A new paper published in the Royal Society of Open Science names just one man as the culprit behind one of the biggest scientific crimes ever committed.
It all started in 1912, when Charles Dawson, a professional lawyer and amateur fossil hunter, discovered fragments of a human-like skull, an apelike jawbone with two worn molar teeth, some stone tools, and fragments of animal fossils in a gravel pit in the UK. All of the fossils were stained a dark reddish-brown.
Dawson brought his discoveries to paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward. When the two announced their find, it sparked major excitement in the scientific community. The skull, which scientists decided came from a creature nicknamed Piltdown Man who walked the Earth up to 500,000 years ago, was hailed as the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans.
A few more fossil fragments were later excavated from the site, and one year before Dawson’s death in 1915, he claimed he had found fragments from another skull at a second site a few miles from the first one.
But something was a bit off about the findings.
One of the most famous scientific cons of all time
In the 1950s, scientists reexamined the bones using new technologies and found something odd: The bones were not all the same age.
The upper skull was only 50,000 years old and the jawbone, which scientists now think came from an orangutan, was only a few decades old. Further evidence suggested that the perpetrator had stained the fossils with a chemical to give them a reddish-brown appearance.
The Piltdown Man hoax quickly became known as one of the most famous scientific cons of all time.
Dawson was the obvious prime suspect. But did he act alone? Many suspected that Dawson had some help, as Jennifer Ouellette outlines in Gizmodo.
Woodward seems like a tempting choice for Dawson’s accomplice, except that he had spent the remainder of his life continuing the hunt for more of these fossils.
Some argued that French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was there when a canine tooth was found at the site, may have sneakily planted it there. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the legendary creator of Sherlock Holmes, was eyed as a suspect.
But the new paper clears all the other suspects of any guilt, naming Dawson as the sole perpetrator in the case of the planted fossils. The paper points out that every specimen ever uncovered was found in Dawson’s presence, and the sites suspiciously dried up after Dawson’s death.
Dawson knew that the British scientists would expect to see “a large brain, ape-like face and jaws, and heavily fossilized materials that indicated great antiquity” — so he gave them exactly what they were looking for.
And lead author Isabel de Groote, a paleoanthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, told Gizmodo that at least 38 other fake finds have been attributed to Dawson, including a stone axe, a fraudulent flint mine at the Lavant Caves, and what he claimed was one of the first bronze statuettes linked to Roman times. “He clearly had been doing this for a very long time,” she said.
A cautionary tale
For the new paper, the researchers used modern scanning technology and DNA analysis to investigate the fossils. They were able to conclude that the jawbone and teeth came from one orangutan, which they suspect might have come from a curiosities shop.
Another strange observation de Groote made about the fossils was that there was an off-white putty on the surface of the bones.
“This putty had been painted over and stained, and in some cases was used to fill in cracks and gaps that the forger accidentally created,” Michael Price explained, in Science Magazine. “Inside the crania and teeth, she found tiny pebbles stuffed inside hollow chambers sealed over with the same putty.”
The paper was published on the 100th anniversary of Dawson’s death. And the hoax leaves us with a valuable lesson.
“Piltdown Man sets a good example of the need for us to take a step back and look at the evidence for what it is and not for whether it conforms to our preconceived ideas,” de Groote told Science Magazine.
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