Charles Dawson was the resourceful amateur archaeologist responsible for the discovery of legendary ‘Piltdown Man’. This tale proves that not all swindles and scams are perpetrated in the interest of cash, and that fame, notoriety or professional credibility can be equally powerful motivators.
Charles Dawson as a lawyer and an enthusiastic member of the amateur archaeological pack in England at the turn of the 20th century. On December 18, 1912, he presented a finding to the Royal Geological Society of London that would turn the academic world upside down. In a gravel pit in southeast England, Dawson unearthed fragments of a cranium and jawbone, which he claimed represented a previously unknown species of extinct hominoid, Eoanthropus dawsoni.
The artefacts were duly presented to the palaeontology department of the British Museum, and after exhaustive testing and examination, Eoanthropus was accordingly accepted as providing that elusive bridge between man and ape, known then as the ‘Missing Link.’ The archaeological establishment fell into line, and Piltdown man entered the scientific record as precisely what its discover claimed it to be.
Over the next couple of years Dawson discovered numerous other tools and artefacts that he claimed were part of the same complex, all recognized and accepted by the establishment. As long as Piltdown man was acknowledged, parallel discoveries in Africa, centering around Homo Erectus, could not gain academic traction. The Piltdown theory, however, remained sacrosanct until, in 1926, a study of the gravel pits themselves revealed geology much less ancient than previously thought. Ongoing archaeological research was finding more ancient hominoids, and soon Piltdown man was sufficiently isolated in the archaeological record that a more detailed investigation of the relics began.
In the end, Piltdown man proved to have the jawbone and teeth of an Orangutan and a chimpanzee, all touched up and aged with an iron sulphate acid solution. The teeth too had been modified to mimic the human mode of flat wear. Charles Dawson, fortunately, was long dead by then, and he escaped the professional and personal ridicule that would certainly have followed. The only question that remained was who forged the relics. This remained a mystery for very long time, with numerous possible culprits cited. In 2009, however, scientists at John Moores University in Liverpool began to investigate. DNA sequencing not only confirmed the teeth and jaw as orangutan, but also the same orangutan.
While it was always believed that someone other than Charles Dawson produced the artwork, in the end, the weight of evidence points to him. He made no money out of it, but for the remainder of his life he enjoyed and confidence and society of the greatest archaeologists in Britain, and that was what it was about for him.