When the Piltdown Man was revealed to be a ‘cheap fraud’, several eminent men – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – were put in the frame. Now scientists aim to put an end to the mystery once and for all. In a few weeks, a group of British researchers will enter the labyrinthine store of London’s Natural History Museum and remove several dark-coloured pieces of primate skull and jawbone from a small metal cabinet. After a brief inspection, the team will wrap the items in protective foam and transport them to a number of laboratories across England. There the bones and teeth, which have rested in the museum for most of the last century, will be put through a sequence of highly sensitive tests using infra-red scanners, lasers and powerful spectroscopes to reveal each relic’s precise chemical make-up.
The aim of the study, which will take weeks to complete, is simple. It has been set up to solve a mystery that has baffled researchers for 100 years: the identities of the perpetrators of the world’s greatest scientific fraud, the Piltdown Hoax. Unearthed in a gravel pit at Piltdown in East Sussex and revealed to the outside world exactly a century ago, those shards of skull were part of a scientific scam that completely fooled leading palaeontologists. For decades they believed they were the remains of a million-year-old apeman, an individual who possessed a large brain but primitive jawbone and teeth.