This week marks the 100-year anniversary of amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson and paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward’s historic discovery of a possible missing link between man and ape, confirming the world-changing works of Charles Darwin. And it’s been about 49 years since their “discovery” was found to be one of the biggest hoaxes to ever fall under the watchful eye of science. Nicknamed the “Piltdown Man,” due to it being unearthed in the Piltdown gravel pit in Sussex, England, this hoax still holds plenty of interest today, both by scientists able to laugh at the mistakes of their field and by detractors who tout it as an example that science itself is a hoax.
For this week’s Nature, Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum shares his plan to use modern scientific testing methods — such as radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, and other molecular investigations — to try and prove who was the real culprit in the hoax, and what his methods may have been.
On December 18, 1912, Dawson and Woodward announced they had found a jawbone and skull fragments belonging to primitive beings who lived from 500,000 to 1 million years ago. Other fossils were reportedly found, as well as a variety of stone tools. Though there were doubts had and discrepancies found, no elaborate testing could be done until almost 30 years later, when flourine testing proved the findings were no older than 50,000 years, and further carbon-dating has revealed they were only 600 years old. Furthermore, the bones came from different species: the skull fragments were human, while the jawbone, with teeth filed down to appear human, was actually from an ape.
Did Dawson have full knowledge of his false words all along? It’s looking like it. Though quite a few others have made the suspects list, from Woodward’s assistant Martin Hinton to famed author Arthur Conan Doyle, the evidence is pointing to Dawson as being the fast-talking fame hound seeking recognition from the scientific elite.
This re-investigation will be the subject of a Geological Meeting this week, where all the test results will be presented and discussed. Dr. Miles Russell, a Bournemouth University archaeologist and author of The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed, will present evidence showing Dawson was behind at least 38 other false discoveries throughout his life, aiming for widespread recognition with each.
As much fun as hoaxes can be years down the line, it’s frustrating that this case, combined with others, allows people to think they can create elaborate schemes, so long as there doesn’t exist a way to test the claims. Thankfully, we live in a time where empirical evidence has handed the reins over to experimental evidence. Now if only we could figure out a way to prove whether these Morgan Freeman death notices are legit or not.