Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Piltdown Man Hoax and Mystery

The Framework Supporting the Fraud

Piltdown Cast & bone
Piltdown Cast & bone

Many who were duped by the Piltdown forgery wanted to know why such a sophisticated scam was concocted and how it managed to fool some of the worlds most prominent scientists for almost forty years. According to Harter, there were six reasons why the fraud was so successful. He claimed that the credentials of the men prevented their discovery from being questioned. Thus, the artifacts found at Piltdown were deemed authentic because many could not entertain the thought that professionals would ever have risked their careers to concoct such a hoax.

It was further suggested by Harter that the fraud went undetected because many of the men involved were incompetent and lacked sufficient knowledge of hominid fossils. Therefore, it is not unusual that they were unable to detect that the jaw and skull fragments were not from the same species or that the objects had been altered. Moreover, many of the scientists involved in the Piltdown discovery lacked the appropriate analytical tools, which would have allowed them to date the artifacts more accurately.

Furthermore, Harter stated that the skill of the forger and the fact that the discovery allegedly fit in very well with the theories of the time allowed the perpetrators to go undetected for decades. Finally, he suggested that the hoax led a charmed life, as many of the small errors managed to go unexposed for a variety of reasons.

The Piltdown Men, painting
The Piltdown Men, painting

According to Thomson, there were other reasons why the forgery was so successful. He stated that the fraud was overlooked because, scientists spent more time arguing over the interpretation of details than they did on validating the whole matter. This behavior has been an obstacle for many scientists who lean too heavily on pre-formulated ideas and theories or get wrapped up in the details, missing the bigger picture.

The Skeptic's Dictionary
The Skeptic's Dictionary

Yet, the scientific community cannot be so easily blamed for falling for the hoax. The Skeptics Dictionary, by Robert Todd Carroll stated that the fraud went undetected for such a long time because scientists were often not allowed to handle the evidence found at the Piltdown. This is most probably because the artifacts were deemed too valuable and kept in secured vaults at the museum. Instead, scientists had to conduct all of their studies on the Piltdown finds based on plaster molds of the objects. According to Carroll, scientists were only occasionally allowed a quick view of the original pieces for accuracys sake.

Unfortunately, the Piltdown forgery has cost many prominent scientists their reputation and careers, which will likely be forever stained with scandal. However, even from bad some good can come. The fraud has caused the scientific community to initiate better scientific techniques and methods that could better assist in catching or preventing frauds from happening on such a large scale. Yet, regardless of how one might try and protect them self from falling victim to a hoax, the reality is that no one is immune from deception. As we have learned from history and the Piltdown forgery, even the best can be fooled.

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