Piltdown Man hoax, 1912

This video is called Piltdown Man Hoax on Discover Science Part 1.

And here is Part 2.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Why Britain lapped up the story of Piltdown Man

Thursday 03 January 2013

Once Christmas 1912 was over and Edwardian society had welcomed in the new year of 1913 the public had only one interest – the amazing discovery of the skull of the Piltdown Man.

The fossil find in the gravel beds of Sussex provided the missing link between apes and the human species.

Today we know Eoanthropus dawsoni, as Piltdown Man was named, was a complete fraud – perhaps the biggest scientific fraud in fact until Tony Blair’s famous dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

The Piltdown hoax, created by combining parts of a medieval human skull with the lower jawbone of an orangutan, lasted for 41 years and was only finally exposed in 1953.

So who was it that invented this huge nonsense and, perhaps more important, why was the British scientific establishment so quick to accept it as gospel?

Let’s go back to those sepia-tinted days of the autumn of the British empire a century ago.

At the time it was said that the sun never set on the British empire – cynics joked that was because God didn’t trust the British in the dark.

The writing was on the wall for the empire however. In South Africa the forerunner of the African National Congress had just been established.

Also in South Africa a young Indian lawyer named Gandhi was learning his politics leading a strike of African miners.

Very few fossils of early humanoids had ever been discovered in Britain before – and they still haven’t today.

So what could have been more welcome than a discovery that the proud origins of the human race had happened in the English home counties?

Here was proof that the first big-brained upright-walking human species were white and, indeed, English – just what Britain wanted to hear.

This was proof that would give the white supremacist ideas that had underpinned British imperialism a real shot in the arm.

It would also get one up on those awful French paleontologists across the Channel who, it seemed, were digging up Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals all the time.

The Piltdown specimen was given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni, or “Dawson’s dawn man.”

It honoured Charles Dawson, the Lewes lawyer and amateur paleontologist who claimed he had uncovered the Piltdown skull along with other fossils in the gravel of the Ouse valley in Sussex.

Dawson had form for scientific deceits. E. dawsoni was not the only species that he foisted on the scientific community.

Back in the 1890s, Dawson had announced the find of the teeth of what appeared to be a missing link between reptiles and mammals. This too gained sufficient credibility to be given a scientific name – Plagiaulax dawsoni.

He had made a cast-iron statue he claimed was Roman, found perfectly fossilised toads inside local flints, observed sea serpents in the English Channel, discovered a unique hafted stone axe and a unique form of ancient timber boat.

Dawson also found cart horses with horns. He also seems to have patched together a strange hybrid between the goldfish and the carp.

Today it is reckoned that Dawson perpetrated nearly 40 scientific frauds or hoaxes.

Within the social circles of his home county, these amazing discoveries earned him the title “the Wizard of Sussex.”

In March 1909 Dawson wrote to a friend complaining that he was “waiting for the big ‘find,’ which never seems to come along.”

A little while later after meeting Arthur Conan Doyle, Dawson conceived his greatest hoax – Piltdown Man.

He hoped it would gain him a fellowship of the Royal Society and earn him a knighthood.

With this fraud Dawson gave British palaeontology what it had craved for so long – a British ancestor, a missing link from the home counties.

His motives have never been properly explained. Was Dawson after fame and fortune? He never got the knighthood he thought Piltdown Man should have earned him.

Some have suggested his main aim was, as an amateur scientist, to get one over on the academic establishment. He certainly achieved that.

After Dawson’s death no bones or fossils were ever found in the Piltdown pits yet Piltdown Man was part of scientific theory until the 1950s.

Today we still have much to learn about the origins of the human species.

Sadly we also still have attitudes that somehow we Britons have some divine right to rule the world.


The other suspect…

Teilhard de Chardin was a young French Jesuit student studying theology in Hastings.

A keen amateur palaeontologist, he helped Dawson with the Piltdown dig.

Progressive US evolution champion Stephen Jay Gould has his suspicions that Chardin was in on the hoax.

The French cleric went on to be a major player in the discovery of Peking Man and also battled within the Catholic church moving Vatican opinion away from creationism to a more intelligent view of evolution and the origins of the human species.

5 thoughts on “Piltdown Man hoax, 1912

  1. The videos suggest that most scientists were fooled by the Piltdown hoax. This was very likely true in Britain, where it was a matter of national pride similar to the discovery of N-rays in France. I remember learning about Piltdown in the mid 1950s after the fluorine absorption tests had been run and it was proven to be a hoax. I think I read about it in Science News Letter, which mentioned early widespread skepticism about the “discovery” in both the U.S. and in Europe.

    Among the things mentioned were unpublished notes by early Piltdown observers about the the suspicious file marks on the teeth, and the observation the size of the cuspid in the jaw wouldn’t allow side-to-side wear on the teeth that might have explained it. In addition chemical aging was well-known, especially the iron-chromic acid concoction used on Piltdown. Also, there were two reconstructions of the Piltdown skull — one by Woodward and the other by the Royal College of Surgeons that gave very different sizes for skull capacity. The Royal College reconstruction showed the skull to be indistinguishable from a modern human. In fact, in 1915 G.S. Miller noted that “deliberate malice could hardly have been more successful than the hazards of deposition in so breaking the fossils as to give free scope to individual judgment in fitting the parts together”, stopping just short of accusing Woodward of fraud. Outside of England, it was widely accepted that the skull and jawbone had come from two different animals.

    The videos were correct, however, in judging that public dissent in Britain was non-existent even among those who had disagreed with Woodward.


  2. Pingback: Fake Italian dragon, pterosaur or dog? | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Piltdown man hoax perpetrator exposed | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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