A Disgruntled Employee Pulled Off One of Science’s Greatest Hoaxes
One of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated upon the world of science began in 1912, when an amateur English archaeologist, Charles Dawson, announced the discovery of human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. Dawson had unearthed fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other parts, in a Pleistocene layer. Britain’s premier paleontologist declared the fossils were evidence of an unknown proto-human species. They were judged the “missing link”, buttressing Darwin’s then-still controversial theory that man had descended from apes.
Additional excavations were made nearby in 1913 and 1914, during which stone tools were discovered. Two miles away, teeth and additional skull fragments were unearthed. So were animal remains, and a mysterious carved bone resembling a cricket bat. Excitement mounted with each new find, and the fossils were accepted uncritically by many leading British scientists.
At the time, there was a growing, and as it ultimately turned out, correct, scientific belief that human evolution from ape to man had occurred in Africa. It was there that fossils of homo erectus, an early hominid, had been discovered. That however meant that the cradle of mankind was in Africa and that all humans were of African origin. The notion that they were ultimately African was too jarring for many Europeans, including many in the British scientific community.
Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative, and thus a convenient out, from the challenge posed to the racist theories of the day by humanity’s African origins. Moreover, if the “missing link” discovered in the English countryside was accurate, it would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. It would also buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins. Thus, the prevailing racist assumptions that Europeans were a distinct, and superior, branch of the human tree, could continue unchallenged. All the preceding produced confirmation bias on the part of British scientists, which led them to interpret the “evidence” in the light most favorable to their preexisting prejudices.
As it happened, the Piltdown discovery was a hoax, but because of incompetence, ethno nationalism, and racism, the discovery was embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was finally debunked, making it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. During those decades, few resources were directed at studying human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered.
Nonetheless, and despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-human fossils were unearthed in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Still, the hoax had its powerful defenders, and it was not until 1953 that the fossils were subjected to rigorous scientific reexamination. They turned out to be fragments of a modern human skull, only 600 years old, the jaw and teeth of an orangutan, and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Chemical testing showed that the bones had been stained to make them look older, and the ape teeth had been filed down to look more human-like. As to the perpetrator, it turned out to be a disgruntled museum employee getting back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, who had denied him a pay raise.