The Piltdown Man: Archaeology's biggest hoax?
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
We live in an era where information is accessible more easily than it’s ever been. I can pull out a device that fits in my pocket and yet can tell me almost anything I need to know within literal seconds. But with the information superhighway comes several caveats, namely the risk of misinformation and frauds.
Pretty much anyone can put anything online that they like, and people will believe it. But hoaxes and false information have existed pretty much as long as humans have. Let’s explore a hoax that was only perpetrated in the past hundred or so years, but has been called one of the biggest ones of archaeology. Let’s talk about the Piltdown Man.
So to understand the Piltdown Man, let’s set the stage a bit. You’ve probably heard of Charles Darwin, who formulated the theory of evolution back in the 1830’s. The theory became public knowledge in 1859 when his now famous book, The Origin of Species, was published. According to Britannica, “Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had three main components: that variation occurred randomly among members of a species; that an individual’s traits could be inherited by its progeny; and that the struggle for existence would allow only those with favorable traits to survive.”
We all know about evolution today, but of course it made huge news back then because it was completely new. It was controversial, of course, just like it is today. But the theory made perfect sense to scientists because if it were true, it would fill in a lot of gaps in their knowledge. So they became determined to find evidence or proof of it.
And competition was fierce. I never saw it explicitly stated, but it seems like scientists in countries with no major discoveries were kind of looked down on. And Britain was one of those countries.
Enter Charles Dawson — whose name, I know, sounds quite a bit like Charles Darwin’s, but Darwin doesn’t have much else to do with this story, so it shouldn’t be too confusing. Charles Dawson was a lawyer and amateur archaeologist and geologist. He’d always had an interest in the natural world and made quite a few archaeological finds, earning him the nickname “the wizard of Sussex.” Among his finds were a Roman statuette, stone ax and the teeth of a mammal named plagiaulax Dawsoni (after him, of course). At the age of 21, he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society. This was pretty rare for someone so young, and it was considered an honor.
In the early 1900’s, Dawson was the steward at Barkham Manor in Sussex in the U.K. Now, when I was researching this story, I got a bit confused. There is a Barkham Manor in Berkshire, but it was almost 100 miles away. The Barkham Manor we’re talking about is close to Piltdown, a small settlement in Sussex. It shows up on Google maps as Barkham Manor Cottage, but I assume they’re the same place or at least in similar locations.
On the grounds of Barkham Manor in Sussex was a gravel pit that was thought to date back to the Ice Age. At some point between 1907 and 1910, a laborer found skull fragments in the pit and passed them onto Dawson, who he knew had an interest in archaeology.
(Note: When most people say the ‘Ice Age,’ they mean the latest one, which was at its peak about 18,000 years ago.)
Dawson went to the gravel pit to do some digging of his own and found a few more fragments. In February 1912, he wrote a letter to his friend Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, head of geology department of the British Museum, telling him about the remains. Later that year, Dawson went to Smith Woodward’s office and dumped five brown bone fragments on a table. Dawson said the fragments were from a shallow pit in Piltdown and he believe they were from an ancestor of modern name.
(Note: most sources said Smith Woodward worked at the Natural History Museum, and some said the British Museum. What is now London’s Natural History Museum used to be part of the British Museum. It split off on its own in 1963 and was renamed the Natural History Museum in 1992. During this blog, I usually refer to it as the Natural History Museum. I hope this clears things up.)
Dawson and Smith Woodward continued to dig at the site whenever they could — usually holidays and weekends. They found even more fossils, including stone tools, fossilized animals and a jaw that still had teeth in it. Smith Woodward tried to reconstruct the human fragments into a skull. What he came up with had a brain closer to modern man but jaws and teeth of an ape. He thought it might be the so-called “missing link” between apes and man.
Dawson and Smith Woodward publicly announced their findings to the Geological Society of London on December 18, 1912. The new specimen was named Eoantropus Dawsoni, after Charles Dawson. It’s more commonly known as “the Piltdown Man” or “Dawn Man.”
There have been different estimates on the age of this supposed “missing link” that range from 500,000 years to over 2 million years. Regardless, he was thought at the time as proof not only of evolution, but that man had originated in Europe. As you can imagine, this was huge for British scientists — especially Dawson.
After the announcement, Dawson and Smith Woodward continued to dig at the site. Over the next three years, they uncovered more finds, including teeth, nasal bones and more stone tools.
But not everyone was convinced of Piltdown Man’s legitimacy. In 1913, anatomist David Waterson said Piltdown man’s jaw was “emphatically not that of a human.” Several other scientists agreed over the next few years. Most of them thought the jaw came from an ape and the skull from a modern human. Some claimed a chimpanzee jaw could easily be broken and reformed to look just like the jaw of the Piltdown Man.
But these early skeptics were usually dismissed or ignored. In 1915, Dawson found another pit about 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) away from the original gravel site. In this new pit, he found pieces of skull and teeth fragments he dubbed “Piltdown II.” After this second discovery as well as the Natural History Museum vouching for him, both the scientific community and the public seemed to accept the find as legitimate.
But the start of World War I in 1914, as well as Charles Dawson’s death in 1916, caused digging at the original site to slowly grind to a halt. After Dawson’s death, the museum — I assume the British Museum — was presented with the Piltdown II fragments. In 1938, a memorial was built for Dawson at the site of Piltdown Man’s discovery.
After Dawson’s death, Smith Woodward opened up another series of pits in the area, but never found much of significance. In fact, after Dawson’s death, not much else was found at the original site at all — and Dawson was the only one who’d even known the location of the second pit. Smith Woodward retired in 1923 and continued to dig at the site until the early 1930’s. He died in 1944. In 1948, his book The Earliest Englishman was published posthumously.
In the decades following the discovery of the Piltdown Man, more remains of early human ancestors were discovered around the world. But they all looked a bit different from the supposed “missing link.” According to history.com: “None of them showed the large brain and ape-like jaw of Piltdown Man; instead, they suggested that jaws and teeth became human-like before a large brain evolved.”
In the 1940’s, new technology was developed for fossil dating, and people started to question Piltdown Man’s legitimacy again. In 1949, Dr. Kenneth Oakley began some in depth analyses of the fossils.
Dr. Oakley and his team fluorine dated the bones. This test, of course, measures the amount of fluorine in bones — the more that’s there, the longer they’d been buried and the older they are. Piltdown Man’s remains didn’t have much fluorine in them, and couldn’t have been there as long as previously thought. Dr. Oakley ultimately concluded that these bones that were thought to have been close to a million years old were actually only about 500 years old.
They also did chemical analyses on and took x-rays of the bones. As it turned out, the skull was a human skull but the jaw was from an orangutan. The teeth were also unusually flat — if they had been worn down naturally, such as by chewing food, they shouldn’t have been so flat. The teeth had been filed down, and the bones stained with iron and manganese to make them look older.
There’s conflicting information about when exactly these findings were exposed. Some sources say as early as 1952, others say as late as June 1954. But one thing was clear: The Piltdown Man, once believed to be proof of evolution, was a fraud.
Obviously this exposure was huge. Scientists who had believed these bone fragments were an actual specimen were basically back to square one. It must have been frustrating it must be to have something they accepted as fact completely turned on its head. But one question remained: Who was responsible for perpetrating this hoax?
One theory is that a man named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was responsible. Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest, philosopher and paleontologist who worked with Dawson and Smith Woodward at the dig site. People were suspicious of him from pretty early on. As the theory goes, he created the phony skull as a practical joke, not realizing how far it would go.
Another theory is that Martin A.C. Hinton was behind the hoax. At the time all this was happening, Hinton worked at the Natural History Museum under Smith Woodward. In the 1970’s, years after Hinton’s death, a trunk was found in the museum that he’d used while working there. It contained bones samples, along with a recipe that was the same as the one used to make the Piltdown bones look older. According to Kings College professor Brian Gardiner, Hinton was the only person who would know how to create a skull like the Piltdown one.
But why would Hinton do this? His name has never even come up before. Well, like I said earlier, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward was his boss, and at some point in the early 1900’s, he gave Hinton contract work to do. Hinton wanted payment in increments as he completed portions of the work, but Smith Woodward refused to pay him until the job was done. People who think Hinton did it say he was angry at his boss and created the skull to get back at him.
The next theory is my favorite. It concerns someone I’ve talked about on my channel before: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle, of course, was an author known for works like The Lost World and the creation of one of the most well known fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle lived pretty close to Piltdown, and even gave Charles Dawson a ride to the excavation site once — though I’m not sure how well they knew each other. Some people think he even hid a clue in The Lost World, which was published in 1912 — the same year the Piltdown “findings” were announced. (Admittedly, I haven’t read The Lost World — it’s been on my TBR list for literally years but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.) Anyway, there’s apparently a passage in the book about bones being as easy to fake as a photograph.
But why would Conan Doyle do something like this? He was a spiritualist and considered spreading spiritualism one of his primary goals. According to Britannica, spiritualism is ““the religion and psychic research subject based upon the belief that spirits of the departed continued to exist in the hereafter and can be contacted by those still living.” If you watched my video on the mummy’s curse, you’ll know Conan Doyle was one of the first people to propose the existence of said curse. So he had some pretty closely held spiritual beliefs…and British scientists loved to mock them. Some people believe Conan Doyle created the Piltdown hoax to get back at the scientific community for mocking his beliefs.
But the most prominent theory — and, as we’ll see, the one that’s almost certainly true — is that the perpetrator of the hoax was Charles Dawson himself. A lot of people also believe Arthur Smith Woodward was involved, while others think he was completely in the dark.
I’d like to believe Smith Woodward is innocent in this, but I’m not sure if I do. He spent quite a bit of time at the dig site, and probably around Dawson. He even wrote an entire book where he goes into a lot of detail about the other discoveries at the site as well as his own speculation about the Piltdown Man. If Dawson did this and left his friend completely in the dark, he did a really good job at keeping that secret.
Dawson has been the prominent suspect since the start. There’s tons of evidence to support this. Not only did Dawson keep the Piltdown Man’s bones for awhile before handing them over, he was the only person who even knew where the second site was. His neighbors also reported seeing him staining bones in an office. Most people seem to think he planted all the bones in the gravel pit, then I assume pretended to dig them up later.
Dawson also knew exactly what to do. He wasn’t a professional scientist but he certainly rubbed elbows with them. He knew that scientists thought a fossil of early man, were it to be found, would have an ape like jaw but a bigger, human like brain. And, of course, that’s what he would have created in the Piltdown Man — conveniently just what scientists wanted.
And if he was responsible for this, it wasn’t his only forgery. At least 38 of Dawson’s “discoveries” were fakes, including the stone ax, Roman statuette and the teeth of plagiaulax Dawsoni.
But why would Dawson fake all these discoveries, including Piltdown Man? Like we’ve already discussed, the entire scientific community at the time was desperate to find evidence of evolution — and Britain was behind in the competition. In 1909, in a letter to Arthur Smith Woodward, Dawson said he was “waiting for the big ‘find’ which never seems to come along.” The Piltdown Man brought him a lot of notoriety, and I think that’s what he wanted all along.
In 2009, paleoanthropologist Dr. Isabelle De Groote began a years long study where she looked at Piltdown Man harder to figure out who had perpetrated this hoax. Her team included historians, DNA experts, dental experts and paleobiologists.
Dr. De Groote and her colleagues did DNA testing on the jaw and teeth that had already been determined to be from an orangutan — they determined they were all from the same orangutan, and speculated whoever did this got the bones from a “curiosities shop.” They weren’t able to extract DNA from the human skull or do any sort of carbon dating because it had degraded too much.
But they did find out a few interesting things. They discovered that cracks and gaps in the bones had been filled with putty and gravel. The gravel had supposedly been added to make it look like the fragments had been sitting in the gravel pit for awhile. The putty had been used to reform the jaw and glue the teeth back in after breaking and reforming bones to make it look more authentic.
The team also found out more about the actual bones. Dr. Oakley believed in the 1950’s that the orangutan jaw came from a female juvenile orangutan. Dr. De Groote and her colleagues believed this orangutan came from Borneo, and island in the south Pacific. They also concluded that the human skull fragments came from two or three medieval humans.
Dr. De Groote said there was a “fingerprint throughout all of these specimens.” Because of the “consistency of technique” she believed one person was behind the whole thing. She also noted that bones from the same orangutan were used in both Piltdown and Piltdown II — and remember, Dawson was the only person who knew where the Piltdown II dig site was. Due to this, along with all the other evidence, her team concluded that Charles Dawson was definitely the perpetrator. She announced her findings in a paper in 2016, but also stated it wasn’t clear if Dawson did all this on his own or had help.
As of 2012, the Piltdown Man “skull” is in a safe at the Natural History Museum in London. After the study by Dr. De Groote and her team in 2016, there hasn’t been much big news on the story. But one question remains: Assuming it was Charles Dawson (and I think it’s safe to say it was), how did he pull the wool over so many people’s eyes for so long? There are a few theories floating around, but I want to talk about two in particular that I think both contributed.
The first is that scientists in 1912 couldn’t actually study the so-called remains. After the announcement, Piltdown’s “remains” were locked up tight, and most scientists never got a chance to study them up close, having to draw conclusions based on seeing reconstructions. It’s difficult to study something without actually…you know, seeing it.
The other reason I think this happened is a phrase you’ve probably heard floating around the internet over the past few years: Confirmation bias. To scientists in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, evolution made perfect sense as a theory, and they were desperate to prove it. It’s not hard to see how they could have wanted to believe the discovery of the Piltdown Man was real, so much that they ignored any evidence to the contrary. Remember, there were even skeptics of its authenticity early on — but they were usually ignored.
So I don’t think it’s going to come as a shock that creationists frequently bring up the Piltdown Man as a fraud of evolution. There are plenty of websites promoting creationism that talk about the “discovery” and subsequent exposure of it. (x) (x) (x) From what I gather reading through them, they focus mostly on confirmation bias and how scientists were duped by the hoax because they so desperately wanted to prove evolution.
There are a few books on the subject. Some of the most well-known are The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed and The Piltdown Papers, which you can buy from the links here.
There also used to be a band called Piltdown Men. According to last.fm, this “rock n’ roll instrumental group” was active in the early 1960’s and got their name from the Piltdown hoax. Some of their songs include “McDonald’s Cave” and “Brontosaurus Stomp and the sounds very much like rock music of that era.
So what are your thoughts on the Piltdown Man hoax? Let me know in the comments.
Teilhard de Chardin photo: Archives des Jésuites de France via Wikimedia Commons
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