Happy birthday Piltdown Man...100 years old yesterday.
Piltdown Man (or Eoanthropus dawsoni to give him his proper name) remains the greatest scientific hoax (that we know of in any case) of all time, the fragments of human skull, an ape-like jaw and worked flints unearthed to the south of a quiet Sussex village, was, a century ago, hailed by the world’s press as the most sensational archaeological find ever: the ‘missing link’ in the chain of evolution. The news spread quickly, anthropologists, geologists, and archaeologists all voicing their eagerness to examine the find. The cradle of humanity was to be found in the counties of southern
it was official. England
Of course it wasn't..
The “Earliest Englishman” was a hoax (not just any old hoax mind, the London Star declared it at the time to be “THE BIGGEST SCIENTIFIC HOAX OF THE CENTURY”). There never had been a ‘missing link’ preserved in the gravels of Piltdown; the whole discovery had been part of an elaborate and complex archaeological forgery.
Well ok we don't know exactly when the most famous scientific hoax was precisely 'born' but we can be pretty sure when he was conceived (somewhere between November 1911 and February 1912) and we can be sure that, after a 10 month gestation period, he was officially brought kicking and screaming into the world on the evening of the 18th December 1912 at a meeting of the Geological Society in London. It was there that the 'finder' of the Earliest Englishman, Charles Dawson, together with his co-director, Arthur Smith Woodward of the Natural History Museum, presented the artefacts and their theory to the hushed audience. 100 years to the day I was in that self same room in the geological society giving a paper on Charles Dawson and why it now seems pretty clear that he was indeed the perpetrator of the hoax (and of at least 35 previous offences which also now need to be taken into consideration), which was kinda spooky, but good, in terms of 'resolution'.
Piltdown is one of the most famous 'brand names' in archaeology today, something that annoys a lot of people (as it's not a genuine archaeological find and, worse, it's something which successfully derailed research into the human past for a not inconsiderable period of time), but I admit to finding the tale rather comforting (in a strange way) as it's the point of which archaeology, as a science, woke up and grew up, becoming far more questioning, and far more critical about the nature of 'evidence', in the process. It was, after all, the archaeological finds of early humans made around the world in the years after 1912, with their more human faces and ape-like skulls that helped dethrone Piltdown Man (which had these critical features in the wrong order), way before the nature of the hoax was finally revealed in 1953.
I have to say that I also have a bit of a soft spot for Charles Dawson. Not for what he did (that was ultimately unforgivable), but for the way that he did it.
was a masterful forger: he gave people what he knew they wanted and what they
had searched for for so long. He also did everything with such style. What
would have happened had he been found out in his life (he died in 1916) we will
never know, but I'm sure he would have 'gotten away with it too' (in classic Scooby Doo style), if only it
hadn't 'been for those darned kids' in 1953. Dawson
died, Piltdown man’s story ended too, there being no more finds of the most
elusive of Englishmen from the gravel pits of Dawson . Sussex
So, rest in peace Charles Dawson, FSA, FGS (1864-1916) and Eoanthropus dawsoni (1912-53)...
...and HAPPY BIRTHDAY !