5. Turns Out It Was a Disgruntled Worker
Humanity’s shared African origins challenged the era’s racist theories, but Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative. Also, a “missing link” discovered in England 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. Ergo, the assumptions that Europeans were a distinct and superior branch of the human tree could continue unchallenged. In reality, it was all a crude hoax, pulled off by a disgruntled employee getting back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, for denying him a raise. However, because of a combination of ineptness, ethno-nationalism, and racism, it was strongly 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.
It was also one of history’s most damaging hoaxes. During those decades, few resources were directed at studying human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered. Despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-humans were discovered in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Nonetheless, the hoax had its powerful defenders, and it was not until 1953-1954 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 that the ape teeth had been filed down to make them look more human-like.