Thursday, December 13, 2012

Piltdown Back in the News

The study of palaeoanthropology has, over the course of its existence, two large mysteries: whatever became of the Peking Man remains, and who contrived the Piltdown hoax.  Now, it seems, there is a concerted effort afoot to divine the perpetrator of the Piltdown hoax once and for all.  Stephanie Pappas writes:
Writing in this week's issue of the journal Nature, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, explains why he and his colleagues are still investigating a mystery that began 100 years ago.

"Personally, I am intrigued by the question of whether the hoax was driven by scientific ambition or by more jocular or vindictive motives," Stringer wrote. He and his colleagues plan to test the forged bones from the Piltdown case with modern methods, aiming to find out who most likely made them and why.

The Piltdown Hoax is one of the most successful scientific frauds in history. In December 1912, British paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson announced to the world that they'd found an amazing early human fossil in Piltdown, England. The curious specimen had a humanlike skull with an apelike jaw. Given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni, it was more commonly called Piltdown Man.
Over the last hundred years, suspicion has fallen primarily on Dawson, with other conspirators being implicated along the way, such as Arthur Keith, who saw others elected to the Royal Society before him and begrudged this, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who knew many of the conspirators and had his spiritualist religion ridiculed by Arthur Smith Woodward, the co-describer of the remains.  Suspicion even fell on the Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, who found some of the associated artifacts, himself.  Stephen Jay Gould thought that the priest had conspired with Dawson to concoct the skull.   It is also possible that a well-known palaeontologist and fossil expert at the time, Martin Hinton, may have been the perpetrator.  He had feuded with Smith Woodward for years and was also known as a practical joke-puller. 

John Walsh wrote probably the best treatise on the subject in which he squarely implicated Dawson, chronicling the fact that Dawson had been responsible for a string of hoaxes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of which were beginning to catch up with him when he died in untimely fashion in 1915.  It is fortunate that, by the time it was discovered to be a fake in 1953, most of the people involved had passed on. 

I think it will be hard to dislodge the general consensus that Dawson is the hoaxer but if he is not, I hope Chris and colleagues find who was.


  1. People DO want to know who this intelligent designer was.