Piltdown: The Man that Never Was

Hinton (left) and Dawson (right) at the Piltdown site.

For forty years they were considered one of the archaeological finds of the century: A fragment of jaw and a part of a skull that could prove man evolved from the apes. They were the bones of Eoanthropus dawsoni found near Piltdown Common in Sussex. The bones of the "Missing Link."


Since 1953 the name "Piltdown" hasn't been associated with great scientific discovery, but great scientific fraud. It was in that year that a group of scientists, lead by Kenneth Page Oakley, attempted to use the new method of fluorine testing to get a more exact date on the bones. What the test showed surprised them: The jaw was modern and the skull only six hundred years old.

Additional analysis soon confirmed the fluorine tests. The jaw was really that of an orangutan. It had been filed down and parts that might have suggested it's simian origin were broken off. Both pieces had been treated to suggest great age.

Fooling the Experts

Piltdown was proclaimed genuine by several of the most brilliant British scientists of the day: Arthur Smith Woodward, Arthur Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith. How did these faked fragments of bone fool the best scientific minds of the time? Perhaps the desire to be part of a great discovery blinded those charged with authenticating it. Many English scientists felt left out by discoveries on the continent. Neanderthal had been found in Germany in 1856, and Cro-Magnon in France in 1868. Perhaps national pride had kept the researchers from noticing the scratch marks made by the filing of the jaw and teeth. Items that were apparent later on to investigators after Oakley exposed the hoax.

An artist's interpretation from 1913 of the Piltdown man.

Even as early as 1914, though, there were those that doubted the fossils. William King Gregory wrote, "It has been suspected by some that geologically [the specimens] are not old at all; that they may even represent a deliberate hoax..."

Possible Culprits

Who perpetrated the hoax? Many historians lay their bets on Charles Dawson, the amateur geologist that supposedly discovered the bones in a gravel pit. Others, though, lay the blame at the feet of people as diverse as a young Jesuit priest, named Teilhard de Chardin, who assisted in the dig, to the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived in the area.

Dawson was an English solicitor who sought and collected fossils. Even before the find in Piltdown he was known as the "Wizard of Sussex" because of his many different and unusual finds. These included a prehistoric reptile, a mammal and a plant. Each boar a scientific name with dawsoni in it. Piltdown was his fourth: Eoanthropus dawsoni, "Dawson's Dawn Man," in Latin. If Dawson had lived longer this final discovery might have earned him a Knighthood. If the hoaxer was Dawson it looks like pride might have been his motive.

Probably the most telling evidence against Dawson is that, though he did not personally find all the Piltdown specimens, he appears to be the only figure around when each of the artifacts were discovered. Also, after his death in 1916, no more objects related to Piltdown were ever found despite the work of Arthur Woodward, a geologist at the British Museum, who continued to search Piltdown for fossils for many years after Dawson passed away.

There is some evidence that Martin A. C. Hinton, later the keeper of the zoology collection at the British Museum, may have prepared and planted the bones. In 1975 a steamer trunk, containing a set of bones stained the same way the piltdown fragments were, was found in the loft at the museum. The trunk is believed to have been owned by Hinton, and bears his initials. Two paleontologists at the museum, Brain Gardiner and Andrew Currant suggest that Hinton came up with the hoax to embarrass Woodward, who had refused Hinton a salaried job with the Museum. If this is true, then the hoax probably went alot further that Hinton had expected.

Dawson also, according to a friend, Samuel Woodhead, had an interest in stained bones and had "asked my father how one would treat bones to make them look older than they were..." The Piltdown bones had been stained with potassium bichromate.

We may never know for sure who perpetrated Piltdown. Dawson? Hinton? Or did they work together? There was never any confession and Dawson, as well as Hinton, are long gone now.

More from Richard Hartner's Piltdown Man Site.

Copyright Lee Krystek 1996. All rights Reserved.