The Piltdown Man: A Little Story of Bad Forgery

© 91050 / TopFoto / United Archives / picture alliance (excerpt)

Piltdown Skull | Paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward reconstructed the putative fossil fragments of this skull.

Kenneth Page Oakley (1911-1981), an employee of the British Museum of Natural History (now the Natural History Museum), determines the fluorine content of bones in order to be able to date them more accurately. Here he comes to the conclusion that the bones cannot be more than 50,000 years old. This, of course, raises the question of how the relatively small bones of the skull fit into the jawbone, which is more ape-like than the bones of modern humans.

Driven by these suspicions, the sensational Piltdown discovery that is supposed to be a scam is quickly exposed as it really is. Further research during the 1950s revealed a much more likely age for the fossils: somewhere between 520 and 720 years. It also turns out that the erosion of the molars is a hoax. Processed with a conventional metal coil.

Who tampered with the skull?

The obvious question arises: Who is responsible for this detailed forgery? The short answer: It is not safe. Because the lengthy answer almost amounts to a suspect list.

Clearly, Dawson committed the act. He was the original discoverer of presumed fossils. As an amateur archaeologist, he must have had a keen interest in gaining recognition from professional researchers. However, he had a certain reputation for fossil discoveries, the veracity of which was not always in doubt. Archaeologist Miles Russell appears definitively in his book on the Piltdown ManThat suspect, most likely it was Dawson’s counterfeiter. But Woodward could have been involved, too. Apparently he checked only the bones in a hurry, even the rudely manipulated molars didn’t attract him – or he didn’t want to.

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Over the years, many employees of the Natural History Museum, other participants in the excavations such as Teilhard de Chardin and even the author Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) have been suspected. The latter because he lived not far from Piltdown, but also because scholars have mocked him for believing in ghosts. Deceiving you with such a fake would have been Conan Doyle’s ultimate act of revenge.

Although the forgery was eventually revealed, it left traces in early human research. According to anthropologist Janet Monge of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, this discovery hampered the discipline for decades because it misled researchers. But for some, it provided exactly the assurance they were looking for: that this man originated in Europe, and not from Africa. Therefore, the Piltdown skull ensured that the temporary finds in Africa did not receive the attention they deserved for long. As a result, work on a unifying theory about the evolution of modern man has been banned for years. It was not until after the mid-20th century that anthropologists agreed on the true anatomical place of origin of modern humans.

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