Piltdown at 100: A Look Back on Science's Biggest Hoax

Friday, December 14, 2012


A hundred years ago this week, a human-like skull and ape-like jaw were presented at a special meeting of the Geological Society in London. The so-called "Piltdown Man" became widely accepted as a crucial link in the human evolutionary chain; crucial, that is, until 1953, when the bones were exposed as a total hoax. Nova Senior Science Editor Evan Hadingham talks to Brooke about this tantalizing example of "scientific skullduggery." 

Califone - Lunar H


Evan Hadingham

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [2]

Hugh Sansom

Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) was the self-taught, 'amateur' fossil collector in Britain in the first half of the 19th century.

On a related note: In the second half of that century, the American land grant colleges like Cornell or the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, etc., became enormously important because they would tolerate study of subjects that Harvard, Yale, etc., thought were 'beneath them'.

Hoax or truth is as much about the believer as it is about the creator.

Dec. 15 2012 07:48 AM
Hugh Sansom

Colin Powell's show before the UN Security Council to make the 'case' for war against Iraq was pretty pathetic — like Piltdown in retrospect. NPR swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. So it's not difficult to find cases of 'intelligent' people finding hollow cases convincing.

As for the amateur scientist (but professional con-artist) Dawson, up through the first few decades of the 20th century, there were quite a few amateur scientists who made astounding — and genuine — discoveries. This was crucial in a time when women were almost entirely barred from the sciences and, to a lesser extent, poorer people who didn't have access to the 'official' prestige schools like Oxford, Cambridge, or in the US, Harvard. Some of the most important fossil discoveries in Britain were made by a woman (whose name I now forget) something like a century before Piltdown.

The real story of Piltdown — 'experts' ready to believe — is just as relevant today when we have legions of so-called journalists, experts, and politicians who will accept _any_ story that purports to, for example, show that Arabs or Iranians are about to launch nuclear weapons.

Dec. 15 2012 07:42 AM

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