Piltdown Man was a notorious hoax perpetrated early in 20th century Great Britain, in which a medieval human skull was combined with the lower jaw of an orangutan and subsequently "found" in a gravel pit in the near the village of Piltdown, England. Hailed as the "missing link" between man and ape-like species by promoters of evolution for decades, Piltdown man was exposed as a fraud only through later scientific testing and simple observation. The refusal of the discoverer to allow independent scrutiny of his claims enabled this fraud to persist for over forty years.
Critics of evolution believe that the Piltdown man was not an isolated incident of bad judgment by evolutionists and that the examples of the Nebraska Man, Java Man, Ocre Man, Neanderthals, and Flores Man can be cited. Rather than admit the defects in their methods that facilitate hoaxes, many evolutionists simply rewrote their alleged tree of ancestors without the Piltdown man in it (a clear case of evolutionist denial and not of science working as intended, since the fraud was easily detectable immediately if scientific methods had been used by evolutionists).
In February 1912 Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum received a letter from a Sussex lawyer named Charles Dawson about a discovery he had made while excavating a gravel pit. What Dawson had described were fragments of a skull cap belonging to an ancient human; the skull was found in 1908 in the Piltdown region; other fragments were recovered in 1911, along with animal bones. Excitement over the findings resulted in a more comprehensive excavation in June, 1912, allowing the recovery of more skull fragments, part of the mandible, additional animal bones and stone tools.
Shortly afterward, Piltdown Man was declared the most important fossil find in Europe. The New York Times declared it to be the true missing link; a headline from that paper would read “Darwin Theory Is Proved True.” A leading British scientific journal chimed in:
The fossil human skull and mandible to be described by Mr. Charles Dawson and Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward at the Geological Society as we go to press is the most important discovery of its kind hitherto made in England. The specimen was found in circumstances which seem to leave no doubt of its geological age, and the characters it shows are themselves sufficient to denote its extreme antiquity.
Its "extreme antiquity" was thought to have been between 400,000-500,000 years ago, based on the animal teeth found with the remains. The result of their deductions wasn't just scientific excitement; it was national pride. Germany had Heidelberg Man, the Dutch East Indies had Java Man; in the announcing of Piltdown Man, the British Isles could lay claim to the first Englishman. In gratitude to its discoverer, evolutionary scientists give it a formal name: Eoanthropus dawsoni - "Dawson's dawn man".
Doubts about the veracity of the Piltdown man remains began almost immediately. In contrast to the British, French and American scientists were more reserved, despite fragments of a second Piltdown man announced in 1917 which convinced many more of the fossil's authenticity. Dawson's death the previous year was an additional aid to Piltdown. But placing the fragments together in the shape of a skull created more problems than it solved. The upper portion was not just lacking the brow ridges they thought should be there, as in the Neanderthal; it was very-much modern human. The surviving portion of the mandible was missing its chin and the condyle - the portion of the jaw which directly attaches to the skull. It was further pointed out that the large size of the bone and two molars was too similar to that of an ape. Placing it with evolutionary lines was difficult, and as new discoveries were made in the next few decades, it became harder for evolutionary scientists to place Piltdown man anywhere on the family tree; most would just leave it out.
In 1922 evolutionist William King Gregory stated in a highly technical book that he published doubts, shared by colleagues, in 1914 about whether the jaw and teeth were associated with the braincase. Gregory stated in the article that someone at the British Museum had confided to him that "a negro skull and a broken ape jaw" had been "artificially fossilized" and "planted in the gravel bed to fool the scientists." At about the same time, Dr. Aleš Hrdlička wrote his own doubts about the authenticity of the find after handling it for the first time:
- "The first strong impression which the specimen conveys is that of normality, shapeliness and relative gracility of build rather than massiveness. When, after studying the specimen for a good part of two days, the observer took in hand the thick Piltdown skull, there was a strong feeling of incongruity and lack of relationship, and that feeling only grew on further study. As a rule there exists a marked correlation between the massivity of the skull–particularly if as in this case the upper facial parts were involved in the same–and the lower jaw. A finely chiselled mandible of medium or sub-medium strength belongs as a rule to a skull that is characterized in the same way, and vice versa.. To connect the shapely, wholly normal Piltdown jaw with the gross, heavy Piltdown skull into the same individual seems very difficult. After prolonged handling of both the jaw and the skull there remained in the writer a strong impression that the two may not belong together, or if they do the case is totally exceptional."
However, a book published and aimed at the popular market was depicting elaborate speculation about the daily life of Piltdown Man, giving him the tools that were found in the gravel bed. Yet despite the early criticism, Piltdown Man continued to be taught children in school, such as in the textbook A Civic Biology, at issue in the Scopes trial of 1927. Dr. Woodward for his part believed in its authenticity so strongly that when he retired he purchased a home near the gravel pit and spent the remainder of his summers excavating.
Finding of fraud
The date first assigned to the bones was never based on the bones at all, but rather were based on testing of older material found nearby. This is partially due to the fact that modern dating techniques, like the Fluorine Absorption test, were not yet invented (and indeed, when they were, proved essential to Piltdown man's downfall). Like similar artifacts purporting to prove evolution today, there was no independent or public scrutiny of the actual materials.
The fluorine method was first carried out in 1949 by Dr. Kenneth Oakley of the British Museum, which initially showed the fossils to have been much younger than fauna remains found in the same area. The results drew the attention of colleague Professor Joseph S. Weiner, who, along with Oakley and Dr. Wilfrid E. Le Gros Clark, decided upon an exhaustive examination of the bones. An improved fluorine test was done, as well as testing for nitrogen and uranium content. As controls, they used a proboscidean molar also found at the site and fresh bone from a recently slaughtered cow.
|The fluorine experiment results on Piltdown Man, 1953|
The results had shown the Piltdown bones were not only considerably younger geologically than the Lower and Middle Pleistocene fossils said to have been found at the same site, but in fact they were less than 500 years old. The cranium came from a man who died in the Medieval period, while the jaw fragment came from an orangutan (Pongo abelii) less than 200 years old; this ape was determined to have died at the age of ten. These tests had also revealed that the remains had been artificially stained to make them appear old, and the molars had been filed down to resemble human teeth. To add further doubt to Piltdown's authenticity, the proboscidean molar turned out to have come from an extinct species of elephant (Archidiskodon africanavus) whose uranium content linked it to a site in Tunisia. Although not fully proven to this day, Dawson has been implicated as the creator of Piltdown man.
A claim that upwards of five hundred doctoral theses had been written about Piltdown man has filtered down through the years since; the actual number is two, and both were written long after the hoax was revealed in 1953.
- "Evolution Fraud", Northwest Creation Network
- Nature, December 19, 1912, pg. 438; article “Paleolithic Man”
- The Origin and Evolution of the Human Dentition, William King Gregory, 1922, p. 351.
- Everyday Life in the Old Stone Age, Charles Henry Bourne Quennell, 1922, p. 51.
- Feder, Kenneth R. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries; New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008 (pg. 91)
- Annotated Biblography of the Piltdown Man Forgery