By Jay Ingram
Believe The mystery of Piltdown Man takes another step toward conclusion. But the story’s most important lesson may be about science itself.
Piltdown Man has earned titles like “greatest hoax” and “greatest scientific fraud,” yet we still don’t know, a hundred years later, who the hoaxer was. Technology advances and the latest examination have bolstered the case against the prime suspect — but not completely.
In 1912, Arthur Smith Woodward of the Natural History Museum and amateur scientist Charles Dawson announced the discovery of bones belonging to an ancient human ancestor, the first ever to be found on British soil: Eoanthropus dawsoni, “Dawson’s dawn man,” also known as “the first Englishman.”
There wasn’t much of him: a few bones from the skull and a piece of the jaw with two molars in it. Not much, but enough to create high drama, for the jaw was ape-like, the skull human-like. This defied the expectation that as humans evolved, their faces would become more human-like before the brain grew. But Piltdown Man’s brain was relatively huge for a fossil ancestor, more than 1,000 cubic centimetres, and the jaw wasn’t human at all.
While the majority exclaimed: “An outstanding find!” there was dissent: “It’s nothing. It really is an ape’s jaw together with a human skull, not an ancestor.” Proving this skeptical point wasn’t easy: a crucial part of the jaw, the condyle, the bony protuberance that connects to the skull, was missing. An ape condyle can’t hinge properly with a human skull — but this critical piece of bone had broken off. The two molars were weird too: anchored in an ape’s jaw but worn down like human teeth.
Smith Woodward, using the bones in hand, built what he imagined to be the entire skull of Piltdown Man, including a special canine tooth in the jawbone, one that somehow had to straddle the ape-human divide. Smith Woodward’s invented tooth was highly controversial, but he was dramatically vindicated by the sudden and unexpected discovery of what seemed to be Piltdown Man’s actual canine, looking exactly as Woodward had imagined it.
Still, there were questions about the actual age of the fossils and lingering doubts about the jaw. But then another huge discovery: more bits of skull and another molar from a different site. Piltdown II! Good Lord, there might have been a whole horde of them!
That’s more or less where the Piltdown Man mystery stood for the next 40 years. Then in 1953, a team of scientists, using new chemical tests, showed unambiguously that Piltdown was a hoax. The jaw had belonged to an orangutan that had lived a few centuries ago. The skull was human and of similar age. The bones had been dyed to look more fossil-ish, the molars filed down and polished to exhibit human-type wear. The surprise canine had been shaped by a file as well.
The science was sound, but it left the key question unanswered: who was the hoaxer? The primary suspect has always been Charles Dawson, who discovered the original bones and was present at every subsequent find. But there are others: Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum, the man to whom Dawson brought the bones.
Arthur Conan Doyle (!), who lived in the area and was writing The Lost World, a prehistoric adventure featuring ape-men. And Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit paleontologist who happened upon the amazing canine tooth. There are at least another half-dozen suspects, each of whom trails a small cloud of suspicion. But two key factors help narrow the field: the hoaxer must have had the skills to file, dye, plant and ensure discovery of the bones. And he or she must have had a motive.
But two key factors help narrow the field: the hoaxer must have had the skills to file, dye, plant and ensure discovery of the bones. And he or she must have had a motive.
The latest studies, published a few months ago, support the case against Charles Dawson by overturning old ideas about co-conspirators and pointing to a single hoaxer. Two or three overlapping techniques revealed that the two original molars, the canine and the third molar from Piltdown II, are likely all from the same young orangutan from Borneo. The pieces of skull did come from different individuals (medieval humans), but both human and ape material were treated in exactly the same way: the same putty for repairs, the same pebble plugs for holes, even the same file strokes. So, is this the end, the resolution of Piltdown? Did Charles Dawson create the hoax, perhaps out of spite, believing he never received credit from the establishment for the fine science he had done?
The new evidence doesn’t quite close the case. There are outliers still, like scientist Martin Hinton: in 1970, years after his death, a trunk bearing his initials was found in the Natural History Museum. It contained bones stained to look like those at Piltdown. But perhaps the more important outcome of Piltdown Man is not the solution of the mystery but the statement it makes about a potential fallibility in science: scientists will believe in suspect evidence if they have faith that it’s genuine. And that we all love hoaxes.