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Detective’s Casebook: Unearthing the Piltdown Man

By Ellie Gregory

It is regarded as one of the most baffling scientific hoaxes of the past few hundred years. The mystery of the Piltdown Man, a skull believed to be an ancient ‘missing link’ in human evolution, blindsided the expert eyes of some of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Armed with our trusty Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, let’s open our detective’s casebook to get to the bottom of this mystery, 60 years after the Piltdown Man was first unmasked as a fake.

The Scene of the Crime
Barkham Manor, near Piltdown, Sussex, was the site of the initial skull recovery. Imagine the excitement of Charles Dawson, palaeontologist and antiquary, and now evolutionary pioneer, following his discovery of this ancient fossil. So excited was he that, partnering with his friend and (conveniently enough, some might say,) keeper of Geology in the Natural History sector of the British Museum, Arthur Smith Woodward, he announced this discovery to the Geological Society in London in 1912. And so as an addendum to the discovery, the coining of a new type of early human, namely Eoanthropus dawson, swiftly followed.

The Evidence
The skull appeared to indicate that the evolvement of the brain largely preceded other features, including the jaw and teeth, a fact that comfortably matched the expectations of some scientists at the time. It did indeed appear to be quite a revelation: Piltdown Man was unlike anything else in its evolutionary field.

The Piltdown Gang by John Cooke, 1915. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Piltdown Gang by John Cooke, 1915. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Crime Scene Investigation
Enter Joseph Weiner and Kenneth Oakley, whose revolutionary experimentation with fluorine paved the way for the initial doubts surrounding the authenticity of the apparent ancient skull. The tests revealed that the mandible and skull cap of the Piltdown Man were of late Pleistocene age — providing solid grounding for this scientific dispute: could a complex man-ape have existed in England at this time? Fuelled by uncertainty, Weiner demonstrated how the molar teeth may have been filed down and the fossil pieces to have been superficially stained, preceding Oakley to confirm this as true. A repeat of the fluorine-content analysis test found that the skull and jaw were of different ages and origins: a relatively recent human skull, with the jaw of a small orang-utan ape with filed teeth! And finally, following a series of further testing, the case was solved. In 1953, Piltdown Man was unearthed (excuse the pun) as a fraud.

The Suspects
Although the work of the 1950’s scientists is undoubtedly remarkable, the question regarding who masterminded this hoax remains unanswered. The list of potential of culprits range from the perhaps rather obvious Dawson, to the rather famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who played golf at Piltdown. Moreover, the motive(s) behind the hoax are a mystery we can only ever hope to solve.

Ellie Gregory is Marketing Assistant at Oxford University Press.

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