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  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.”