Antediluvial Britons, national pride and the Piltdown Man hoax

21 November 1953, the paleoanthropological hoax known as “Piltdown Man” was exposed by three British anthropologists.

“When Dr Trask, the anthropologist, stopped to classify the skulls, he found a degraded mixture which utterly baffled him. They were mostly lower than the Piltdown man in the scale of evolution, but in every case definitely human. Many were of higher grade, and a very few were the skulls of supremely and sensitively developed types.” (H.P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls”)

A painting by one John Cooke, dating back to 1915, with Dawson standing to right of the portrait of Charles Darwin in the background, showing the Piltdown skull examined after its “discovery” in 1912.

Charles Dawson was a busy man. For over 20 years, the amateur archaeologist and palaeontologist came across all kinds of wonders from the past in his native Sussex. The teeth of a wondrous being half reptile, half mammal. A Roman statuette made of cast iron. The Bexhill boat, the missing link between coracles and the vessels depicted on the Bayeux tapestry. A curiously advanced type of stone axe. A toad enclosed in flint. And since he dreamed of winning his spurs, getting a knighthood for his efforts, he conveniently found a spur, a somewhat deadly article allegedly from the early Middle Ages that would probably have rather killed the poor equine exposed to the sharp-pointed thing. And, of course, he once saw a sea serpent beating about off the coast of Sussex. But his greatest find, the one that made him world-famous, consisted of fragments of a skull and a jawbone of another missing link, that between ape and man and it was named eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man") or Piltdown Man after the place in East Sussex where these fragments had turned up from a gravel pit.

Charles Dawson and Smith-Woodward digging for more antediluvial Britons (Illustrated London News, 1913)

Admittedly the British were a bit behind in claiming an early humanoid of their own. The Germans famously had the Neanderthal since 1866, even the French had one and now, in 1912, the earliest Englishman was discovered, with two-thirds of the brain of a modern human, an ape-like jaw and, wonder of wonders, an early tool was found nearby, made of ancient elephant bone, that looked suspiciously like a cricket bat. Experts from the National History Museum in London determined the age of the fossil to be more than 200,000 years old, far older than the Neanderthal and Dawson’s find made headlines across the world. More than 500 publications speculating about the habits, life and times of the Piltdown Man were released over the next 40 years and the few critical voices that had voiced their disbelief about the genuineness of the fossil were simply overheard. And poor Dawson, who dug all over Sussex for the “big one”, the great archaeological discovery that would made him famous until he had found the “First Briton”, was never even knighted for his efforts. He died in 1916. Unfortunately, though, very few people get a knighthood for creative hoaxes anyway.

Contemporary reconstruction of eoanthropus dawsoni, the Piltdown Man

Methods of chemical and physical age determination made rapid progress during the 1940s and ‘50s and the fossil teeth of Piltdown Man were among the first tested with fluorine absorption dating and in 1949 it came out that the bone fragments could be impossibly more than a 1,000 years old. And then, in 1953 a trio of eggheads, the anatomists Le Gros Clark, Oakley and Weiner exposed Dawson’s wonderful hoax. The skull was human’s who had lived in the Middle Ages, the jaw had once belonged to an orangutan from Sarawak and the teeth were that of a chimpanzee, artificially aged and honed down to look more human. The ends of the jawbone that would have linked to the skull were conveniently broken off anyway. If Dawson had worked alone on his hoax or if a whole posse of fraudsters had helped him was never really established, but even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s name came up in the list of potential forgers. 50 years later, in 2003 however, at least 38 of Dawson’s discoveries had been identified as hoaxes and the Piltdown Man was certainly the climax of the work of a genius who had an unparalleled ability to bypass dull scientific routine and create one myth after the other to bestow on a thankful audience. Thus, the skull of the eoanthropus dawsoni certainly deserves a place of honour among the exhibits of the #wunderkammer .

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