It’s a detective story with a century-old crime: The forgery of a supposed “missing link” in human evolution that went undetected for decades.
Now, researchers are set on identifying the long-dead culprits responsible for the famous Piltdown Man hoax — involving forged bones said to belong to an early human — and teasing out their motives.
Writing in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, explains why he and his colleagues are still investigating a mystery that began 100 years ago.
“Personally, I am intrigued by the question of whether the hoax was driven by scientific ambition or by more jocular or vindictive motives,” Stringer wrote. He and his colleagues plan to test the forged bones from the Piltdown case with modern methods, aiming to find out who most likely made them and why.
Piltdown Man is the world’s greatest fossil hoax. Anti-science critics enjoy using it as an example of how science goes wrong. But all human endeavors are prone to error and human foibles. This was no different. Who was behing it all and why? We may never know but the story is fascinating and reflects the cognitive dissonance of the era. There has been so much written about this topic. I learned about it from Stephen Jay Gould. But here are some links for you.
Piltdown Man The Bogus Bones Caper from Talk Origins (comprehensive!)
Piltdown Hoax – the Skeptic’s Dictionary
Piltdown: The man that never was Museum of Unnatural Mystery
The Piltdown Man, 1912 Museum of Hoaxes
For over three decades the Piltdown skull was accepted by the scientific community as an authentic artifact. But as more skeletons of early man were found, it became clear that the Piltdown Man was radically unlike anything else in the fossil record. Therefore in 1953 a team of researchers at the British Museum (Kenneth Oakley, Wilfred Le Gros Clark, and Joseph Weiner) subjected the skull and jawbone to a rigorous series of tests. What they found was shocking. The skull was a fake.
Using a fluorine-based test to date the skull, the researchers determined that the upper skull was approximately 50,000 years old. The jawbone, however, was only a few decades old. A second test, using nitrogen analysis, confirmed the first test. They also found that the jaw had been artificially stained with potassium dichromate to make it appear older. The British Museum researchers argued that someone must have taken the jawbone and teeth of a modern ape, probably an orangutan, and stained them in order to make them look ancient. These artifacts, the jaw and skull fragments, must then have been planted at the Piltdown site.