Piltdown Man - a very British hoax

Piltdown Man - a very British hoax

In 1912, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed to have discovered the 'missing link' between ape and man. But 'the Piltdown Man' was a paleoanthropological fraud, in which bone fragments were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human, though it took another 40 years to finally disprove the claim.

During a 1912 Geological Society of London meeting, Dawson claimed that a workman at Piltdown gravel pit in East Sussex gave him a skull fragment four years prior. Dawson said that he had revisited the site several times, and found further skull fragments there, before bringing them to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the British Museum's geological department.

At the same meeting, Woodward asserted that a British Museum reconstruction of the fragments showed a skull very similar to that of a modern human - except for the occiput (back of the head) and brain size, which was about two-thirds smaller. Consequently, Woodward proposed that the Piltdown Man evidenced an evolutionary missing link between apes and humans.

The claims were challenged almost immediately. A Royal College of Surgeons reconstruction from the fragments produced an entirely different model - one that resembled a modern human. David Waterston of King's College London concluded that the sample consisted of an ape mandible and human skull, as did French paleontologist Marcellin Boule.

The fraud was not officially exposed until 1953, however, when Time magazine published indisputable evidence that the Piltdown Man was a forgery. Scientist contributors demonstrated that the fossil was a composite of three distinct species: a medieval human skull, the 500-year-old lower jaw of an orangutan, and chimpanzee fossil teeth.

The forger's identity remains unknkown, although it is largely assumed to be Dawson. This is because of preceding archaeological hoaxes he perpetrated, and with at least 38 of his private antiquarian collection classified as fakes. One includes the teeth of a reptile/mammal hybrid, filed down in the same way that the Piltdown Man's teeth were.

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