The Piltdown Man: That Time A Fraudster Started A Half-Century Lie
In 1953, scientists at the British Natural History Museum and the University of Oxford revealed that the skull was a clever fraud. A man, Charles Dawson, presented the discovery in 1912, claiming it was the missing link between man and apes.
That it was fake, they were sure, and that Dawson perpetrated the fraud they were also sure, but did he act alone?
The fact that Dawson was able to fool the scientific community for over 40 years is both sad and impressive, but he failed to consider the advancement of forensic sciences.
Recently, scientists figured out who helped him perpetrate this fraud. It’s an unbelievable story, a cautionary tale of sorts.
In case you read that quickly, we’re not talking about the famed scientist Charles Darwin, the man who introduced the world to natural selection. It was Darwin who suggested we evolved from primates. Dawson wanted to provide the evidence, no matter what.
Dawson didn’t mind the confusion with the famous scientist. It lent a weird credibility to his name, a sound-alike confusion leveraged in marketing circles. They were not the same or even similar.
Charles Dawson was a fraud, a lawyer by trade who took an interest in science. In fact, he was a fraud more than once.
When he presented the skull, he’d already had a reputation as a fossil hunter. Years later, many of his finds would turn out to be fakes, lies which laid the groundwork for the big one he would soon sell the world.
The man was desperate, as he put it in a letter, “to find the big one” that would put him on the map. It’s as if he were admitting the lie beforehand.
Dawson was an amateur, respected in that regard, but not respected as an archeologist. What he sought was a fellowship in the Royal Society Open Science Journal. The Piltdown discovery was his ticket, earning him the nomination.
The sad farce of Dawson’s life was that he lived with the lie until his death in 1916, unaware or uncaring that history would record him as a fraud. Also, he would never know the damage he caused the world in the wake of his lie.
The Piltdown Skull
Dawson sent a letter to his friend, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, the head of geology at the British Museum. He’d found a skull near his town of Piltdown. How convenient that it was all so close to modern civilization.
The actual skull was a mixture of altered human skull bones, mixed with Orangutan jaw fragments.
Dawson may not have been a fellow yet or a legit scientist, but he knew enough about how and where to plant evidence for discovery. Years later we would learn he once asked in a letter about how to age a bone to make it seem fossilized.
We suspect he bought the skull at a shop, then altered, possibly with help. Someone had sanded down parts of the skull to make it fit, even aged it to look old. The teeth he stuffed with rocks to make them heavier then covered with putty, something undetectable to scientists at the turn of the century.
Whether Dawson or an accomplice did that, the forger knew that fossilized bones would weight more than fresh bones. The forgery continued until Dawson’s death, with “discoveries” made to support new lies as questions amongst real scientist pushed him to expand the lie.
By the 50s we had enough forensic evidence to call the fraud, but we still didn’t know if Dawson had acted alone. The scheme was elaborate, but with recent advances, we tried to dig deeper into this case.
Using DNA sequencing, researchers attempted to solve the whodunit. They were able to identify that the Orangutan parts all came from a single specimen and that the human skull parts were from as many as three different humans.
Sadly, there was nothing in this research that could reveal more about the hoax or possible accomplices. To the best of our knowledge, Charles Dawson acted alone in this farce.
The best proof we have is that no discoveries were ever made without his presence. If he colluded with someone to manufacture the parts, that accomplice took those secrets to his grave as well.
One man, a secret can keep, but two or more always threatens a leak. This much we know about human behavior.
The irony of the Piltdown man is that creationists later used this case to argue against evolution, something that even Dawson couldn’t have imagined.
Fraud in science is disastrous, undermining public confidence in the people we should trust to guide us. The Piltdown case remains as much a lesson to modern scientists about accepting presented facts as it remains a case for not trusting scientists.
Oh yes, history remembers you, Charles Dawson, but for your infamy, not your accomplishments. We see you for the heinous liar you were.