The Piltdown Man Hoax

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Podcast Transcript

In 1912, a discovery was announced that shocked the world. A British paleontologist announced what was perhaps the most important find in the history of paleontology. 

The announcement was about the discovery of a fossil, which was claimed to be the missing link between apes and humans. 

It was a groundbreaking discovery that, if true, would rewrite what we knew about early humanity.

Unfortunately, it was all fake.

Learn more about Piltdown Man and what was perhaps the biggest scientific hoax of the 20th century on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of Piltdown Man actually begins in the 19th century.

When Charles Darwin published his book The Origin of Species in 1859, it had profound implications. Darwin suggested that all species evolved over long periods of time via a process known as natural selection. 

The biggest controversy surrounding The Origin of Species was that Darwin’s theory of natural selection would have applied to human beings. 

Needless to say, this was not accepted by everyone at the time. Many people in 19th-century society rejected the idea that humans might have evolved from some earlier species. In particular, they claimed that it implied that humans came from monkeys. 

Natural selection didn’t actually claim that, but that was the popular perception of the theory at the time. 

Religious criticisms of Darwin aside, there were scientific critics of Darwin who raised an excellent point. 

If Darwin’s prediction was true, there had to be some transitional lifeform between our early ape-like ancestors and modern humans. 

This transitional lifeform was known as a missing link. 

The term missing link was first coined in 1851 by one of Darwin’s mentors, Charles Lyell, to describe some fossils that he had found. 

Just as an aside, the term Missing Link is seldom used anymore because it implies a linear path that evolution has to follow. In reality, there are all sorts of side branches that aren’t necessarily links between anything. 

That being said, I’ll be using the phrase “missing link” for the rest of the episode because that was the term used at the time, and it is relevant to this story.

In the 19th century, paleontology was still a very young discipline, especially hominid paleontology. There wasn’t enough fossil evidence or enough understanding to put all the pieces together. 

Several early hominid fossils were found in the 19th century. The most famous of which was a fossil discovered in 1856 in the Neader Valley in Germany.  This fossil was later identified to be Homo neanderthalensis, which wasn’t an ancestor of humans, but rather were more like cousins.

In 1868, the first evidence of what was called the Cro-Magnon man was discovered in France. These were later determined to be early humans that dated about 50,000 years ago. 

In 1891, part of a fossil skull dubbed Java Man was found on the island of Java in Indonesia. It has subsequently been classified as being of the species Homo erectus.

In 1907, a skull fragment was found in Mauer, Germany, which was later classified as Homo heidelbergensis, due to its location. 

This was the rough state of hominid paleontology when the story of Piltdown Man began. 

The story starts with a man named Charles Dawson, not to be confused with Charles Darwin.

Dawson was a lawyer and an amateur archeologist. In 1889, he co-founded a private museum with voluntary submissions of artifacts. 

In 1893, he investigated a flint mine that was filled with Roman artifacts. He explored and excavated the tunnels under Hastings Castle. He found a cast iron Roman statue, some neolithic stone axes, and several other artificts. 

He found several interesting fossils, including a petrified toad inside a flint nodule, which he donated to the British Museum.

For his efforts, he was named an ‘Honorary Collector’ of the British Museum and selected as a fellow of the Geological Society of London. 

In 1895, he was elected as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. 

He had achieved all of this by the age of 31 despite not having a university degree. So, he was a known entity and a respective figure in the world of paleontology before the events of this episode. 

According to the testimony of Dawson, as early as 1908, he was given a skull fragment by a worker at a gravel quarry in Piltdown, in East Sussex, England. Dawson was the steward of Barkham Manor, and the gravel pit was on the Barkham Manor estate. 

The workman didn’t know what it was, but he figured that Dawson would be interested in it. 

Dawson went to look for additional parts of the skull but found nothing. 

Three years later, in 1911, he was supposedly walking around the estate when he came across a much larger piece of skull sticking out of a pilings heap. He assumed that this was part of the same skull fragment given to him back in 1908.  How such an old fossil was just sitting on the surface was not explained, nor how it could be part of the exact same fossil, but that was his story. 

In early 1912, he informed his friend, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist at the British Museum, about his discovery. 

Dawson and Woodward conducted an expanded excavation at the site from June to September 1912. They found several more fragments. However, it should be noted that Dawson found all of the fragments, not Woodward, and all of the fragments were not buried but found in pilings heaps.

Included in the finds was a large piece of jawbone.

The two believed that they had discovered the most important find in the history of paleontology. They dated the find to about 500,000 years in the past.

I should note something else. This find was made in the middle of the First World War. Ever since the discoveries of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis in Germany, there was a sense of inferiority amongst British paleontologists. Based on the fossil finds at the time, the Germans could claim to be the cradle of humanity.

With Dawson and Woodward’s discovery, they could now point to Britain as being the cradle of humanity. 

Another person, the French Jesuit paleontologist and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, also volunteered at the dig site. 

Finally, on December 12, 1912, Dawson and Woodward presented their findings at a meeting of the Geological Society of London. They claimed that they had found the missing link.

In that same presentation, they also announced a recreation of the skull using the fragments that were found. 

Almost immediately, some scientists felt that something wasn’t right. 

The cranium seemed almost too human. The jaw seemed almost too ape-like, including an ape-like canine tooth. 

However, other paleontologists, such as Otto Schoetensack, the man who found the Homo heidelbergensis fossils, declared the discovery to be legitimate.

In 1915, Dawson claimed to have found some more skull fragments from another skull at a site several miles away, and in 1916, Dawson died at the age of 52. 

Initially, after the announcement, the paleontology community largely accepted Piltodwn Man as legitimate despite the questions that had been raised. 

Many people came to observe and study the Piltdown Man’s skull, and many of the most vocal supporters did so because it supported their theories that human populations evolved separately and humanity didn’t originate in Africa.

It was also used to support various racial theories that were popularized before the Second World War and to promote the idea of eugenics. One of the biggest supporters of these theories and of the legitimacy of Piltdown Man was the paleontologist Henry Osborn.

Over time, problems began to arise. More and more hominid fossils were found all over the world. Piltdown didn’t seem to fit with any of the findings. All of the other hominid fossils that were found seemed to fit together and have a coherent consistency…..except for Piltdown.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, skepticism of Piltdown Man grew amongst paleontologists. 

By the end of the Second World War, Piltodown Man was simply considered an unexplained outlier. 

However, some people weren’t satisfied with it simply being an outlier. Dating techniques and other forms of testing had become much more sophisticated by the early 1950s, and a group of researchers from the University of Oxford decided to put the Piltdown Man fragments to the test. 

One of the tests conducted on the Piltodown fossils was Fluorine absorption dating. The principle behind Fluorine absorption dating is that groundwater contains Fluorine ions that will be absorbed into bone when it is buried. 

The longer that a bone is buried, the more fluorine will be absorbed. By analyzing the amount of fluorine in the bone and comparing it with other objects which were buried for a known time, you can get an approximate idea for how long it was buried. 

Using the Fluorine absorption dating method, the Oxford team determined that the bones couldn’t have been buried more than 50,000 years ago. 

Piltdown Man had to have been a hoax. 

The fact that it was a hoax explained all the discrepancies between it and all the other hominid fossils that had been discovered.

Fluorine absorption dating wasn’t the end of exposing the hoax. In 1959, an anatomist named Wilfrid Le Gros Clark was given access to the original Piltdown artifacts. He was allowed to examine them closer than anyone had in decades. 

What he found was that the Piltdown skull actually consisted of bones from two completely different species. The bones of the cranium came from a human who probably lived in the Middle Ages. The jaw was that of an orangutan. Moreover, using X-rays, they found the molars on the jaw had been filed down to make it appear more human. 

The exposure of the hoax didn’t really take the world of paleontology by surprise. In fact, it confirmed what many people suspected. 

The big question was who was behind the hoax. 

The natural suspect was Charles Dawson. As far as we know, it was Dawson who found all of the pieces of the Piltdown skull. He also seemed to have a strong motive in that he desperately wanted to become a member of the Royal Society.  However, for decades, many paleontologists defended Dawson. 

One of the problems was that Dawson died in 1916, so it wasn’t possible to question him. 

The other suspect was Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, the paleontologist who helped promote Piltdown Man.

The only other suspect could have been Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who worked on the dig site. 

To get to the bottom of the mystery, in 2009, a team of researchers led by Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University began testing the skull with modern techniques, including DNA testing and computer tomography. 

They found that human fragments came from at least two different humans, and the orangutang parts came from a single orangutang, although they weren’t able to extract DNA samples from the human bones. 

They also found that the bones had been covered with putty and stained to make them appear older. 

While they were not able to conclusively point to who was behind the hoax, they concluded it had to have been a single person. They also concluded that the orangutang came from Borneo and was probably brought to England sometime in the late 19th century. 

Given modern dating techniques, it would be difficult to pull off a hoax like Piltdown Man today. However, that doesn’t mean scientific fraud is a thing of the past. Instead of trying to pass off an orangutang bone as a human bone, today, it might just be something as simple as fabricating data or using shoddy statistical techniques to come to a predetermined conclusion. 

The lesson of Piltdown Man is that you have to be skeptical of any scientific claims, especially extraordinary claims…and the lesson for anyone who want to perpetrate a hoax is that eventually, the truth will come out.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Dan the Zombie Dragon over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

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