August 10, 2016

New techniques to resolve old speculations: Who’s really responsible for Piltdown Man?

by Heather Falconer

When the topic of ethics comes up in science classes, many educators rely on a gold-standard example of one instance when “science” went very wrong: That of Charles Dawson and Piltdown Man. (We refer to it ourselves in our module Scientific Ethics!) The reason for Dawson’s popularity is simply that he and his colleagues pulled off one of science’s greatest hoaxes – the “discovery” of the missing link in human evolution.

Dawson, an amateur paleontologist and archeologist, claimed to have discovered a fossilized skull that was part human, part ape in a gravel pit near the tiny UK village of Piltdown, by Sussex. In 1912, when tensions throughout Europe were running high, Dawson’s discovery was, as Michael Price notes in this week’s issue of Science, “fortuitous” because it kept Britain’s feet in the game of understanding the origins of the human race. (Individuals in rival Germany had found the jawbone of Homo heidelbergensis only a few years prior.) Both Dawson and his friend Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist, presented the skull and their beliefs of its origins to professional colleagues, gaining worldwide acclaim in the process.

For nearly 40 years, it was generally accepted that Piltdown Man was the missing link between man and ape — until anthropologist Kenneth Oakley used a newly available fluorine absorption test to date the skull and found that it was 499,500 years younger than Dawson and Smith Woodward claimed (the two dated it at 500,000 years), and physical anthropologist Joseph Weiner noticed inconsistencies in the skull’s architecture, including teeth filing. Through the use of new technology, Oakley, Weiner, and their colleagues at Oxford University were able to show that the Piltdown Man was, in reality, a hoax.

For many years, blame for the hoax has lain on the shoulders of Dawson (who died only a few years after the “discovery”), Smith Woodward, and even individuals who assisted in the excavation and or worked with Smith Woodward on other projects (upwards of 20 different people have been inculcated in the fraud, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). But a new paper from paleoanthropologist Isabelle De Groote and colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University argues that it was in fact only Dawson who was in on the charade.

Using a variety of methods, including radiographs, DNA analyses, light microscopy, and radiocarbon dating, the researchers deduced that the “ape” teeth that were used to forge the mandible and molars “very likely originated from a single orang-utan specimen related most closely to the populations now occupying southwest Sarawak (Borneo).”  Several of these teeth were “loaded with gravel that was held in place with pebble plugs” to simulate the increased weight bones acquire through fossilization. These and similar modifications to the remains “are indicative of a single forger.” Considering the significant evidence of “inexpert skill” (fractures in the bones, putty application issues, etc.), the most probable culprit is that of Dawson.  As the authors of the article note:

“Not only did Dawson have the access and connections necessary to obtain the specimens, he was also a great networker, and would have known what the British scientific community was anticipating in a missing link between apes and humans: a large brain, an ape-like face and jaws, and heavily fossilized materials that indicated great antiquity. As a long-established collector, he would also have known what to add in the form of fossil mammals and stone tools to testify to its antiquity.” 

Likely the greatest awareness this research brings forward, though, is simply that new technologies and applications can, as the authors note, “produce new insights into old palaeoanthropological questions.”

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.

Science In Your Inbox