpetrator has been responsible for the Piltdown Hoax. However, there is zero evidence to support the contention that Dawson did it. The only smoking gun found so far was Martin Hinton’s tool box with the artificially dyed teeth and bones. I understand that this narrative is unsatisfactory, but sometimes the correct solution is that the butler did it.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    So the parsimonious hypothesis holds under deeper scrutiny in this case. Forgery is means, motive, and opportunity, and Dawson was the closest suspect.

  11. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    That doesn’t wash, though, in light of the doubts that accompanied the fossil’s original discovery, the subsequent uncovering of the duplicity by scientists (not creationists), and the dozens of genuine hominin fossils that have turned up since then.

    The timing presented might mislead some. It could imply that Piltdown was accepted as valid in 1952, and only rejected in 1953. That’s not the case.
    The discovery (in 1924) and publication (1925) of the “Taung Child” specimen of Australopithecus africanus was the first solid evidence that the origins of humans lay in Africa, not Europe or Asia. It remained disputed until well into the 1930s (and anthropology largely stopped 1939 through 1945), but certainly from the mid-1930s the tide was turning towards a human origin in Africa. Which left “Piltdown Man” as a troublesome, and suspicious, anomaly.
    People are continuing to debate if the ultimate origins of the apes (including humans) do lay in Asia rather than Africa. But the debate has moved back to the last common ancestor of Pongo (Orang Utans) and the Chimp/ Bonobo/ Human clade, not whether the root of the Chimp/ Bonobo/ Human clade lies in Africa.

    • loren russell
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      I agree with GI — as a geeky little kid in the early 1950s I was devouring anything I could find on evolution, especially human ev. Many of the books and magazines dealing with evolution that I could find in local libraries were pre-WWII, and few if any really said much about Piltdown. They were excited about H. erectus, especially the Chinese finds, and at least the post WWII sources all seemed to put the South African australopiths on the human line. I recall reading about the exposure — probably in Scientific American.

      There certainly was a nationalistic bias — those books often mentioned “Nebraska man” for instance. But I think the pendulum swung long before 1953 — outside England at least.

      FN: I see that Franz Weidenreich had correctly called it as a deliberate fabrication of modern human skull[s] and orangutan jaw and teeth in the early 1920s.

  12. Posted August 11, 2016 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Dawson was already known or suspected in a number of other extraordinary archaeological “finds” of his. Once Piltdown Man was exposed as a hoax in 1953 it was rapidly realized that Dawson had perpetuated many other fakes as well.

    So this is not a new allegation that an upright citizen was really a crook, but a confirmation that this fakery was done by a known crook, the man who sought chief credit for the “find”.

  13. Stephen P
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    … and—Steve Gould’s choice—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and amateur anthropologist.

    Well, not quite. Gould, like most people, was convinced that Dawson was the primary forger. His view was that Teilhard de Chardin knew of the forgery and may well have assisted Dawson. It seems to me that he made a pretty good case for that, and I don’t see anything here that contradicts it.

    • lkr
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Gould’s take was entertaining, but not particularly convincing to me. It seemed to be a means to write about Teilhard tales.. [A Natural History columnevery month for how many years?]

      But if Gould were alive, he’d likely still be crediting Teilhard with the cricket bat.

  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    According to this: , besides Piltdown I and II, there was a Piltdown III site. The material consisted of cranial fragments from more than one individual, and a human molar. All were stained. They were in Dawsons’ possession when he died.
    The paper here promotes the view that Martin Hinton did the hoaxing. I have no dog in that fight, however.

  15. Robert Darby
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    As a couple of others have remarked, Dawson had already been convincingly identified as the culprit in the Piltdown and several other archeological frauds by John Evangelist Walsh, Unravelling Piltdown (Random House, 1996).

    • Henry Fitzgerald
      Posted August 11, 2016 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I was going to mention that too. From memory the three points Walsh makes that make Dawson acting alone overwhelmingly likely:

      (1) You have to twist yourself into pretzels to come up with a way in which Dawson wasn’t involved at all. He “found” the pit (which was entirely fake: there were no real fossils there) and supervised all expeditions on which anything was found. And the second set of Piltdown specimens came directly from him: nobody else claims to have ever seen them in the ground. (Walsh claims, probably correctly, they were never in the ground.)

      (2) Dawson had a documented history of fraud, plagiarism and deception. Piltdown wasn’t his only fake by a long shot.

      (3) In all of Dawson’s other deceptions he appears to have been acting alone. There’s certainly no connection between the proposed Piltdown co-conspirators and Dawson’s fake Roman tile, or his fake Roman horseshoe, or any of the other dodgy things he came up with.

  16. Christopher
    Posted August 11, 2016 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    For reasons unknown except to the darkest regions of my warped and broken brain, I kept reading it as Darwin or Dawkins as perpetrator of the hoax, until I got myself to read it as Dawson by thinking about Andre Dawson (many apologies to that great Cubs outfielder).

    That scientist to this day are still attempting to debunk this hoax is fantastic and shows an honor and faithfulness to the truth that religion can’t even pretend to come close to. Self-correction and peer review beats infallibility every time.

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