Friday, December 15, 2023

The Piltdown Man

 Author: Wyatt McPherson

Amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson and geologist Charles Woodward declared in 1912 that they had found an amazing collection of fossils near Piltdown, England. The discovery featured a jawbone like an ape and a skull that appeared to belong to the same person. The most popular evolutionary theories of the time were supported by this assembly, which seemed to close the evolutionary gap between humans and their ape-like forebears.The Piltdown Man was considered as a key piece of evidence supporting human evolution for a number of decades. The idea of "Eoanthropus dawsoni" (Dawson's Dawn Man) gained widespread acceptance when it came up frequently in textbooks and scientific literature.

The Problem of Piltdown Man

As the years passed, doubts grew. The significance of the Piltdown Man as the missing link appeared to be called into question by other major fossil discoveries, most notably the Australopithecus and Neanderthal discovery. The inconsistencies between the skull and jawbone led scientists to begin to doubt the fossils' authenticity.1953 saw the unveiling of the truth. An extensive series of testing and investigations revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Piltdown Man was a fake. The jawbone belonged to an orangutan, but the skull was in fact human. It had been falsely damaged and altered for decades to create the impression of incredible age, fooling the scientific community.

Anthropology’s Greatest Hoax

Paleoanthropologist Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom started investigating the issue in 2009 by utilizing DNA analysis and contemporary scanning techniques on the original materials. She and her colleagues came to the conclusion that all of these parts came from an orangutan by comparing computer tomography (CT) scans of the mouth and teeth to known ape specimens. De Groote believes the forger or forgers may have obtained the orangutan from a curiosities shop, as DNA sequencing of the teeth revealed they were all from the same animal. While reviewing the CT scans, De Groote observed that almost all of the bones had an odd, off-white putty on their surface. This putty had been filled in gaps and cracks that the forger accidentally made, painted over, and stained in certain places. She discovered tiny pebbles crammed into hollow chambers and sealed with the same putty inside the crania and teeth. Given that fossilized bones are significantly heavier than more recent bones, De Groote believes the hoaxer used these pebbles to weigh down the bones.

Work Cited:

Michael, Price. “Study reveals culprit behind Piltdown Man, one of science's famous hoaxes.” Aug 9, 2016.

The editors of encyclopaedia britannica. “Piltdown Man, anthropological hoax.” Jan. 2015.

Wikipedia. “Piltdown Man.” Last edited on Oct. 3, 2023.

For Further Reference:

Dr Kenneth Oakley, Dr Joseph Weiner, and Wilfred La Gros Clark. “Piltdown Man”. NHM., accessed by 25 Oct. 2023. This article states, In 1912, an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson made a remarkable claim that he had discovered the "missing link" between ape and man. He found a human-like skull in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown village in Sussex, England. Dawson shared his discovery with Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum at the time, through a letter. 

Samuel Redman. “Behind closed doors: What the Piltdown Man hoax from 1912 can teach science today.” The Conversation 4 May, 2017, This article talks about the hoax of Piltdown Man and how the spread of disinformation in the science world led to the misbelief and distrust of scientists as a whole. Although this hoax happened many decades ago, there are still similar instances to this day that prove how important facts and hard data are to prove the legitimacy of things.

Nandini Subramaniam, “The Problem with the Piltdown Man”. Science History Institute Museum and Library., 27th August, 2023. This article is about the historical background of the piltdown man, where Dawson and other scientists went to go digging for other skulls, and how human evolution ties into the piltdown man. 

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