As It Happens

Century-old mystery of Piltdown Man hoax finally solved

In 1912, scientists declared they had found the missing link, bones of an early human ancestor that had ape-like features. It stood in the Natural History Museum in London for 40 years before scientists discovered the skull was fake. Now, finally, we know who created Piltdown Man.
A file photo from December 1953 when scientists discovered Piltdown man to be a fraud. (Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Scientists at the British Natural History Museum say they have finally solved the century-old mystery of who created Piltdown Man.

The skull, purported to be the missing link in evolution between apes and humans, was unveiled in 1912 at the London museum. The bones created quite a stir. They were also fake.

He created quite a grave scientific crime, even for the time-  Isabelle De Groote

Researchers now say the perpetrator was none other than the man who discovered the specimens in Piltdown, England, a lawyer and amateur paleontologist named Charles Dawson.

"It's an amazing mystery to be a part of," lead researcher Isabelle De Groote tells As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch.

Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. Back row (from left): F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A S Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Ray Lankester. Painting by John Cooke, 1915 (By John Cooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

"It's always intrigued scientists in our field with how was it done and how could someone have been fooled for so long by this forgery?"

It would be 41 years after Piltdown Man was unveiled before scientists discovered one of the biggest frauds in science history. Piltdown Man was actually a collection of human and orangutan bones, all less than a thousand years old. The remains had been treated with iron and acid to give the appearance of being much older.

Among those suspected of creating Piltdown Man: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (left), a Jesuit priest and amateur palaeontologist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited the Piltdown site several times, and Arthur Keith (right), a Scottish scientist. ( General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

The question of who was responsible for this forgery became one of the lasting questions for the museum. People under suspicion included a Jesuit priest, several paleontologists who worked on the excavations and even the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near the Piltdown site.

But now De Groote says her team is positive it was Dawson.

A portrait of Charles Dawson Date: 1913 (Source: Illustrated London News Ltd/Mar)

"The only person who was ever connected to the Piltdown 1 and Piltdown 2 (excavation) site was Charles Dawson," says De Groote.

"All the specimens are connected together. They come from the same animal, so for us it's the same forger. So the only one who could have really done it for us was the person who was there every time something was found."

To pull off the hoax, Dawson took pieces of human skull and orangutan jaw. To make sure the teeth appeared more human-like rather than ape-like, Dawson ground down the teeth, but ran into a problem when he tried to take the teeth out.

File photo from 1955: Jack Rogers, estate manager at Piltdown manor, Sussex, points to the monolithic tombstone of 'Piltdown Man'. (Peter Purdy/BIPs/Getty Images)

"Orangutan roots are very long, so he probably broke the teeth in doing so, so to obscure the fact that there were bits of root left in, he carved the jaw bone."

To complete the deception, he stuck the teeth back in the skull with dental putty.

"He must have listened very carefully to the discussions in conferences of the geological society about what this ancestor that we would have shared with apes and humans would have looked like. At the time, they thought it would have an ape-like jaw and a human like skull," says De Groote.

Dawson had written over 50 scientific articles, but was still seen as only an amateur. Letters to family and friends show he yearned for acceptance by the scientific community.

An image released by the Natural History Museum of the Piltdown skull. (The Associated Press)

"He created quite a grave scientific crime, even for the time," says De Groot.

De Groote hopes that Piltdown Man serves as a warning to her colleagues.

"Piltdown is a caution for scientists to not be guided by preconceived ideas. Test alternatives and explanations. I would like to think, now, scientists are true to finding the truth," says De Groote.