Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni) was once thought to be a “missing link” between man and ape. The first Piltdown fragments were discovered in 1912. Thereafter, over 500 scientific essays were written on the Piltdown Man in a 40-year period. The discovery was proven to be a deliberate hoax in 1953.

Piltdown Man consisted of two human skulls, an orangutan jaw, an elephant molar, a hippopotamus tooth, and a canine tooth from a chimpanzee. Sir Kenneth Oakley has determined the human skulls to be approximately 620 years old. They may have belonged to Ona Indians from Patagonia, as the skulls were unusually thick. Thick skulls are a common trait among Ona Indians. The orangutan jaw is around 500 years old, perhaps from Sarawak. The elephant molar is thought to be from Tunisia. The hippopotamus tooth is thought to have come from Malta or perhaps Sicily. The canine tooth belonged to a Pleistocene Chimpanzee. The Piltdown remains were purposefully scattered around a quarry in Piltdown, England, so that they could be “discovered” later as evidence for evolution and the development of man from ape. The skulls had been treated with acid. All of the fossil remains were stained with an iron sulfate solution. The canine tooth was painted brown and patched with bubble gum. The molars were filed down. The portion of the orangutan jaw that connected the jaw to its skull was carefully broken so as not to show evidence that this jaw did not belong to a human skull.

Group portrait by John Cooke, 1915. Back row (from left): F O Barlow, G Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A S Underwood, Arthur Keith, W P Pycraft, and Sir Ray Lankester.

The Piltdown Man hoax is thought to have been perpetrated by Charles Dawson, an archaeologist, geologist and fossil collector for the British Museum. However, no one is quite certain who was involved. There are a number of other suspects, including Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of the British Museum’s Natural History department, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist and Jesuit theologian.

Via Piltdown Man

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2 Responses to Piltdown Man

  1. alfy says:

    Beware of the phrase “Missing Link”. Whenever you see it in a piece of journalism it is a sure indicator that the author is almost totally ignorant of the subject. For the record, there is no missing link and palaeontologists are not on the lookout for it. Human origins are complex and the relatively small amount of material available mean that there are lots of gaps in the fossil record so that it is difficult to construct accurate “family trees” of the various species. The “Missing Link” is a phrase beloved of anti-evolutionists because it is always easier to attack a straw man than take on the real thing.

    Piltdown was always a source of contention and many palaeontologists were doubtful about it before it was conclusively demonstrated to be a hoax. I read a very persuasive article which pointed the finger at Pere Teilhard du Chardin. The site had been seeded with other fossils, several of which came from the Egyptian Fayum. Dawson was an amateur who had very limited experience and had never been to Egypt, whereas PTDC was a much-travelled palaeontologist who had excavated in the Fayum.
    He might be suitable for one of your biographies. He produced a kind of spiritual theory of evolution, much admired by Catholic theologians but regarded by professional biologists as mostly bunkum. This is also my view, as well. P B Medawar a British biologist wrote an excellent review of PTDC ‘s scientific position.

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