Who Was the Piltdown Hoaxer?

It is the most famous scientific hoax in history, and fooled many paleontologists for several decades. Yet even today we do not definitively know who carried out the Piltdown Hoax, and the list of suspects includes some surprising people.


Scientists at the London Natural History Museum examine the Piltdown skull.

In 1859, a book was published in England that changed the world. Titled On the Origin of Speciesand written by a well-known British naturalist named Charles Darwin, the book proposed the heretical idea that animals and plants were not created in their current form, but appeared gradually from earlier ancestors through an eons-long process of evolution by natural selection. But Darwin’s real bombshell came in the form of just one sentence in his 540-page book, added almost as an afterthought, pointing out that with this new theory, “Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

That sentence set all of Victorian society afire, leading to religious and ideological debates that continue in some quarters even today. But despite the rancor, scientists were actually quick to recognize the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and immediately began to apply it to the story of human origins. The first fossil human ancestor had already been found in 1854, before Darwin’s book was published–named Neandertal Man after the valley in Germany where it was discovered. But, although primitive-looking, Neandertal Man was not the “ape-man” that Darwin predicted, and now the race was on to find the ancient “missing link” between primates and humans.

In 1912, a lawyer names Charles Dawson who dabbled in amateur archaeology and was a collector for the Natural History Museum, brought some broken bone fragments that he had found four years earlier to Arthur Smith Woodward at the Museum. The bones were part of a skull that looked very humanlike, but appeared very old. Woodward excitedly asked Dawson where he had found the bones, and was pointed to a gravel pit at Piltdown Commons, in Sussex. Woodward and Dawson went to the gravel pit and dug further, and uncovered two jaw fragments with teeth that looked very much like an ape but had humanlike molars, and also some stone tools and the bones of Ice Age mammals. Here was the evidence that paleontologists had expected to find–a big-brained human ancestor with an apelike jaw–the missing link.  And, in a happy patriotic circumstance that was not lost on these British gentry, it was found in England.

Woodward quickly submitted his findings and christened the fossil Eoanthropus dawsoni(“Dawson’s Dawn Man”). But there were skeptics. Some paleontologists thought it was just an old human skull, with no clear apelike characteristics. And right on cue, in 1913, a new discovery made in the Piltdown pit, this time by amateur fossil hunter Father Pierre Theilhard de Chardin, settled that question–a perfectly preserved canine tooth, long and apelike.

Other paleontologists noted that there was no reason to conclude that the jawbone and the skull actually belonged together–they may have been entirely unrelated. And in 1915, again right on cue, Dawson found some fragments from a second skull and jaw, a few miles away, though he didn’t reveal the exact location of the find. This was enough to convince some doubters of Piltdown’s authenticity: a chance association between an apelike jaw and a humanlike skull might happen once, but not twice. More pieces followed: bone fragments, more stone tools, and a piece of elephant bone identified as a “ritual object” that looked suspiciously like an English cricket bat. (The “cricket bat” was not even found in the actual gravel pit–it was found under a nearby hedgerow.)

In the meantime, new fossil discoveries were made elsewhere. The Taung Child was uncovered in South Africa, and the Peking Man fossils in China. The pattern they showed–early human ancestors with small apelike skulls and brains–did not fit with Piltdown’s large-brained skull. Once again, some paleontologists were arguing that Piltdown was just a human and the skull and jaw simply did not belong together.

Finally, in 1953, the mystery was solved, and it was shocking: a new dating technique using measurements of flourine levels showed that the jaw and the skull were both recent and not ancient, and were not both the same age. They did not belong together. But even further, close examination revealed that both the skull and the jaw had been deliberately altered as an intentional fraud. The skull was that of a medieval human which had been chemically stained to make it look older. The jaw was an orangutan which had also been stained to match the skull, and the molars had been filed down to make them look humanlike. Finally, the stained loose teeth were from a chimpanzee, also filed down.

Almost immediately, speculation began as to who had committed the fraud, and no definitive answer has yet been given.  Like Jack the Ripper, new books are published all the time that claim to “solve the case”–and every one seems to name a different suspect. Some of those who have been accused include:

Charles Dawson, the amateur paleontologist who discovered most of the Piltdown pieces. He was, his accusers say, an ambitious man who as an amateur outsider was hoping for acceptance in the scientific community, perhaps even a knighthood, and hoped that “finding” the oldest human fossil in Britain would bring it. Dawson died unexpectedly in 1916, many years before most of the other Piltdown figures did–and no further finds were made at Piltdown after his death. Further, after Dawson’s death, archaeologists re-examined the other archaeological “finds” that he had earlier presented to the Royal Society, including Roman artwork, stone tools, and a wooden boat, and found that 38 of the items were unquestionable forgeries. Dawson remains the favored culprit for many.

Arthur Smith Woodward, the professional paleontologist from the Natural History Museum who scientifically described Piltdown, dug with Dawson at the gravel pit, and made a career out of the fossil. At the time Piltdown was found, he was angling for the job of Museum Director and, the theory goes, may have faked the Piltdown find to boost his prestige and increase his chances. But most people who have studied the case have concluded that Woodward was far more likely to have been the targeted victim of the hoax rather than its perpetrator.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic priest and amateur fossil hunter who worked with Dawson at the dig site. A Frenchman, Chardin’s proposed motive was a nationalistic pride and a desire to tweak the British establishment’s nose by making a phony “earliest Englishman”, complete with a cricket bat. But others have pointed out that Chardin was actually in France at the time that some of the Piltdown discoveries were made, making it unlikely that he could have planted them to be found.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes. What?  Really?  Yep. Although the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was all about science and evidence, his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was into spiritualism, seances and spirit photography (and, just a few years after Piltdown was found, made a fool of himself by examining some photographs of purported “dancing fairies” taken by two young girls, and pronouncing them genuine). For this, he was savaged and ridiculed by most of the London scientific establishment–and Piltdown, it is hypothesized, was his way of getting back at them. And as an amateur geologist and fossil collector who often hung around the dig site, he was in a position to have made and planted the fake fossils.

Martin Hinton, who worked under Woodward at the Natural History Museum as the Curator of Zoology. The two clashed often, and Hinton readily hated his boss. As an expert on the authentication of fossils for the museum, and with ready access to lots of fossil material, Hinton was a regular visitor to the dig site and certainly had the means to carry out the hoax–the motive, it has been speculated, was a desire to get back at Woodward for treating him like crap at work. Hinton’s “suspect” value increased enormously in 1970, ten years after his death, when a trunk with his initials on it was found in the attic of the Natural History Museum: it contained a number of human and ape skulls and teeth that had been stained in a way that closely matched the Piltdown “fossils”. Accusers declare that these were practice runs for the fakes; defenders argue that Hinton was testing various ways that the fossil could have been faked.

On the other hand, some other investigators have tied Hinton to the hoax in a quite different way: Hinton’s letters to American paleontologists as far back as 1916 showed that he was skeptical of Piltdown and, like many Americans at the time, thought the jaw and skull did not belong together. Subsequently, some researchers have postulated, Hinton concluded on his own that the Piltdown bones were actually fakes, and decided to blow the whistle on the whole thing by deliberately planting the “cricket bat” which, he thought, would be recognized as a hoax, cause the rest of the Piltdown evidence to be examined more closely, and thereby uncover the Piltdown fakery. But Hinton’s plan went awry when Woodward fooled himself into thinking the cricket bat was a genuine artifact.

In addition to these prime suspects, a whole slew of minor figures have also been accused, some who had only a marginal relationship to the Piltdown finds, others who were there but played only background roles. They include: William Abbott, a local jeweler and amateur fossil collector who was a longtime friend of Dawson and Woodward. Abbott was the first person to be shown the fossils by Dawson, and identified them to Dawson as early human. William Butterfield, a librarian at the local museum. He had a grudge against Dawson over an Iguanodon skeleton that Dawson had excavated nearby. Sir Arthur Keith, a Curator at the Royal College of Surgeons who had known Dawson–Dawson had given the Piltdown bones to Keith to study before then passing them on to Woodward. John Hewitt, a professor of chemistry at Queen Mary College who knew Dawson. And Samuel Woodhead, another chemist at Uckfield Agricultural college who also knew Dawson.

So, who is your favorite suspect…?


4 thoughts on “Who Was the Piltdown Hoaxer?”

  1. I’ve always wondered: why did it take so long to figure out the teeth had been filed? Wouldn’t the marks have shown obviously with just a cursory examination under a microscope? Or even with a strong magnifying glass?

  2. If memory serves, the original skull was kept under lock and key and almost no one was allowed to examine it. Most researchers had to make do with casts. Thus, the whole thing wasn’t a failure of scientific method – science was never brought to bear on it.

    Now I can’t remember where I got the above information, but I think it is from an article by the late Stephen Jay Gould.

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