Nov 212016
 

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On this date in  1953  The Natural History Museum in London announced that the “Piltdown Man” skull, initially believed to be one of the most important fossilized hominid skulls ever found, was a hoax. In 1912 amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed he had discovered the “missing link” between ape and human. After finding a section of a human-like skull in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown, East Sussex, Dawson contacted Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum. Dawson and Smith Woodward made further discoveries at the site which they connected to the same individual, including a jawbone, more skull fragments, a set of teeth and primitive tools.

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Smith Woodward reconstructed the skull fragments and hypothesized that they belonged to a human ancestor from 500,000 years ago. The discovery was announced at a Geological Society meeting and was given the Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni (“Dawson’s dawn-man”). The questionable significance of the assemblage remained the subject of considerable controversy until it was conclusively exposed in 1953 as a forgery. It was found to have consisted of the altered mandible and some teeth of an orangutan deliberately combined with the cranium of a fully developed, though small-brained, modern human (from the Middle Ages).

The Piltdown hoax is prominent for two reasons: the attention it generated around the subject of human evolution in general, and the length of time, 45 years, that elapsed from its alleged initial discovery to its definitive exposure as a composite forgery.

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At a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 18 December 1912, Charles Dawson claimed that a workman at the Piltdown gravel pit had given him a fragment of the skull four years earlier. According to Dawson, workmen at the site discovered the skull shortly before his visit and broke it up in the belief that it was a fossilized coconut. Revisiting the site on several occasions, Dawson found further fragments of the skull and took them to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. Greatly interested by the finds, Woodward accompanied Dawson to the site. Though the two worked together between June and September 1912, Dawson alone recovered more skull fragments and half of the lower jaw bone. The skull unearthed in 1908 was the only find discovered in situ, with most of the other pieces found in the gravel pits’ spoil heaps.

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At the same meeting, Woodward announced that a reconstruction of the fragments indicated that the skull was in many ways similar to that of a modern human, except for the occiput (the part of the skull that sits on the spinal column) and for brain size, which was about two-thirds that of a modern human. He went on to indicate that save for the presence of two human-like molar teeth, the jaw bone found would be indistinguishable from that of a modern, young chimpanzee. From the British Museum’s reconstruction of the skull, Woodward proposed that Piltdown Man represented an evolutionary “missing link” between apes and humans, since the combination of a human-like cranium with an ape-like jaw tended to support the notion then prevailing in England that human evolution began with the brain.

Almost from the outset, Woodward’s reconstruction of the Piltdown fragments was strongly challenged by some researchers. At the Royal College of Surgeons, copies of the same fragments used by the British Museum in their reconstruction were used to produce an entirely different model, one that in brain size and other features resembled a modern human. This reconstruction, by Prof. (later Sir) Arthur Keith, was called Homo piltdownensis in reflection of its more human appearance. The find was also considered legitimate by Otto Schoetensack who had discovered the Heidelberg fossils just a few years earlier. He described it as being the best evidence for an ape-like ancestor of modern humans. French Jesuit paleontologist and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin participated in the uncovering of the Piltdown skull with Woodward.

Woodward’s reconstruction included ape-like canine teeth, which was itself controversial. In August 1913, Woodward, Dawson and Teilhard de Chardin began a systematic search of the spoil heaps specifically to find the missing canines. Teilhard de Chardin soon found a canine that, according to Woodward, fitted the jaw perfectly. A few days later Teilhard de Chardin moved to France and took no further part in the discoveries. Noting that the tooth “corresponds exactly with that of an ape,” Woodward expected the find to end any dispute over his reconstruction of the skull. However, Keith attacked the find. Keith pointed out that human molars are the result of side to side movement when chewing. The canine in the Piltdown jaw was impossible as it prevented side to side movement. To explain the wear on the molar teeth, the canine could not have been any h