On this day in 1953 the famous archaeological specimen, known as the missing link, Piltdown Man was finally and irrevocably proved to be a hoax. The skull fragments of Piltdown Man were found in a gravel pit in Piltdown, East Sussex in 1912 by a man called Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist and collector. He claimed to have found part of the skull in 1908, the rest was recovered in the company of his friend Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. It was hailed as the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species of early man, the evolutionary missing link between apes and humans. The ape-like jaw, combined with the relatively large brain cavity supported the belief that human evolution began with the brain.
Although there were plenty of people willing to vouch for its authenticity, there were, from the beginning, others who were doubtful. They thought it looked more like the skull of a modern human with the jaw bone of an ape stuck on the bottom. In 1923, a German anthropologist called Weidenreich concluded that it was the cranium of a modern human and the jaw of an orang-utan with the teeth filed down. But, so soon after the First World War, probably no one wanted to hear what a German had to say about it, which is a shame because he was absolutely right. In fact, there was quite a bit of national pride involved when it came to believing that the earliest known human had been an Englishman.
Then, in 1953, tests were carried out that proved Piltdown Man had the skull of a medieval human, the lower jaw of an orang-utan that was about 500 years old and some fossilized teeth from a chimpanzee. The bones had been artificially aged with a solution of iron and chromic acid. When they examined the teeth under a microscope, it was obvious that some of them had been filed down to make them seem more suited to a human diet.
So, it was not just that someone had found the skull and jawbone near to each other and assumed they went together. Someone had done it on purpose. Who exactly it was and how many people knew about it will probably never be known for certain. Suspects include Dawson himself and his friend Woodward, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited the site, has had the finger of suspicion pointed in his direction. For a while a man called Hinton, who had a grudge against Woodward was thought to be the perpetrator. It’s true that he might have enjoyed making Woodward look like an idiot and, in 1976, a case belonging to him was discovered at the Natural History Museum which contained bones stained in the same way as the Piltdown skull. More recently it has been suggested that Hinton was responsible for creating another, even more unlikely find that turned up at the Piltdown site. It is a stained elephant bone which was roughly fashioned into the shape of a cricket bat. It could be that Hinton knew the whole thing was a hoax and planted the cricket bat in an effort to discredit the whole affair But in fact, at the time, the bat was just accepted as genuine along with everything else. Of course the first Englishman had played cricket.
Over the last few years, suspicion has swung back towards Dawson. An archaeologist from the university of Bournemouth, Dr Miles Russell, who investigated some of Charles Dawson’s other ‘finds’ discovered thirty-eight of them to be fakes. It seems Dawson had form. They include a peculiar reptile-mammal hybrid ‘discovered’ in 1891. Its teeth had been filed down in a similar way to those found on the Piltdown jawbone. He also provided a Roman statue, which was uniquely made of cast iron and a flint nodule with a toad inside it.
As to how one might acquire a medieval human skull and 500 year-old orang-utan jaw, there is also some evidence against him. In 1911, a collection of animal bones from Borneo, bought by the British Museum, lists the jawbone of an orang-utan skull as ‘missing’. When the skull was examined it was found that the bone was unusually thick, suggesting that it’s owner had suffered from Pagett’s disease. A similar skull went missing from the collection of Hastings Museum in the 1900s. In 1889, Dawson had been one of the co-founders of the Museum and remained strongly connected with it. If you need any more evidence that he was a little unusual, he also claimed to have seen a sea serpent in the English Channel in 1906, investigated incipient horns in cart-horses (don’t know, sorry) and, in later life, was reported to experimenting with phosphorescent bullets to deter Zeppelins.