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


Friday, December 14, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  One hundred years ago this week at a special meeting of the Geological Society in London, a stunning revelation, the possible discovery of the Holy Grail of paleoanthropology, the missing link between ape and man. A humanlike skull and an apelike jaw fragment had been found in a gravel pit in the hamlet of Piltdown England, and they were believed to be 500,000 years old. Despite some initial doubts that the fragments came from the same specimen, the so-called “Piltdown Man” became a widely accepted link in the chain of evidence of human evolution, except, that is, until four decades later, when Piltdown was exposed as a total fraud.

Evan Hadingham is senior science editor at Nova, well-versed in this historic hoax. At the center of the story, he says, was a man named Charles Dawson.

EVAN HADINGHAM:  Charles Dawson was a well-to-do solicitor who lived in the town of Lewes in Sussex, one of the richest areas in the whole of Britain for geological and archaeological finds. And so, in this town was a thriving group of amateur collectors. They were highly competitive. Dawson had been roaming the downs for decades, and every now and then he'd send some curious discovery to Arthur Smith Woodward who was the curator at the British Museum of Natural History in London.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:   And Smith Woodward lent a lot of credibility to the Piltdown discovery, even though scientists suspected that the skull and the mandible actually came from different skeletons.

EVAN HADINGHAM:  There was some initial skepticism about the find, but every time a serious pointed debate was raised, lo and behold, a piece of fossil with crop up almost miraculously, which answered some of the objections [LAUGHS] that called the find into question.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But, interestingly, it was foreigners who were more skeptical than the Brits. And this brings us to the political context.

EVAN HADINGHAM:  Well, 1912 - it's before the outbreak of the Great War, of course, which shook up the values of all the imperial powers. So it’s still the height of the British Empire. Playing into a sense of national pride was the notion that perhaps England had been the entire center for the origin of humanity. Surely, it was about time that Britain had its own discovery on par with those that had been found in Germany with the Neanderthals, and so on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  There wasn't just a political context. There was also the prevailing notions of racial differences when this  discovery was made.

EVAN HADINGHAM:  There was probably unconscious racist overtones in that continuing willingness to believe the Piltdown was a true discovery. In the 1920s, the first discoveries were made of ancestral humans in southern Africa, and they were very easy to reject because even though Darwin felt that Africa was the probable place of origin for humanity, it was far more comfortable to think of this man ape in England being a formative character in our past, as opposed to a place like Africa.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Since Piltdown was exposed as a hoax in 1953, people have floated theories about who the hoaxer was. Some have implicated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

EVAN HADINGHAM:  The fun part about Piltdown is the dozen or so suspects that have been paraded around and, by far, the most exotic candidate is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author of “Sherlock Holmes.” The evidence that Conan Doyle had anything to do with this [LAUGHS] consists mostly in parallels in Canon Doyle’s famous tale, “The Lost World,” about a lost colony of ancient humans the coexisted with the dinosaurs on a plateau in South America in the present day. Conan Doyle did know Dawson. They did lunch together, and Canon Doyle may have chatted to Dawson about his developing idea for this exciting novel. And it’s possible that that actually planted the idea of the hoax in Dawson's mind, not the other way around.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Why did Smith Woodward never begin to doubt Piltdown? Anytime anyone ever found anything, Dawson was always there.

EVAN HADINGHAM:  Dawson expertly played on the expectations of the scientists in London. He played up the image of himself as an enthusiastic, knowledgeable amateur. He really charmed Smith Woodward. Smith Woodward also invested a huge amount of his reputation and career in Piltdown. For over 20 years, he dug every summer, rather sadly, never finding anything again. So during Smith Woodward’s lifetime, it was very unlikely that anybody would critically examine the remains. But in 1948, he died.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So that brings us to the late forties and early fifties. A couple of scientists tried to assess the Piltdown remains. What sort of high-tech CSI techniques were available to them at the time that weren't available before?

EVAN HADINGHAM:  They ran the relatively newly discovered radiocarbon test, and the shocking truth finally came out. It was a modern jaw of an orangutan and the skull fragments belonged to a modern human, possibly from a medieval cemetery. And once suspicions about the date were raised –


EVAN HADINGHAM:  - they did something really basic, which was to really examine the teeth of the jaw under a magnifying glass.


And, lo and behold, it was obvious that they’d been filed flat. And that was why they didn't resemble an ape’s tooth.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Now, you’ve actually seen those teeth. Does it strain your credulity to think that people wouldn't have seen that before, because you’ve said it’s a pretty crude file job?

EVAN HADINGHAM:  It's astonishing when you look at the remains that are still there, kept in a drawer in the British Museum [LAUGHS] of Natural History. The most obvious piece of the fraud was a canine tooth that was found in 1913, planted by Dawson a year after the first remains. Because you can't stain a tooth the way you can bone, the hoaxer actually used paint on the root of the tooth.


What looks obvious today wasn’t at all obvious to the specialists back then because of their expectations.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So in terms of scientific hoaxes, is there anything that compares to Piltdown?

EVAN HADINGHAM:  Not really. Piltdown still stands as the preeminent story of scientific skullduggery.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Pun not intended? [LAUGHS]

EVAN HADINGHAM:  Sorry. Anyway, it really did have an extraordinary influence on the way we saw human evolution. It fooled the scientific community for four decades, and there’s been nothing like that ever since.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What drew you so deeply into the Piltdown story?

EVAN HADINGHAM:  It's the ultimate Agatha Christie story.


Charles Dawson had a well-documented and burning ambition to make his mark on the scientific world. People have looked at the other things that Dawson collected, and at the present time I believe the count of fraudulent objects is 38.


Spanning a couple of decades, Dawson had forged not just bones and stones, but Roman statuettes. And there was even a sea monster that he claimed to have seen crossing the English Channel.


All of these things form the picture of a very smart but compulsively dishonest and manipulative collector. We really don't know the fine details of how Dawson did this, but there are wonderful, tantalizing clues planted throughout the huge literature and correspondence surrounding Piltdown. You can get completely lost in the search for hints in letters, and so on. For anybody who loves Masterpiece mystery –


- you can find all of that in the Piltdown story.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Evan Hadingham is senior science editor at WGBH’s Nova and, as far as I can tell, an anatomically modern human.


Evan Hadingham

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Brooke Gladstone