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Piltdown Man (supp. fl. 4 million BC), archaeological hoax, never really existed. He was created by one or more hoaxers who began their work around 1910. His first remains were supposedly brought to light by , a solicitor and amateur fossil hunter, who claimed that a workman handed him a dark-stained and thick piece of human skull which had been found in gravels at the village of Piltdown in Sussex. By 1911 Dawson had collected more of the skull from around the site, and had contacted his friend , keeper of geology in the British Museum (Natural History). Together they began proper excavations at Piltdown in 1912, and soon found more skull fragments, fossil animal bones, primitive stone tools, and a remarkable fragment of lower jaw. Amid great excitement, they announced the finds to a packed session of the Geological Society in London at the end of 1912, and named a new type of early human, Eoanthropus dawsoni, Dawson's Dawn Man—popularly known as Piltdown Man. Although the skull and jaw pieces were awkwardly broken, Smith Woodward reconstructed them into a complete skull which combined a modern-looking braincase with very ape-like jaws. On the basis of the associated animal bones and artefacts Smith Woodward and Dawson argued that Piltdown Man was an ancient ‘missing link’ in human evolution, more ancient than any fossil human yet found in Europe.

Piltdown Man was not welcomed by everyone. Some experts, particularly in the United States, were sceptical of the match between the skull and lower jaw, and suggested that they represented separate human and ape fossils which had become mixed in the gravels. However, in 1913, more finds were made at Piltdown, including a canine tooth intermediate in size between those of apes and humans, and a unique carved artefact made from a large piece of elephant bone. In 1915 the last Piltdown finds were made. A molar tooth and some skull pieces closely matching the first finds were supposedly found by Dawson in a field 2 miles from the original site, but the exact circumstances were never made clear to Woodward before Dawson died in 1916.

Piltdown Man was at first generally accepted as a primitive human fossil, especially in Britain, since it matched the expectations of some scientists that the brain had evolved to a large size early in human evolution, while other features (such as the jaws and teeth) may have lagged behind. However, as other finds of early humans were made in Europe, Africa, and Asia, Piltdown Man was pushed into an increasingly peripheral position in the story of human evolution, since nothing else resembled it.

New chemical and physical dating techniques were developed after 1945, and these began to be applied to the fossil record, including Piltdown Man. The first results suggested that the skull and jaw material, unlike the fossil animal bones from the site, was not very ancient, which made it seem even more puzzling. In 1953 scientists working in Oxford and London applied even more stringent tests to Piltdown Man, and finally exposed it as a fake [see Oakley, Kenneth Page, and Weiner, Joseph Sidney]. The Piltdown site had been salted with bones and artefacts from various sources, most of them artificially stained to match the colour of the local gravels. The ‘missing link’ itself consisted of parts of an unusually thick but quite recent human skull, and the jaw of an unusually small orang-utan ape with filed teeth!

Who then was responsible for this hoax which fooled some of the most outstanding scientists for forty years? At least fifteen different men have been accused of being involved in the forgery, ranging from Charles Dawson and Smith Woodward through to the eminent anatomists and , and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who lived in Sussex and played golf at Piltdown. A recent theory implicates Martin Hinton (1883–1961), who was working in Smith Woodward's museum department in 1912, and who later became famous as a zoologist. Long after his death an examination of some of his personal effects revealed a number of cut and stained bones and teeth, very similar to those found at Piltdown. However, whoever else may have been involved, it seems difficult to exonerate Dawson. He is now known to have been associated with several other dubious discoveries, he personally claimed to have found the first and last remains of Piltdown Man, and no more significant finds were recovered at Piltdown after his death, despite the continuing attentions of people like Smith Woodward. But the mystery of who was really the mastermind behind this extraordinary fake fossil, and their motive in creating it, remains unsolved.

Chris Stringer

Sources  

J. E. Walsh, Unravelling Piltdown (1996) · F. Spencer, Piltdown: a scientific forgery (1990) · J. Weiner, The Piltdown forgery (1955) · J. Weiner, K. Oakley, and W. E. Le Gros Clark, ‘The solution to the Piltdown problem’, Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) [Geology], 2 (1953), 141–6 · C. Dawson and A. S. Woodward, ‘On the discovery of a palaeolithic human skull and mandible in a flint-bearing gravel overlying the Wealden (Hastings Beds) at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex)’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 69 (1913), 117–51

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M. Wilson, bust, NHM · portrait, NHM