In 1912, an amateur archaeologist in East Sussex made the most remarkable find in British palaeontology. Parts of a human-like skull and an ape-like jawbone suggested that Piltdown Man was a crucial missing link between humans and apes.
Four decades later, the entire discovery was revealed as a forgery, the most ambitious scientific hoax ever mounted. Careers crumbled, textbooks had to be rewritten.
Now, exactly 50 years after the forgery was exposed, modern scientists will look at Piltdown Man in the Pfizer Annual Science Forum.
To coincide with the forum on Tuesday, the Natural History Museum in London will display the Piltdown fossils for the first time since their inglorious withdrawal in 1953.
A BBC Timewatch documentary to be screened tomorrow suggests that 50 years on, we might be closer than ever to finding the perpetrator of the hoax. The programme investigates the possible involvement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, as well as the possibility of a “cover-up” within the ranks of the Natural History Museum.
“It’s come full circle,” says Professor Chris Stringer, the head of human origins at the museum. “The museum was duped the first time round, the keeper of zoology was duped and the man who helped expose the hoax became his successor. I am successor to both of them, and now we’re putting the material back on show with the benefit of hindsight.
“Fifty years on, we can see why it happened the way it did and why it lasted so long, why it was that Britain was ready for this discovery. We have to learn the lesson that just because something suits your preconceived ideas doesn’t make it true.”
When Charles Dawson, a solicitor and amateur archaeologist, wrote to the Natural History Museum in 1912 about his find near the village of Piltdown, he was announcing a dream-come-true for many scientists. Fifty years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the search was on to find the “missing links”, fossils which would explain how man evolved from apes, and Britain was lagging behind.
“There certainly was a nationalistic element,” argues Prof Stringer. “We had found ancient stone tools and there was speculation about who could have made them.”
Britain was at the head of the greatest empire on earth, and the pressure was on to prove that it was also the cradle of humanity.
The Piltdown finds were exhibited with pride in the Natural History Museum. The Manchester Guardian newspaper proclaimed it “one of the most important prehistoric finds of our time.” Winston Churchill hailed it as an example of “the lords of creation”.
Not everyone agreed. Even at the time of the discoveries, a leading palaeontologist from the United States questioned whether the skull and the jawbone could have belonged to the same creature. As more finds of early humans were made, Piltdown Man began to look increasingly anomalous. However, many scientists in Britain still believed it was genuine.
“It did inform the reception of other finds in the world,” says Prof Stringer. “When the australopithicus fossil was found in South Africa in 1925, it was downgraded by certain scientists, because this creature had a small brain, nothing like Piltdown Man. It took a lot more finds from South Africa to prove how important this was.”
However, the first scientific doubts were shed on Piltdown Man in 1949, when Kenneth Oakley – who would later become keeper of zoology in London – started dating bones in the collection using a new chemical test. He established that the Piltdown bones were much younger than had been claimed, but suggested they could still be 50,000 years old. “That made it even more of a mystery,” explains Prof Stringer. “We could not make sense of a creature like this living at a time when there were known to have been real Neanderthal men.”
Joseph Weiner, an anatomist working at Oxford, who saw the bones as part of a congress of palaeontologists in 1953, was the first to suggest foul play. “He went back to Oxford, got hold of an ape jaw, filed back the teeth and dipped it in certain staining chemicals. The result looked exactly like Piltdown Man. He got on the phone to Oakley straight away.” Further tests revealed that the skull fragments were medieval and the jawbone was from an orang-utan.
Then scientists faced a very different question. Who faked Piltdown Man and why? One of the most serious suspects was the man who had made the finds, Charles Dawson. History has revealed him to be a ruthless man with an ambition to be recognised as a scientist, and no stranger to skulduggery. Many of his remarkable “discoveries”, including the Pevensey tiles, once hailed as the most important Roman artefacts discovered in Britain, were found to be fakes.
The most famous suspect is Conan Doyle, who lived just a few miles from Piltdown. He is known to have been disaffected with the scientific community because it had rejected him – despite his training as a doctor – because of his belief in spiritualism. Was Piltdown Man an attempt by a Conan Doyle to discredit the theory of evolution?
However, another suspect seems much more likely. Martin Hinton, a young scientist at the museum – and another future keeper of zoology, was talented but enigmatic, a loner who loved practical jokes. In 1976, a trunk was found in an attic in one of the museum’s towers, bearing his initials and containing various pieces of bone which had been stained with chemicals. But is this evidence that confirms Mr Hinton’s guilt, or simply that he suspected the finds were fake and was investigating how they had been made?
There is a final piece of enigmatic evidence: one of the last finds at the original Piltdown site in 1914 was a broken tool made from elephant bone, found under a hedge. “Even at the time, people joked that it was like a cricket bat,” says Prof Stringer.
He believes that Hinton realised Dawson had forged the discoveries, and planted the “cricket bat” as an attempt to blow the whistle on the affair.
“He and others were very suspicious of Piltdown Man. But Arthur Smith Woodward [keeper of zoology, who backed the findings] was his boss and it would have been difficult for him to stand up and say: ‘Your great discovery is a hoax’. He might have hoped that the elephant bone would cause Woodward to question the other finds, but to his horror it was accepted as genuine,” says Prof Stringer.
“The response from Mr Dawson was to ‘discover’ another site a couple of miles away and keep the location secret. You can see Piltdown II as a response to the first site being messed up. Unfortunately, he got ill and died before he was able to finish the job.”