An Infamous But Instructive Story

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December 18, 2012

One hundred years ago today an amateur scientist named Charles Dawson announced his discovery in 1908 of an ancient skull,  immediately dubbed “ Piltdown man”, in a gravel pit near the town of Piltdown, England . Thus began an infamous but ultimately instructive series of events in the annals of science.

The find comprised a large brained cranium and two apelike molar teeth. Later a complete, ape like jaw was found. This dramatic announcement seemed to confirm speculations our earliest ancestors evolved large brains before losing vestiges of a more apelike form. The assumption was that proto-humans evolved large brains, then became bipedal, freeing their hands and then started making stone tools.  (In fact, we now know we were fully bipedal - but still apelike in appearance - as early as 3 1/2 million years ago, started making stone tools about 1 million years after that but our brains did not begin to grow significantly until about 2 million years ago, reversing the sequence late Victorian scientists postulated.)

Some scientists raised doubts at that time but a group of British scientists led by Cecil Woodward-Smith and Arthur Keith sought further evidence to support the Piltdown hypothesis. They were especially gratified this find occurred in England. In 1871 Darwin predicted our earliest ancestors were most likely to be found in Africa. Two decades later in Indonesia Eugene Dubois discovered ancient remains later dubbed “Java Man”. Industrial and technological advances in the 19th century however reinforced the belief by Europeans they were superior to darker skinned peoples.  Since Europeans represented the highest order of humanity, it was only fitting, as Piltdown seemed to show, that the oldest evidence of our origins should be found in Europe.   Not only in Europe but specifically in England, the mother country of English speaking peoples, who regarded themselves as the highest order of Western civilization.

Piltdown man continued to affect scientific thinking. When Raymond Dart announced in 1925 his discovery in South Africa of fossilized remains, seemingly much older than Piltdown and which he named Australopithecus africanus, he was attacked by Sir Arthur Keith, declaring Piltdown showed our beginnings were in England and not Africa.

Skeptics grew in number however and a combination of an increasing number of fossil finds occurring in the Thirties and Forties in South Africa finally convinced Keith - but not until 1953 - Piltdown was a hoax. Someone still unknown had taken a contemporary human cranium and the jaw of an orangutan with its teeth filed down, stained them both with the tan coloration distinctive of fossils, and planted them in the gravel pit to be found by Dawson. Dawson, the amateur eager to be seen as a man of science, has long been suspected of being the perpetrator of the hoax but this has not been established to a certainty.

What is the instructive value of this episode? Clearly it is that rigorously evaluated evidence and not preconceptions must drive our hypotheses. For many decades prestigious scientists embraced Piltdown and dismissed contrary evidence because Piltdown reinforced their preconceptions. Their humiliation at being hoaxed was of their own making for they had clung to their preconceptions for so long and had dismissed the case presented by skeptics.

A complete discussion of the basic elements of the Piltdown hoax can be found in an article entitled “Piltdown Man” on Wikipedia. Additionally, the nNtural History Museum in London, formerly the British Museum, has a number of items pertaining to this infamous hoax on its website. The Nature podcast has an interview concerning the hoax with noted paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer, author most recently of Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth.

Finally, the journal Nature has an illustrated retrospective on the subject entiled The 100 Year Old Mystery of Piltdown Man.