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Piltdown ManOne of the most famous ( or infamous) frauds in the history of science is known as the Piltdown Man, remains of a supposed primitive hominid found in 1912 by an amateur paleontologist named Charles Dawson and a professional paleontologist named Arthur Smith Woodward. In fact, two sets of these remains were discovered between the years 1912 and 1917. The first of these two was found in the Piltdown gravel pit in sussex, England. While digging in the pit, the paleontologists found a human-like skull with a jawbone similar to that of an ape. This finding appeared to be the remains of a missing link, the connecting evolutionary step between apes and humans. The discoverers named the remains Eoanthropus dawsoni, or “Dawson’s Dawn Man,” but it was later commomly known as the Piltdown Man due to the location of its finding. The Piltdown Man was an immediate sensation. he seemed to fit all of the criteria expected in the missing link-a mixture of human and ape with the noble brow of Homo sapiens and a primitive jaw. Best of all, he was British!

The reaction to the findings was mixed. On the whole, British paleontologists were enthusiatic. However, French and American paleontologist tended to be skeptical of the oricins of the Piltdown Man, some objecting to its credibility quite vociferously. The objectors held that the jawbone and the skull were obviously from two different animals and that their discovery together was simply an accident of placement.

At first, fraud wasn’t suspected. The fossils were, after all, cleverly done, and no money was involved. In addition, there were other European finds related to the missing links of modern day man, such as the Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon Man , and Heidelberg Man. So,having found another “missing link” in the history of modern man’s evolution was not so surprising to some researchers.

piltdown man 1However, some investigators were doubtful of the origins of the Piltdown Man since some initial evidence led to the idea that the jaw could be from a chimpanzee. In addition, the researchers expressed strong doubt that the skull and the jaw were from the same species. The perpetrators of the hoax solved this problem by planting a second jaw and a second skull at another nearby location. Therefore, the report in 1917 of the discovery of “Piltdown man 2″ converted many of the skeptics. The reasoning was that one accident of placement was plausible, but two were not. So after this second finding, some of the doubters were satisfied. Moreover, a few prominent British scientists failed to perform tests that they should have done, and obstructed other scientists’ access to the fossils. Some historians believe the the discoverers of the Piltdown Man and these scientists may have been co-conspirators in th hoax.

The fame of the Piltdown Man continued for forty years. It was featured in professional articles and books, in newspaper reports, and even in high school biology text-books. In the four decades from 1910 to 1950, there was, of course , some opposition from scientific critics who claimed that the skull was human but the jaw was that of an ape.

piltdown-man2Durning the 1950s, the validity of the Piltdown Man discovery was questioned further. Researchers claimed that almost all, if not all, of the fossils had been planted in the pit in modern times and that several of these items had even been fabricated by someone. These scientific detectives, among them Joseph Weiner and Kenneth Oakley, disproved the validity of the Piltdown Man with technical evidence showing that the skull belonged to an English lady and the jaw to an Asian oranqutan. Chemical tests in 1953 further proved that, in fact, everything was fake! The found pieces had been stained, filed, smashed, and so on, in a fairly clever way thus leading people to initially believe that the Piltdown Man was real.

But the question still remains: Who did it? More than a dozen suspects have been named; the only one famous enough to be recognized by most readers is Arthur Conan Doyle. But as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Piltdown Man, there is still no certainty of just who created the greatest hoax in the history of science.

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