11 21 piltdown skullOn 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.

11 21 examining the skullAlthough 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.


Here Be Giants

10 16 giant exhumedToday I am celebrating a brilliant hoax. The Cardiff Giant was unearthed on this day in 1869, on a farm in Cardiff, New York. The ten foot high human figure was claimed to be the body of a petrified giant from ancient times. But in fact, he had been buried there only eleven months previously. It was the work of a cigar salesman named George Hull.

His idea stemmed from an argument he had with a Methodist Minister who believed that giants had once roamed the earth. It was true because it said so in the Bible. There had been giants, but they were all washed away by Noah’s flood. The science of palaeontology was still relatively new and there were still many people who believed that the fossilized bones of dinosaurs were evidence of this lost race. Also in 1858 a bogus letter had been published in a newspaper called Alta California, claiming that a prospector had been turned to stone after drinking the liquid from the middle of a geode. All this seems a bit far-fetched in the 21st century but it explains why, in the late nineteenth century, people were prepared to believe in fossilized giants.

10 16 cardiff giantHull hired men in far away Iowa to cut him a huge block of gypsum for his giant. In order to avert later suspicion he told them that it was going to be made into a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He then had it shipped to Chicago. There, he hired a stonecutter called Edward Burghardt to carve it into the likeness of a giant man and swore him to secrecy. Stains were added to the surface to make it look old and it was beaten with knitting needles to make it seem as if the skin had pores. In November 1868 he had it transported by rail to his cousin’s farm and buried there. Hull’s hoax had cost him $2,600 dollars.

The following October his cousin, William Newell, hired two men to dig a well for him and, surprise, surprise, they dug up the giant. Newell immediately put up a tent around his giant and started charging people 25c a time to come and look at it. When they started arriving in cartloads, he put the price up to 50c. Although people flocked to the farm in their hundreds to see the marvel, archaeologists spotted straight away that it was a fake. Geologist realised that it wasn’t a good place to dig a well anyway and Hull found out that his cousin had shared their secret with others. He knew his ruse wouldn’t last long. He quickly sold his giant to a syndicate for $23,000 and they had it shipped to Syracuse, New York and on by road to New York City.

Meanwhile P T Barnum heard of their giant and offered them $50,000 for it, which they refused. It was a mistake. Barnum employed someone to secretly make a wax copy of the giant. As the statue travelled to New York, stopping in many places along the way Barnum was having the wax model scaled up, using measurements taken from newspaper articles, into a plaster copy. By the time the stone giant arrived in New York City, Barnum was already displaying his own Cardiff Giant. He claimed his was the real one and their’s was the copy. The case went to court. The judge had a hard time trying to decide which of the two giants was the most real and suggested that perhaps the giant could come to court and identify himself. In the end, Hull had to admit his hoax and both giants were officially declared to be fakes. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.

10 16 solid muldoonThe Cardiff Giant was not the only giant to discovered in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was not even the only one that was made by George Hull. In 1877 another petrified giant turned up in Beulah, Colorado. This time he had been a bit more modest in his ambitions. The giant, which became known as Solid Muldoon, was only seven feet six inches tall. He had got a bit more creative with his materials though. This time he used a mixture of mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood and meat. He also gave it a tail. The giant duly went on display and it was rumoured that P T Barnum had offered $20,000 dollars for it. However, it was soon to revealed to be another hoax and that the perpetrators were none other than George Hull and a disgruntled ex-employee of P T Barnum, William Conant.

Mark Twain wrote a lovely parody of the Cardiff Giant in which the giant tries to haunt his own body in the hope of persuading someone to rebury him. Unfortunately he winds up trying to haunt P T Barnum’s plaster cast instead. If you wanted another ghost story today, you could hear it here.