Hugh Miles assesses the significance of the Piltdown hoax.
Once cited as the ‘missing link’ between man and beast and definitive proof of the theory of evolution, the Piltdown Man was exposed as a hoax in 1953. Eoanthropus Dawsoni was ‘excavated’ in 1912 by amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson from a shallow gravel pit in Piltdown, Sussex. Great excitement greeted his find, as at the time fewer than five human fossils had been discovered and most of those were incomplete, their dates uncertain and – almost worst of all at a time of intense imperial rivalry – they were foreign. France and Belgium had long boasted Neanderthal skeletons. Germany had Heidelburg Man. Now here, at last, was the first great British palaeoanthropological find. The Piltdown Man, as he was immediately dubbed, was the ‘first Englishman’ and he caused a world sensation.
The initial remains that Dawson discovered comprised human-looking calvaria – the upper domelike portion of a skull – and the broken right half of an apelike mandible. Over the next few years, as the site was further excavated by Dawson and his team, more prehistoric fauna were unearthed – teeth from a mastodon; bits of a hippopotamus, a beaver, a stegodon; and flint implements thought to have been used by enigmatic Piltdown Man.
Dawson and a colleague, Arthur Smith Woodward, argued that the humanoid jawbone, one of the teeth and the cranial fragment all came from the same individual. The remains came in for very detailed examination by the greatest anatomical minds of the time. Some were unconvinced, arguing that the specimens came from separate species, but no one doubted they were genuine fossils. A new genus and species of man was established, Dawson was catapulted into scientific superstardom, and the Piltdown man took his place alongside Heidelberg and Peking Man in the palaeontological pantheon.
In 1912 when the greatest minds of the day convened to analyse the Piltdown remains, there was little comparison to be drawn with other specimens, as there were so few in existence. But over the next thirty-odd years men like Raymond Dart began to travel further afield in search of prehistoric evidence of humanity. His discovery of the Australopithecus in the caves of the Transvaal painted quite a different picture of man’s ancestral past. Piltdown Man had a large apelike jaw and a smaller more modern braincase. This reflected contemporary evolutionary thinking. But Australopithecus seemed to suggest the reverse: that a modern jaw evolved relatively early on and a large braincase came later. Palaeoanthropology had reached an impasse.
As time passed and more evidence was disinterred, Piltdown Man became more and more of an anomaly, marginalised in evolutionary theory but remaining on the syllabus. Students were writing dissertations on Piltdown in the 1950s. Then in 1953, following a lecture on Piltdown at the British Museum, South African born Doctor Joseph S. Weiner had an epiphany on the train home to Oxford: Piltdown had to be a fraud.
With his friend and colleague Geoffrey Ainsworth Harrison, who is now the Professor of Biological Anthropology at Oxford, Weiner set about collecting as much evidence as he could before approaching the Head of the Anatomy Department at Oxford, Professor Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark. Using the latest scientific techniques, including fluorine measurement and radiocarbon dating, the team proved that the mandible of Eoanthropus Dawsoni had been deliberately stained with potassium bichromate and the teeth filed down. The jaw was later shown to have come from an orangutan.
In November 1953 the hoax was publicly exposed and for a second time Piltdown Man shook the world. Immediately questions were raised as to who might have been responsible and why they might have done it. Dawson was an obvious suspect, and few of the many sleuths who have searched for the identity of the perpetrators have discounted him entirely. But over the last 50 years investigators have raked back and forth over the Piltdown story and at least six other names have been put forward as possible conspirators in this quintessentially English hoax story.
One might reasonably ask why it matters now who forged the Piltdown remains. From a philosophical perspective it illuminates the importance of honesty – and the motives and consequences of lying – in the scientific process. Besides that, as Le Gros Clark pointed out in 1968, we need to identify the culprit ‘in order to completely exonerate others of all trace of suspicion’.
In Britain Piltdown Man was accepted because he was in line with prevailing scientific theories. Which scientific facts today, governing anything from the way we bring up our children to the vitamins we take, will be seen in future as victim to the scientific trends of our time? Piltdown’s legacy is to remind us to be sceptical about science and suspicious of facts.