On December 18, 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward announced the discovery of mysterious bone fragments at a meeting of the Geological Society of London. These fragments, which included part of a skull and a jawbone, seemed to prove the existence of a previously unknown human species with chimpanzee-like features. In other words, the Missing Link. What was Piltdown Man?
The Piltdown Man Hoax?
The discovery of the so-called Piltdown Man was greeting with frenzied excitement and some skepticism. But it would take another 41 years before scientists were able to uncover the dark truth about Piltdown Man.
In 1953, Kenneth Page Oakley, Sir Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark, and Joseph Weiner used modern chemistry to shed new light on Piltdown Man. In the process, they exposed perhaps the greatest paleontological hoax of all time…Piltdown Man was a fake.
Until that point, researchers believed Piltdown Man had lived 750,000-950,000 years ago. However, fluorine testing showed the bone fragments actually came from three different creatures. The skull was human and just 600 years old. The jaw was 500 years old and came from an orangutan. And the teeth had belonged to a chimpanzee.
The hoax quickly unraveled. The fragments had been treated with chemicals to create the impression of age. Also, someone had filed down the teeth and deliberately removed parts from the fragments to confuse scholars.
Who was behind the Piltdown Man Hoax?
So who perpetrated the hoax? And why? Over the years, historians have pointed the finger at a number of individuals. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame has found himself a suspect. However, most people believe the hoax was originated by none other than the discoverer, Charles Dawson himself.
It turns out Dawson had the bad habit of forging other archaeological finds years before Piltdown Man. His personal collection included at least 38 fakes, some of which showed filed-down teeth. He deliberately aged flints with chemicals. And his written work included numerous examples of plagiarism. In short, Dawson had the means to perpetrate the archaeological hoax.
“Piltdown was not a “one-off” hoax, more the culmination of a life’s work.” ~ Miles Russell, Charles Dawson: ‘The Piltdown faker’
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
As for motive, Dawson once wrote to a friend that he was “waiting for the big ‘find’ which never seems to come along.” This, along with his penchant for creating bizarre fossils and passing them off as real, would seem to imply he was driven by a desire for fame. Finally, Dawson had the best opportunity. Apparently, he was the only person present for the various discoveries of Piltdown fossils over the years. And all such discoveries ceased after his death in 1916.