Piltdown Pals

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on February 11, 2012
Featured in News to Know

The Wizard of Sussex and his Piltdown pals: Whodunit?

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The BBC has called Piltdown man “Britain’s Greatest Hoax.”1 Hailed in 1912 as “the first Englishman,” Piltdown man’s large cranial capacity coupled with its primitive jaw was thought by the scientific community to assure Britain’s place in the hall of human evolutionary ancestry. After all, Piltdown man supposedly proved an apelike ancestor made the leap to human-ness in England. After having produced Darwin, the UK was falling a little behind in those pre-Great War years, what with the first Neanderthal being from Germany and the first Cro-Magnon being from France. But alas, as archaeologist Miles Russell puts it, “The earliest Englishman was nothing more than a cheap fraud.” Though a crude fraud, it took 40 years to find out. And the identity of the perpetrators remains a mystery.

The Piltdown skull, supposedly discovered by Charles Dawson in a gravel pit, was eventually followed by related discoveries including an elephant bone carved to look like a cricket bat. Now the precocious Piltdown man was proven to use tools! Charles Dawson—known as the wizard of Sussex because of his remarkably good luck finding great fossils—died in 1916, and no more Piltdown pieces were found despite the ongoing search. Nevertheless, Dawson’s fame was assured, and he appears in a famous painting with a picture of Darwin behind him. “The way the painting is structured suggests Darwin is passing on his mantle to Dawson,” says Russell.

What no one had remarked for forty years was now plain for everyone to see, and Piltdown moved from the evolutionary hall of fame to the hall of shame.

The Piltdown fraud was finally uncovered by geologist Kenneth Oakley, anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, and anthropologist Joseph Weiner in 1953. They found the impressive cranium belonged to a modern human and the jawbone belonged to an orangutan or a chimpanzee. All were stained to look old and to match. The teeth had been filed down. What no one had remarked for forty years was now plain for everyone to see, and Piltdown moved from the evolutionary hall of fame to the hall of shame.

Now a team of British researchers is determined to get to the bottom of the hoax and figure out who pulled the Piltdown wool over Britain’s eyes. They plan to use all available technology to solve this forensic mystery. “The trouble is that after 100 years we still do not know the identities or motives of those responsible,” says Southampton University geochemist Justin Dix. Dix will be assaying the chemical composition of the forgeries and related items, such as dyes from a bag of stained mammal bones belonging to one of the suspects.

Charles Dawson was almost certainly involved. Russell says he was a forger and produced at least 38 other “dodgy finds” before Piltdown, making Piltdown “the culmination of a life’s work.” But at least 30 other names have been suggested as possible co-conspirators. Dawson reported his find to Arthur Smith Woodward of the Natural History Museum, and Smith Woodward brought the skull before the Geological Society. The Geological Society accepted the skull as genuine with one dissenting voice. No tests were performed at the time, and Piltdown man became enshrined as Britain’s paleontological claim to fame until two world wars had passed. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been suggested as a possible perpetrator because he played golf in the area and had recently completed his novel The Lost World. In the book, a character comments, “If you are clever and know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph.” Some suspect the elephant bone-bat was intended as either a joke or a subtle warning that Piltdown was a prank, but it was treated as legitimate.

It will certainly be interesting to see what modern forensics turns up. There’s nothing quite like a good mystery. Yet we would all do well to take a couple of lessons from Piltdown.

First of all, Piltdown man represented what the scientific community wanted to see, and they saw it. And except for the pranksters, the scientists who accepted Piltdown’s authenticity did so in good faith. They were not being evil or deceptive or underhanded. They were just being human. All scientists are human and subject to the same frailties and faults as the rest of the human population. They interpreted the facts before them in accordance with their evolutionary expectations and their worldview. Likewise, all scientific findings are interpreted through the worldview of the scientist.

Secondly, even now, as many scientists look back at Piltdown, they see even the fraud through an evolutionary worldview. The Natural History Museum’s Professor Chris Stringer, who will lead the forensic team, says that other human ancestors found in the early twentieth century “had small skulls but relatively humanlike teeth – the opposite of Piltdown. But many British scientists did not take them seriously because of Piltdown. They dismissed these discoveries which we now know are genuine and important. It really damaged British science.” Thus, evolutionary scientists continue to interpret the facts through their worldview.

What we see here is a marvelous opportunity not to gloat—for all of us are fallible and fool-able—but to point out to others that the interpretation placed on scientific findings always depends on the “lens” through which those facts are viewed. Because evolutionary scientists were so convinced “Piltdown man” proved what they wanted to see, they did not subject it to reasonable scrutiny for four decades. Even then, it was only the fossil’s failure to fit with newer evolutionary dogma—that teeth and tools supposedly evolved improvements before brains—that prompted a closer look. Furthermore, Piltdown’s defrocking does not substantiate those newer views of human evolution, which represent another set of fallacious interpretations superimposed on silent fossils. Piltdown man is not the first supposed human ancestor to fall, but like all the others—like “Nutcracker man” and “Lucy”—was replaced by new candidates. We view the facts of science not through a set of evolutionary presuppositions but through the eyewitness account contained in the Word of God. The authentic account of our origins provided by the Creator Himself provides the only accurate way to interpret facts related to our origin.

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  1. “Britain’s Greatest Hoax,” Timewatch, BBC 2, November 21, 2003, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p032kj2p.


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