Purportedly half a million years old and a "missing
link" in human evolution, Piltdown Man turned out to be a set of much
younger human and ape bones stained to match and look ancient.
The "fossil" influenced scientific thinking for some 40 years before the hoax was exposed in 1953. Now, a century after the bogus discovery, researchers aim to finally determine who was responsible.
Chris Stringer, an expert on human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, is heading a team of 15 researchers from the museum and several universities to test the forged bones with modern methods.
Writing in the latest issue of the weekly science journal Nature, Stringer said the Piltdown case remained relevant not only because of the fascinating question of "whodunit," but because "it is a warning to scientists to keep their critical guard up."
He added: "On the positive side it is also an example of the eventual triumph of the scientific method."
Nevertheless, as was noted in 2003 by Andy Currant, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, on the 50th anniversary of the hoax's exposure, "Piltdown is a piece of nonsense that has used up a phenomenal amount of good time."
This "nonsense" made a huge splash worldwide on December 18, 1912, at a meeting of the Geological Society in London. Arthur Smith Woodward of the Natural History Museum announced there that Charles Dawson, a solicitor and amateur archaeologist, had made an astounding discovery in a gravel pit at Piltdown in Sussex, England: parts of a human skull and jawbone estimated to be some 500,000 years old.
The sensation lay in the size of the cranium, which indicated a rather highly developed brain. The mandible, on the other hand, was more ape-like but with human-like teeth. The find was seen as proof of the theory that brain development had led the way in human evolution. Scientists now believe that early humans' teeth and jaw became more human-like before the brain did.
Beginning with the Neanderthal man in Germany in the mid-19th century, more and more fossils of early humans were being discovered at this time in Europe and elsewhere, but not in Britain. Stringer sees this as having fuelled a desire by a majority of British scientists to believe that the Piltdown discovery was genuine despite some doubts. Today it is thought that the jawbone came from an orangutan and that the human skull is no more than 1,000 years old.
Dawson, in all likelihood, was behind the forgery in an effort to raise his scientific standing; he faked other "discoveries" as well. If so, who were his accomplices? Among the suspects is even Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for his Sherlock Holmes detective stories. He may have wanted to fool the scientific community, which mocked his belief in spiritualism.
"Regardless of who was responsible," Stringer writes, "the Piltdown hoax is a stark reminder to scientists that if something seems too good to be true, then perhaps it is."
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