Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Piltdown Man Hoax and Mystery

The "Find" of the Century

In 1908, two road workers were digging in the gravel trench along a road near the village of Piltdown in Sussex, England. They were asked by solicitor and amateur archeologist Charles Dawson to look out for any unusual artifacts, including bones or fossils. After several days, the workers discovered some coconut-like fragment in the gravel and presented their findings to Dawson. Upon further inspection, Dawson allegedly determined that the artifact was a human skull.

Woodward's reconstruction of skull
Woodward's reconstruction of skull

In the fall of 1911, Dawson added to his discovery another larger piece of cranium bone, believed to be from the same skull he discovered earlier. Moreover, he found a piece of a hippopotamus tooth. Both pieces were discovered at the Piltdown site where he made his initial discovery. Sometime between 1908 and 1911, Dawson took his discoveries to a longtime acquaintance, Hastings jeweler W.J. Lewis Abbott. Abbott had some knowledge of ancient relics and was himself and avid collector of fossils. Thinking the artifacts important, he suggested that Dawson consult with experts.

Eventually Dawson took Abbotts advice. In February 1912, he contacted his friend, Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleoichthologist and custodian of the British Museums Natural History Department about the human skull fragments. Woodward was impressed with the artifacts and decided to examine the gravel beds in which they were found.

Charles Dawson, portrait
Charles Dawson, portrait

Dawson and Woodward employed the help of another man, Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to help with the excavation of the Piltdown site. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest and theologian as well as a respected paleontologist. According to Richard Harters article, Piltdown Man: The Bogus Bones Caper, Teilhard was purportedly chosen to help at the site because he could be trusted not to make the find public.  

That year, the three men and a laborer unearthed some unique objects at Piltdown. Some of the artifacts they discovered were the right half of an ape-like lower jawbone, several pieces of an early elephant molar, fossilized beaver and mastodon teeth, as well as more skull fragments. The men concurred that the ape-like jawbone belonged to the almost human-looking pieces of skull, a belief that was reinforced by the fact that they were found in close proximity of one another.

Bone fragments, unassembled
Bone fragments, unassembled

After analyzing the specimens, the men made a remarkable conclusion. They determined that the skull and jawbone fragments were from an ancient human ancestor, who served as the missing link between ape and man. They believed the Piltdown Man, as the bone fragments were later called, provided evidence that man had actually evolved from the ancestors of modern apes, which supported Darwins earlier theory of evolution. Moreover, according to an article by Shireen Gonzaga, the find confirmed the hypothesis that the brain was the first part of the human body to evolve. This contradicted all archeological evidence found up to that time.

Sketch of Piltdown Man
Sketch of Piltdown Man
 

In November 1912, news of the amazing discovery reached the press. It was an instant news sensation. After all, the Piltdown Man was considered to be the oldest human skeletal remains ever unearthed.

Dawson (l) & Woodward with skull
Dawson (l) & Woodward with skull
 

Several weeks later, Woodward and Dawson officially presented the Piltdown Man to a large audience at the Geological Society of London. They explained how they made their discovery and that they believed the skeletal remains were more than 500,000 years old. Many experts from related fields further supported their conclusion. However, despite the fact that experts confirmed the age and origin of the artifacts, there were others who challenged the prevailing viewpoint.

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