It was an archeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. A century on, researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for “Piltdown Man,” the missing link that never was.
In December 1912, it was announced that a lawyer and amateur archeologist named Charles Dawson had made an astonishing discovery in a gravel pit in southern England — prehistoric remains, up to 1 million years old, that combined the skull of a human and the jaw of an ape.
Piltdown Man — named for the village where the remains were found — set the scientific world ablaze. It was hailed as the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans.
It was 40 years before the find was definitively exposed as a hoax, and speculation about who did it rages to this day.
Now scientists at London’s Natural History Museum — whose predecessors trumpeted the Piltdown find and may be suspects in the fraud — are marking the 100th anniversary with a new push to settle the argument for good.
The goal, lead scientist Chris Stringer wrote in a comment piece published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, is to find out “who did it and what drove them” — whether scientific ambition, humor or malice.
Stringer heads a team of 15 researchers — including experts in ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating and isotope studies — examining the remains with the latest techniques and combing the museum’s archives for overlooked evidence.
“Although Charles Dawson is the prime suspect, it’s a complex story,” said Stringer, the museum’s research leader in human origins. “The amount of material planted at two different sites makes some people — and that includes me — wonder whether there were at least two people involved.”
Doubts grew about Piltdown Man’s authenticity in the years after 1912, as more remains were found around the world that contradicted its evidence. In 1953, scientists from London’s Natural History Museum and Oxford University conducted tests that showed the find was a cleverly assembled fake, combining a human skull a few hundred years old with the jaw of an orangutan.
Ever since, speculation had swirled about possible perpetrators. Many people think the evidence points to Dawson, who died in 1916.
Other long-dead suspects identified by researchers include Arthur Smith Woodward, the museum’s keeper of geology, who championed Dawson’s discoveries and gave them vital scientific credibility. The finger has also been pointed at museum zoologist Martin Hinton; Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; and even Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Piltdown.
Whoever was behind it, the hoax delayed consensus on human origins, leading some scientists to question the authenticity of later finds because they did not fit with Piltdown Man.