“Britain’s Greatest Hoax”—that was the title of the Timewatch investigation of the Piltdown Man fraud, shown on BBC2 television recently.1 Viewers were presented with a great British “whodunnit” that tried to identify those who made monkeys out of the scientists of the day.
The history of the discovery of the earliest Englishman (as Piltdown Man was so often called) is fairly common knowledge. A laborer was supposedly digging in a gravel pit near the village of Piltdown in Sussex in southern England when he found a piece of bone. He passed it to the local amateur archaeologist of the district, Charles Dawson, who verified its antiquity and pronounced that it was part of a skull which was possibly human. Dawson began to search for the rest of the skull and, in 1912, a jawbone was discovered. Sir Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum verified that the skull had human features and the jaw was ape-like. The fossils became known as Piltdown Man and were called Eoanthropus dawsoni which means “Dawson’s Dawn Man”. In 1915, another Dawn Man was found a couple of miles away from the site of the first find. Fossil remains of animals that lived with Piltdown Man, together with the tools that he used, were also found at the two sites. At last, here was “proof” that apes had evolved into humans in England.
Almost forty years later, in 1953, Piltdown Man was exposed as a forgery, mainly through the work of Dr Kenneth Oakley. He showed that the skull was from a modern human and that the jawbone and teeth were from an orangutan. The teeth had been filed down to make them look human. The bones and teeth had been chemically treated (and sometimes even painted) to give them the appearance of being ancient. In addition, it was also shown that none of the finds associated with Piltdown Man had been originally buried in the gravel that had been deposited at Piltdown. The Piltdown Man fraud was a great embarrassment to the UK scientific community and questions about it were even asked in the House of Parliament.
At the time that the discovery of Piltdown Man was announced, it was believed that the remains of the Neanderthals that had been found in Germany were ape-men and it was believed that the cave paintings that had been found in France had been painted by ape-men. The British evolutionists, however, had other ideas. They believed that apes had evolved into humans in the UK—preferably in England. Piltdown Man was “proof” that the first ape-man lived in the garden of England! The desire to find the earliest Englishman had blinded the scientists of the day, so they uncritically accepted Piltdown Man as being genuine. No scientist is a seeker after truth in some sort of idealized neutral fashion—in this case, they interpreted their finds within their (evolutionary) world view, fashioned by parochial prejudice.
So, who perpetrated this deception? Many names have been put forward, and because all those involved in the discovery of Piltdown Man are now dead, it is virtually impossible to say with certainty who was actually responsible for this elaborate hoax.
Some have suggested Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He lived seven miles from Piltdown and would have had opportunity to place the bones and artifacts at the sites where Piltdown Man remains were found. It could be argued that he left clues in his book “The Lost World” where one of his characters argues that a bone can be as easily faked as a photograph. However, Conan Doyle seems to have been a very honest man and it would have been completely out of character for him to have been involved in such a hoax.
Others have suggested Sir Arthur Smith Woodward. He was without doubt Piltdown Man’s greatest advocate. Had he carried out some basic scientific tests and a more detailed examination of the finds, he would have realized that he was dealing with a hoax. He retired from the British Museum in 1924 and spent the next 20 years, until his death in 1944, digging at the Piltdown Man site in Piltdown searching for more finds. He did not find any. Surely if he was the perpetrator of this hoax, he would not have wasted the last 20 years of his life in what he would have known to be a futile search.
It would appear that the best candidate for being the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man fraud is none other than Charles Dawson. He was always vague about the events surrounding the initial discovery and after he died in 1916, it was realized that all the historical artifacts that he had supposedly found and that were on display in Hastings Museum were forgeries. However, it appears that Martin Hinton of the British Museum suspected that Piltdown Man was a hoax. Hinton, himself, was one who enjoyed playing hoaxes and jokes on others. In 1915, Dawson and Woodward found a curious bone implement under a hedge at Piltdown. This implement had all the hallmarks of a Hinton joke for it looked like a cricket bat—presumably the first Englishman loved his game of cricket! It is quite likely that Hinton fashioned this implement and placed it at the site in the hope that it would be found and that as a result, Dawson would know that someone knew that Piltdown Man was a forgery. Unfortunately, this plan backfired and a description of this implement was written up and published!
The exposure of Piltdown Man as a fraud is not unique. The famous “peppered moth” scenario is another example of something that was expected within the evolutionary world view and yet has been exposed as being false. The Archaeoraptor has been shown to be a fake—two completely different fossils glued together—and there have been others, as we have shown over the years.2
Evolutionists often express irritation when Piltdown Man and other fakes are raised by their opponents. A common attempt to put a “positive spin” on the whole affair is to portray it as a “plus” for science, demonstrating its allegedly “self-correcting nature”. After all, we are told, it was evolutionary scientists themselves who discovered the fraud. However, the issue is not the hoax as such; the scandal of Piltdown is that such an amateurish, clumsy and obvious fraud (even showing filemarks on the teeth) went undetected for over 40 years. Generations were indoctrinated into the “fact of evolution” via Piltdown gracing countless textbooks and encyclopedias.
It is also no surprise that the hoax was not uncovered until after other “plausible candidates” for man’s evolutionary ancestry were on the horizon.
Many scientists, including people writing doctoral theses, had access to the bones, and they were laboriously studied. No-one saw the hoax at the time, but afterwards, it all seemed obvious; things like the file marks suddenly sprang into view. It was clear that even highly qualified scientists had simply seen what they were looking for and ignored that which did not fit their preconception. It is also no surprise that the hoax was not uncovered until after other “plausible candidates” for man’s evolutionary ancestry were on the horizon.
The same phenomenon still happens today, even where no hoax is involved; the top-ranking candidate for the “ancestor prize” in the sorry saga of “human evolution” is never publicly dethroned until some other is available to catch the public imagination. No-one in the field any longer believes that Ramapithecus was our ancestor, or Leakey’s “Nutcracker Man”, for instance. But the abandonment of each only took place after other “ancestor candidates” could be seen to fill the vacuum in the evolutionary psyche. The famous “Lucy” and her ilk should really have no more credibility as human ancestors, given all the evidence that has accumulated since their first discovery. But one can be sure that until there is a whole new class of possibilities, they will not be allowed to go quietly off the evolutionary stage.
The Piltdown story is a great tool for the Christian in witnessing; not to try to denigrate evolutionists as foolish (Christians get taken in by all manner of hoaxes, too), but to use as a great illustration of what AiG has long taught, namely that facts have to be interpreted. The worldview “glasses” one is wearing will to a large extent determine what one “sees”. Exposing the myth that evolutionary scientists are any more objective than others can help to break down the evolutionary/long-age barriers when seeking to introduce people to the God of the Bible. Through His Word, God has given us a truthful outline of the big picture of history—and thus, the right worldview through which to interpret the facts about the past.