Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Piltdown Man Hoax and Mystery

Exposed

Although a vast majority of paleontologists were excited about the Piltdown discoveries, there were those who remained suspicious, even doubtful about the artifacts presented by Dawson and Woodward. According to Harter, some prominent paleontologists criticized the finds, believing that the jaw and the skull were from two different animals, that the jaw was from an archaic chimpanzee and that the skull was from a relatively modern human being. Moreover, some doubt remained throughout 1913 and 1914 when several fossilized teeth were found at the site, as well as an unusually carved elephant bone that resembled an early cricket bat. Yet, much of the skepticism was allayed when more remains were found in another location that supported the evidence found during the initial discovery of the Piltdown man.

Dawson, Woodward & Hargreaves at dig
Dawson, Woodward & Hargreaves at dig
 

In 1915, Dawson allegedly discovered more amazing artifacts at another site, which was referred to as Piltdown II. At this site, more human skull fragments were purportedly excavated, along with a molar tooth. They were believed to be from the same period as the human remains found at Piltdown I. The skull fragments and molar were the only remains discovered at the site because Dawson suddenly died in August 1916, without ever revealing the exact location of Piltdown II. It was believed to be somewhere within a two-mile radius of Piltdown I.

Science News-Letter, Jan. 4, 1930
Science News-Letter, Jan. 4, 1930

The discovery at Piltdown II was significant because it convinced many skeptics that they were indeed legitimate finds. This view prevailed for many years. In fact, it prevailed until the 1950s, when the Piltdown discoveries were thrown once again into uncertainty.

Dr. Kenneth Oakley
Dr. Kenneth Oakley
 

In 1953, a British Museum geologist named Kenneth Oakley   attended a conference on human origins. While there he met and struck up a conversation with a South African anthropologist Joseph Weiner, who was working at Oxford University. According to an article by Keith Stewart Thomson titled Piltdown Man: The Great English Mystery Story, the two men shared a skepticism about the age of the Piltdown remains, the association of the jaw and the skull and the haphazard pattern by which the fossils were collected.

Oakley and Weiner decided to run a series of tests on the artifacts to determine a more precise dating of the skull, teeth and jaw fragments. They did this by chemically analyzing the specimens using a technique known as fluorine testing, which measured the amount of fluorine in the bones. Shireen Gonzaga suggested that other tests also be conducted, including a measurement of nitrogen, which was also used to determine an approximate age of the bones.

Piltdown Man cast & bone
Piltdown Man cast & bone
 

Following the tests, the men made a startling conclusion. The artifacts were not 500,000 years old as originally believed, but considerably less than 50,000 years old. The revelation shocked and deeply embarrassed much of the scientific community. To make matters worse, it was then discovered that many of the artifacts were significantly altered to make them appear older. The teeth were ground down to make them look worn and the bones were stained with paint to make them look ancient. In 1959, radiocarbon tests revealed that the actual age of the human cranium was approximately 600 years old and the jaw, which was discovered to be that of an orangutan, was approximately 500 years old. Many of the other artifacts were also dated much earlier.

Lower jawbone (above) compared with orangutan
Lower jawbone (above) compared with orangutan

Not only were the specimens altered to make them appear older but also there was evidence that many of the objects found at Piltdown had been planted at the site. The news scandalized and further humiliated the scientific community. The testing of the Piltdown artifacts determined without a doubt that the scientific discovery of the century turned out to be one of the most elaborate hoaxes in the history of science.

The revelation of the fraud not only turned the scientific community temporarily upside down, but also sparked suspicions that several prominent scientists had helped carry it out. According to Tom Turins A Mostly Complete Piltdown Man Bibliography, 15 people were implicated in the hoax between 1955 and 1992. Although many have been vindicated, there are at least seven people who have been unofficially accused as potential collaborators in the hoax. They include Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward, W.J. Lewis Abbott, Sir Arthur Keith, Martin A.C. Hinton, Teilhard de Chardin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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