Today, the assembly of chocolate-brown objects known as “Piltdown Man” – skull and jaw fragments, mammal fossils and flint tools – resides in a safe in the Natural History Museum. But when it was revealed to the world at a meeting of the Geological Society of London on December 18 1912, it caused a sensation: this evidence of the world’s earliest known human, together with the tools he made and the animals he hunted, appeared to be no less than the evolutionary “missing link” between man and ape that Charles Darwin had predicted.
The discovery had been made by a Sussex solicitor and amateur antiquarian, Charles Dawson, who brought his finds to his friend Dr Arthur Smith Woodward, the Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum. Although Smith Woodward’s expertise was in fossil fish, he staked his – and the museum’s – reputation on the find, which he named in honour of his friend: the Dawn Man of Dawson, or Eoanthropus dawsoni.
When they made their presentation at that crowded meeting at the Geological Society, the atmosphere was intense. By the beginning of the 20th century, scientists had been obsessed by the origins of humanity for 50 years, but fossil finds were scarce. While samples of early man’s remains had been discovered at sites in France, Germany, Belgium and Java – some of great antiquity – nothing comparable had been found in Britain.
So when Dawson and Smith Woodward announced their discovery, the excitement was immense: the earliest known human was British! Some of the world’s greatest scientists agreed that the discovery was probably “of equal, if not of greater consequence” than any fossils yet discovered here or abroad.
Piltdown Man, with his human-like braincase and very apelike jaw, was exactly what the experts expected our ancestors to look like. In 1914, a large bone implement was found at the site, and it too was unique. Fashioned from the leg bone of an extinct elephant, it had a flat blade at one end, a point at the other. What no one could work out was what it was for. Reginald Smith, an antiquarian at the British Museum, voiced what everyone was probably thinking: he “could not imagine”, he said, “any use for an implement that looked like part of a cricket bat”.
Still, taken together these finds created an extraordinary picture. Here was a fossil man, with his tools and contemporary animals, found in gravel that was thought to date from the early Ice Age, between 500,000 and 1 million years ago. Smith Woodward even visualised his everyday life, writing almost affectionately of what he ate, how he cooked, what he wore. “If he could be seen alive, he would be recognised at once as human,” he wrote in 1934, “but his stooping, stumpy, shuffling form would betray his lowly grade.”
Yet even in 1912, there were dissenting voices. Doubts were raised whether that apelike jaw and human skull could be from the same individual – or even the same species. Perhaps jaw and skull had accidentally come together in the gravel pit. The timely discovery of a canine tooth in 1913, which looked almost exactly like Smith Woodward’s predictions, strengthened the case for Piltdown Man. Then, in 1915, with more questions being raised, came another discovery. At a second site, two miles away, Dawson found more skull fragments and a tooth, similar to the original specimens. This was clear evidence of a second Dawn Man – and the doubters were silenced.
Forty years later, with dating techniques having improved substantially, Piltdown Man was revealed to be a fraud. The skull was that of a modern human, a few centuries old; the jaw that of an orang-utan. It had been broken to hide identifying features and the teeth filed to resemble those of humans. In fact, almost every specimen in the collection had been stained to match the Piltdown gravels – and everything had been planted at the site.
The newspapers splashed on the scandal, and what everyone wanted to know was who had done it – and why? Experts fumed, rightly, that this was far from a harmless hoax: it was a malicious deception that had hijacked our understanding of human origins. Yet its provenance remained obscure. There was no incriminating fingerprint or confessional letter to convict a perpetrator; all the evidence was purely circumstantial.
With the centenary of the “discovery” approaching, a group of scientists – known unofficially as the Piltdowners – recently decided that it is time finally to expose the forger. Led by Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, the team is re-analysing all the Piltdown material, using a range of sophisticated techniques from DNA and isotope analysis to a high-resolution microscope. With this forensic arsenal, every facet of the forgery will be exposed. It is hoped that an identifying “signature” of the perpetrator will emerge – or, at the very least, that we will learn how many hands were at work and where the various specimens came from.
What is already apparent is that the skills of the forger – or forgers – were vastly more sophisticated than had been suspected. For example, all the bones and stones appear to have been doctored to obscure any distinguishing characteristics. And the situation is complicated by the range of possible suspects. There is a long cast of characters associated with Piltdown – most of whom have been accused somewhere in the literature of committing the forgery. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, lived near Piltdown, played at Piltdown Golf Club – where Dawson was secretary – and was known to have visited the site. The Jesuit philosopher, and palaeontologist Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who worked on excavations alongside Dawson and Smith Woodward and discovered the all-important canine, has also been accused. Then again, so has Smith Woodward himself.
Of course, the likeliest suspect has always been Charles Dawson himself. It was he who first brought the fossils to Smith Woodward, who found most of the material, and who is the only source for the second Piltdown man. After he died after a short illness in 1916, at the age of 52, nothing more was found at the site – although that did not stop Smith Woodward continuing to excavate the Piltdown gravels until old age and blindness ended his futile labours.
For his part, Smith Woodward always described Dawson as an engaging, cheerful colleague. But many of those who knew him in Lewes, where he lived, not only had doubts about his character but also believed him capable of deception. It’s now known he forged many of his other archaeological finds What could his motive have been? Perhaps he wanted recognition, to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (his name was put forward in 1913, but it never happened). Yet all the evidence against him is circumstantial – and there remains the question of whether the solicitor would have had the skills to fool so many scientists for so long.
Soon, the Piltdowners will have answers – but the complexities these experts are uncovering demonstrate, a century on, just why the great Piltdown mystery has taken so long to crack.
Shindler, Karolyn. 2012. “The search is on to find the faker behind Piltdown Man”. The Telegraph. Posted: December 3, 2012. Available online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/evolution/9718837/The-search-is-on-to-find-the-faker-behind-Piltdown-Man.html