Charles Dawson – The Piltdown Man Hoax (5/5)

The Piltdown Man has become known as the greatest scientific fraud of the 20th century. It all began in 1912 when a British amateur archeologist named Charles Dawson wrote to Arthur Smith Woodward at London’s Natural History Museum claiming to have unearthed the missing link between apes and humans in the form of a fossilized skull fragment he had dug up in a gravel pit near Piltdown, Sussex. Dawson was eventually joined by Woodward and between June and September the two men discovered more fragments, including partial jaw, teeth, and some primitive tools and other animal fossils. They eventually presented a reconstruction of the skull to the Geological Society and it was accepted as the missing link between apes and humans, an ancestor that had lived 500,000 years ago, and their find was named ‘Eoanthropus dawsoni‘.

However, in 1949 new dating technology revealed that the Piltdown man was only 50,000 years old, aging the fragments to a period long after man had already appeared, and then further tests still revealed that the skull and jaw fragments actually came from two different species, that of a human and that of an ape, probably an orangutan, with the jaw showing evidence that the teeth had been filed down to resemble human ones. There was also clear evidence of artificial staining to match the local gravel and geology, making them seem more genuine at the time. It was then concluded that the Piltdown man had been a very clever and very sophisticated fraud that had fooled the scientific community for many decades.

Dawson died in 1916, and Woodward in 1944, meaning neither man knew their fraud had been rumbled and indeed never had to account for their actions or give reason as to why they did what they did.

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