Piltdown Forger Fingered
One man committed the greatest hoax in the history of anthropology, but others are not so easily exonerated for believing it.
An eight-year study of the Piltdown Man hoax fingers Charles Dawson as likely the sole perpetrator, the BBC News reports. The fossil he allegedly “discovered” in 1912 fooled experts for 42 years, but it was a composite of a modern human skull and teeth with an orangutan jaw, carefully stained and compacted with gravel to look old. The “lone forger” conclusion (PhysOrg) is supported by these indications:
- Dawson knew what anthropologists were expecting to find, and made his forgery fit those expectations.
- As an amateur collector, he was motivated to make a name for himself.
- When the scientific world jumped on his claim in 1912, Dawson found “another” site in 1915 (Piltdown II) with similar teeth and bone fragments.
- The fragments at both sites used the same stain, dental putty and gravel-packing methods, suggesting the perpetrator acted alone.
- DNA from the ape fragments at both sites indicate they came from the same orangutan.
- Dawson was the only person associated with both sites.
Scientists named the fossil after Dawson, calling it Eoanthropus dawsoni, or “dawn man of Dawson.” The BBC says that the lone-forger hypothesis exonerates others who were accused in retrospect when the hoax was discovered in 1953, including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Museum paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward announced the find with Dawson in 1912, but Dawson had first contacted Woodward about it. Dawson died in 1916, the year after his Piltdown II announcement.
In The Conversation, first author Isabelle De Groote explains how her team concluded that the evidence “suggests a sole hoaxer was responsible.” One can sense the political and ideological preconditions that led to uncritical acceptance of the find:
Dawson announced the discovery of the new fossil hominin – Eoanthropus dawsoni – together with palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward. It was Dawson who first contacted Woodward, then keeper of palaeontology at the Museum of Natural History in London, about having found a new human fossil. He wrote that the fossil would “rival” the German fossil jaw belonging Homo heidelbergensis, the first early human species to live in colder climates.
Scientists had become increasingly interested in finding the missing link between humans and apes ever since the publication of Charles Darwin’s “Descent of Man” in 1871. The discovery of Piltdown Man put Great Britain at the forefront of palaeoanthropology by demonstrating that early humans had big brains and apelike jaws. The publication generated great interest from scientists and the general public alike.
The fragments are still kept at the London Museum of Natural History. They should remind scientists and historians of the danger of uncritical acceptance of evidence. Could it happen again? De Groote cautions,
Solving the Piltdown crime is still important now as it stands as a cautionary tale to scientists not to be blinded by preconceived ideas but to remain objective and to subject even their own findings to scientific scrutiny.
Dawson died 100 years ago today (Aug 10, 1916). Although he had achieved recognition for his collections and papers, it appears he wanted more. De Groote thinks he wanted to be elected to the Royal Society, and he was willing to do whatever it took to reach that goal.
Our own library and archival research has shown that Dawson was responsible for at least 38 forgeries (for example, the Roman inscribed tiles from Pevensey and a statuette excavated by Dawson during the late 1800s were found to be fakes too) .
It has been suggested that his motive was scientific recognition and, in particular, his ambition to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Dawson wrote more than 50 publications but none up until Piltdown appears to have greatly furthered his career. He and his wife wrote letters asking for his recognition but even though he was nominated as a fellow, his nomination for election was not successful.
He likely would have been elected, De Groote thinks, had he not died first. In the BBC article, she describes how Dawson listened carefully at meetings to discern what paleontologists wanted.
“When a jaw and the skull bones were announced, there was a big discussion at the Geological Society about what the canine in such an animal would look like. And, ta-da – six or seven months later, a canine shows up and it looks exactly like what they had predicted.“
This points out the need to be very skeptical when a find appears too good to be true. De Groote cautions scientists to beware of their preconceptions and never take anything for granted. “If something fits a hypothesis maybe too well, question it again,” she said.
Another co-author shares her lessons from the Piltdown Hoax:
Dr Laura Buck co-author on the paper from the Division of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge commented on the project’s importance. “Even today, over a hundred years after the Piltdown fraud was perpetrated, it remains relevant because of the huge impact it had on the course of Palaeoanthropological research at the beginning of the twentieth century.”
Precious little was said in any of these articles, though, about the dupes. It took 42 years for the hoax to be revealed. The other suspects may not have committed the hoax, but they fell for it. Wikipedia says, “The examination and debate over Piltdown Man caused a vast expenditure of time and effort on the fossil, with an estimated 250+ papers written on the topic.” Clarence Darrow even introduced it as evidence for evolution in the Scopes Trial (Ibid.) but he, like many others, died before the hoax was announced. Why did so many experts believe in Piltdown Man for decades? Evidence of the fraud was quickly uncovered when the bones were re-examined in 1953. Chemical tests showed the fossils to be only a few hundreds of years old at most, not thousands or millions. Why didn’t anyone check them for 42 years? The BBC says that “scientists were only rarely given access to the Piltdown specimens themselves.” They were given plaster casts instead, De Groote says in her article.
In The Conversation, De Groote points out that her own PhD students often find it difficult to gain access to fossils. “The field of palaeoanthropology is still very much a field of fossil hoarding,” she says in the BBC article. She thinks the situation has been improving, because fossils can now be scanned and shared. The BBC says, “the recent example of the Homo naledi skeletons being quickly made available as printable 3D files is extremely positive.”
The articles fail to point out, though, that reproductions via 3D files and scans could fool today’s experts as much as the plaster casts of Piltdown Man did, because such reproductions leave room for a hoaxer to intervene. Who does the scan? Who supplies the 3D files? It was direct chemical tests on the original bones that revealed the Piltdown Hoax. Are today’s experts, with all their motivations and expectations, just as likely to fall prey again?
Of course they are. Of course they do. Dead men tell tales that unbelievers want to hear.