The Piltdown Man Scandal
It was lauded as the missing link to finally prove evolution as factual. Within years, though, it would be recognised for what it was - the most outrageous scientific hoax ever perpetuated.
It has been proclaimed as the most notorious scientific fraud of all time. Yet, for nearly half a century, Piltdown Man was seen as the vital missing evolutionary link that confirmed Charles Darwin’s theory. So, just what was Piltdown Man and who was behind its attempt to deceive the world?
In 1912, lawyer and amateur archeololgist Charles Dawson claimed that he had discovered an ape-like human’s remains near Piltdown, England. The skull of this supposed human ancestor was most intriguing – the cranium was human-like but the jaw was very much like an orangutan. The Piltdown Man was instantly proclaimed as the definitive proof of our ape-like ancestry.
In 1953, however, British Scientists proved Piltdown Man to be an outrageous fraud. Radioactive dating showed that the cranium came from the skull of a modern man. The jaw, however, belonged to an orangutang. The teeth had been artificially filed down and the bones chemically stained to give the impression of age. To further the hoax, ancient animal bones had been also placed in the Piltdown vicinity.
With the discovery now revealed, the question became ‘who was responsible for the hoax?’ For years, the guilt was laid solely at the feet of Charles Dawson, the man who had ‘discovered’ the supposed ancient remains. Others who were implicated included famous British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, former president of the Royal college of Surgeons Sir Arthur Keith and French priest Pierre Telhard de Chardin. In recent times, however, the real master-mind behind the scandal has been uncovered. His name is Martin A.C. Hinton. He is a former curator of Zoology at London’s Natural History Museum. Hinton died in 1961. In 1988, a canvas trunk that had belonged to Hinton was found at the Museum. It contained Elephant teeth, pieces of a fossil hippopotumas, and other such bones. On examination these bones were found to be stained with iron and manganese in exactly the same proportions as the Piltdown bones. When chromium was also discovered in the teeth of the specimens, just like the Piltdown bones, the case was clinched.
Martin was known as a practical joker. Letters suggest that his motive was to get revenge on his boss, Arthur Smith Woodward, who, he felt, had never given him the acknowledgement he deserved. Here was a discovery that Woodward wouldn’t be able to ignore. And, just as Martin had planned, Woodward became convinced that Piltdown Man was the genuine article right up to his death, five years prior to the exposure of the fraud.
Of course, Martin’s deception did far more than dupe his boss. The whole world was taken in. Museums worldwide proudly displayed copies and photographs of the Piltdown remains. Books and periodicals also spread the news across the globe. Thus, the fraud had many convinced that mankind did, indeed, come from an evolutionary ancestry. Which, just goes to show how gullible we all can be.