20. The Eventual Exposure of a Vindictive Hoax
The Piltdown discovery was a hoax. Not even a sophisticated one at that, but a basic and quite crude hoax that would have been easily exposed if anybody had bothered to closely examine it. Unfortunately, nobody did so at the time. Because of incompetence, ethno nationalism, and racism, the discovery was embraced and defended by much of Britain’s scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was finally debunked. That made it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. Throughout those long decades, few resources were directed at the study of human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered.
Despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-human fossils were unearthed there in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Still, the Piltdown myth 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, with the jaw and teeth of an orangutan, and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Chemical tests showed that the bones had been stained to make them look older, and that the ape teeth had been filed down to look more human-like. The perpetrator was a disgruntled museum employee who wanted to get back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, who had denied him a pay raise.