The Piltdown Hoax at 100

December 18, 2012 • 12:16 pm

by Greg Mayer

The Geological Society (London) is having a special meeting today to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Piltdown  hoax. There will also be a tour of a new special exhibit at the Natural History Museum (which also has a nice Piltdown website). It was exactly 100 years ago today that Charles Dawson, a Sussex antiquarian, along with Arthur Smith Woodward and Grafton Elliott Smith, both accomplished biologists, announced the discovery of the remains of a heretofore unknown hominid in a gravel pit in Piltdown, East Sussex.

Piltdown skull
A reconstruction of the Piltdown skull. Bone dark, reconstructed elements in white. Note that the skull consisted of parts of the braincase, nasals, and a right mandible, with no connections between the parts. Note also that the mandible is missing the anterior teeth.

Dawson claimed that the right mandible (broken anteriorly) and the braincase pieces had been recovered from the gravel pit. It appeared to show that in the Pleistocene of Britain there occurred a large-brained but ape-jawed ancestor of man. Many of Britain’s most prominent paleontologists, anatomists, and zoologists concurred with this analysis.

Piltdown gang
The “Piltdown gang”. Standing: F.O. Barlow, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Seated: A.S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W.P. Pycraft, and Sir E. Ray Lankester.

From the start, however, there was controversy as to whether the man-like cranium and ape-like jaw were from the same species. The fact that the intervening parts of the skull were missing made it impossible to demonstrate the case morphologically. Regardless, the general conclusion was to accept the association of the jaw and cranium. When Australopithecus was discovered in Africa by Raymond Dart in the 20’s, the significance of his find was underestimated since the African form had a man-like jaw and an ape-like cranium– the opposite of Piltdown. As further discoveries showed that Piltdown man was aberrant, it came to figure less prominently in accounts of human evolution.

Beginning in the late 1940’s a series of investigations were begun that explained the source of the anomaly– the Piltdown remains were not only not associated, they were relatively recent, had been stained to look old, and filed down to change their appearance– they were a deliberate forgery!  In 1953, J.S. Weiner, K.P. Oakley, and W. Le Gros Clark published their results in a Natural History Museum monograph (reference below), and, appropriately, presented their results a few days later at a meeting of the Geological Society. A longer monograph appeared two years later.

Exposure of Piltdown hoax
Meeting of the Geological Society on 25 November, 1953, at which K.P. Oakley presented evidence for the fraudulent nature of the Piltdown specimens (Daily Mail; the Mail only identifies the photo as of the meeting at which the hoax was exposed; The Times for 26 November 1953 gives the further details of the meeting).

There had, in fact, long been doubts about the provenance of the Piltdown specimens. In 1914, W.K. Gregory (1914: 190-191) expressed it pretty directly:

It has been suspected by some that geologically they are not old at all; that they may even represent a deliberate hoax, a negro or Australian skull and a broken ape-jaw, artificially fossilized and “planted” in the gravel-bed, to fool the scientists. Against this suggestion tell the whole circumstances of the discovery as above related.

At the time, Gregory accepted the story of discovery. The following year, G.S. Miller strongly stated that the specimens were not associated, declaring unequivocally that the jaw was simian, the cranium human. More elliptically, he wrote (1915: 1):

Deliberate malice could hardly have been more successful than the hazards of deposition in so breaking the fossils as to give free scope to individual judgment in fitting the parts together.

Colin Groves was told that Miller actually thought it was a hoax, but that decorum prevented him from saying so without proof, and so he contested the find on scientific grounds; it would be interesting to see what is written in Miller’s papers about the matter (perhaps someone has already looked). Another American zoologist, W.D. Matthew, readily accepted Miller’s conclusions (Matthew in Eastman et al., 1916: 107):

In the present reviewer’s opinion [W. D. M.] Dr. Miller’s argument is convincing and irrefutable; the jaw belonged to a chimpanzee and the skull to a species of man comparable with that represented by the Heidelberg jaw. It is hardly to be expected, however, that this conclusion will be readily accepted by the European writers, who have with but few exceptions committed themselves more or less deeply to the opposite view.

And, changing his previous view, so did Gregory (1916: 313):

In an earlier paper (1914) I have reviewed the controversy over the Piltdown remains (Eoanthropus dawsoni), emphasizing the entirely human character of the brain-case, the essentially ape-like character of the lower jaw and teeth and the doubts as to their association already expressed by several authors.

While I take no delight in the predicament of those taken in by the hoax, I do delight in the fact that Miller, Gregory, and Matthew were among those to see the true nature of the material: I have had occasion to refer and use their work in my own researches and teaching, and Gregory is one of my academic grandfathers.

After the exposure of the hoax, the incident became chiefly of historical rather than scientific interest, and the question of who perpetrated the hoax has been of recurring interest. Suspicion first fell on Dawson, but has included Smith Woodward, Arthur Keith, Teilhard de Chardin, and even Arthur Conan Doyle!  Miles Russell of Bournemouth University has discovered that Dawson was involved in a number of frauds and fakeries, and an extensive summary of his case against Dawson is online. He is speaking today at the Geological Society, and has just published a new book on the subject (reference below).

In addition to the new exhibit and the conference, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum is leading a team that will conduct further tests on the bones that they hope will allow them to produce more definitive evidence of who was involved in perpetrating the hoax. Both the conference and the further testing have drawn considerable media interest in the UK (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC, Daily Mail). Further online information on the Piltdown story can be found at the late Richard Harter’s website, a Clark University site with transcripts of many original papers, and at the Talk Origins archive.

h/t Sigmund


Dawson, C., A. Smith Woodward, and G.E. Smith. 1913. On the discovery of a palæolithic human skull and mandible in flint-bearing gravel overlying the Wealden (Hastings Beds) at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex). Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 69:117-147. (transcription)

Eastman, C.R., W.K. Gregory, and W.D. Matthew. 1916. Recent progress in vertebrate paleontology. Science New Series 43:103-110.

Gregory, W. K. 1914. The Dawn Man of Piltdown, England. American Museum Journal 14:189-200. (pdf)

Gregory, W.K. 1916. Studies on the evolution of the Primates. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 35:239-355. (pdf)

Matthew, W.D. 1916. Note on the association of the Piltdown skull and jaw. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 35:348-350. (in Gregory, 1916)

Miller, G.S. 1915. The Jaw of the Piltdown Man. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 65(12):1-31. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Russell, M. 2003. Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson. Tempus Books, Stroud, UK. (Amazon)

Russell, M. 2012. The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed. History Press, Stroud, UK. (publisher)

Weiner, J.S., K.P. Oakley, and W.E. Le Gros Clark. 1953. The solution of the Piltdown problem. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Geology 2:139-146. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

27 thoughts on “The Piltdown Hoax at 100

    1. For italics, what you do (says he hoping he gets this right) is <i>this</i>.

      And if you want to include a < character you do &lt;

  1. Given that Dawson found the pieces, it’s hard to see how he could be innocent. One would hardly plant something like this in a gravel pit and just hope that someone would find it – and not only find it, but also recognise its significance.

    I thought that Stephen Jay Gould made a pretty good case implicating Teilhard de Chardin.

    1. I wonder if Charles Dawson was any relation to the Catholic philosopher of history Christopher Dawson? (Charles would have been about 20 yrs old when Christopher was born, however).

  2. Now, I look forward to the story from theologians about how they showed that a religious hoax was just that.

    Self-correction is one of the huge strengths of science.

    1. They could start with the so-called “Donation of Constantine”.

      Since Stephen P mentioned Stephen J. Gould, I’ll add that he also did an excellent essay on the self-correcting nature of science by explaining how real scientists exposed the Nebraska Man tomfoolery. It’s “An Essay on a Pig Roast,” essay #29 in his book “Bully for Brontosaurus.” A couple of quotes from the essay (everybody duck; I’m going to try to use italics):

      “Science is a method for testing claims about the natural world, not an immutable compendium of absolute truths. The fundamentalists, by “knowing” the answers before they start, and then forcing nature into the straitjacket of their discredited preconceptions, lie outside the domain of science—or of any honest intellectual inquiry.”

      “The real message of Hesperopithecus proclaims that science moves forward by admitting and correcting its errors. If creationists really wanted to ape the procedures of science, they would take this theme to heart…But the world of creationists is too imbued with irrefutable dogma, and they don’t seem able even to grasp enough about science to put up a good show in imitation.”

    1. And I’m sure there are many other things you don’t understand, given your poor logic. This Dawson fella apparently also forged artifacts of supposedly Roman and medieval origin. Does that mean the existence of the Roman Empire is in doubt?

    2. It’s ironic that science deniers imagine that Science’s greatest strength is a weakness. The point of the way science is done is to overcome that fact that individuals (yes even scientists) are fallible and can in some cases be dishonest. That’s the main point of peer review, replication of results etc. The Piltdown hoax is in fact a vindication of the scientific method and an illustration of why science is the only way we have of not fooling ourselves in the long term, even if there are a few short term hiccoughs :).

      There have been many other cases of deception and/or self deception in science, such as Blondot’s N rays, Kammerer’s Toads, Cold Fusion to name but a few. Two fascinating books on “pathological science” (a term coined by Irvin Langmuir) are “Voodoo Science” by Ed Park and “The Undergrowth Of Science” by Walter Gratzer.

  3. It is hard to find such a first-rate fraud with so many to pin it on. It is difficult, however, to believe that an amateur scientist like Charles Dawson would risk his reputation and legacy with a precarious ball-faced fraud of the Piltdown type. If on the one hand Dawson was not professional and had a history of questionable actions, could he as a barrister risked preparing false fossils to submit to real archeologists and paleontologists as a missing link?

    I find the situation of Arthur Conan Doyle as a potential hoaxer especially attractive. Piltdown Man was revealed to the public in December, 1912. Although Dawson found a single skull fragment in 1908-9, the rest of the fossils were discovered after mid-1910. Doyle lived about 15 miles from the Piltdown site and visited it in his ‘motorcar’ during the later excavations. Before 1910 he travelled to a number of fossil sites that could have yielded many of the specimens salted at Piltdown. Perhaps most coincidentally, Doyle was a famous practical joker, was experienced in chemistry (e.g., staining bones to make them appear old) and archeology (as a medical doctor and Sherlock Holmes author), did not like Darwinians or professional biologists (who scoffed at mediums and spiritualism), and was hatching a book on ape-men in a Lost World that a good publicity stunt like Piltdown could make even more lucrative. Doyle began mentioning the plans for his book in letters in August, 1910, about the time numerous additional fossils began turning up at Dawson’s dig. The book came out in installments in Strand Magazine between April and November, 1912. Dawson and Woodward made the Piltdown announcement in December, 1912. Doyle was an avid cricket fan. One of the fossil bones (elephant, I think) found at Piltdown had been worked into the form of a cricket bat. That would seem foolhardy if the perpetrator was one of the scientists, although it fits right in if Doyle did it. If Doyle had been found out, and perhaps this was his original plan, it would have just increased his public image of a master of good natured deception.

    Of course, the Piltdown fraud did nothing to advance evolutionary biology before or after it was unveiled. As a ‘missing-link’ the fossil was conceptually incongruent. Darwin and Haeckel had postulated that man originated in Africa or South Asia and that transitional forms would be most likely found there and not in America or extra-tropical Eurasia. Although Neanderthal was European, he was also not that different from modern man, so much so that evolution deniers such as Rudolf Virchow could convincingly argue that unusual Neanderthal traits were pathologies. In 1891 Dubois found a true “missing-link” in the form of Java Man, which was also questioned by Virchow and others who deemed it a composite of modern human and extinct ape bones. The acceptance of the completely misleading Piltdown assembly – geographically astray and ideologically warped – did additional harm by suggesting man was ‘made’ by his brain and by obscuring the import of real discoveries such as Australopithecus by Dart and of Peking Man. Later, of course, the revelation of the fraud blackened the reputation of the field. Piltdown is the personification of the ill wind that blew no good.

  4. It should be noted that while the British establishment closed ranks to support Piltdown, there was always skepticism on both the Continent as well as the US. The great German anatomist Franz Weidenreich (who later became the main interpreter of Peking man fossils) correctly identified the jaw as from an orangutan.

    The hoax had much to do with British jingoism (at a time of increasing tension and soon war with Germany) and the desire to find a rival to Neanderthal man — a British origin for H sapiens! Failure to expose the hoax earlier had much to do with English upper class solidarity trumping scientific integrity.

    1. My mother took night classes with Prof. Edward Percival (of Edward Percival Marine Laboratory, Kaikoura, fame) some time 1950-55 but before the hoax was officially exposed, and innocently said something about Piltdown Man. Prof. Percival said something like “Ah, Piltdown Man. There is a lot of doubt about his provenance.” Which she clearly took after the event to mean that he was sure it was a hoax. The impression she got was that hardly anyone worth listening to had accepted its authenticity.

      1. I think it was already clear by the 1940s that Piltdown Man “didn’t fit” to the extent it was recognised that large brains were late and more modern dentition early. So it was only a matter of time before the Piltdown anomaly was exposed for the fraud it was.

        Nonetheless, the whole experience is a salutary lesson in how non-scientific factors can interfere with the kind of prudent scepticism we should expect.

  5. Ian Langham spent years researching Piltdown and did a series of lectures on it as part of a History & Philosophy of Science course at the Uni of Sydney in 1984. Unfortunately I missed the last lecture where he revealed his pick for the hoaxer, after reviewing the cases against the various names.

    Sadly, he died (suddenly, as they say) not long after, but his papers were eventually published and his chief suspect was Arthur Keith.

    But at that point, nobody had put together the various previous ‘contributions’ to history and archaeology by Dawson. Nobody else is remotely as likely to have done it, nor is there a case for a conspiracy, though it seems quite possible that Teilhard guessed or knew more than he said (but kept it as quiet as child rape). The case against Keith was extremely slender, based on purely conjectural motive and opportunity, and an ambiguous statement in an interview shortly before AK died.

    ‘Unravelling Piltdown’ by John Evangelist Walsh (1996) is a good popular treatment, though it’s been criticised for laying on the case against Dawson a bit thick (some people in any field demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty…).

  6. A few years ago I found a book on fossils from around that date which was inscribed with the name of one of those involved – blow me, I think it belonged to Martin Hinton (not in the picture

    I gave the book to my Palaeontologist friend who has worked at the NHM in Tertiary mammals.

    My money is on him!

  7. It’s amazing how good scientists can be at bamboozling themselves into believing what they want to believe. For example, Grafton Elliot Smith, second from the left in the picture under the skull, was convinced before Piltdown was ever found that a large brain had preceded erect posture. For example, from his book, “The Evolution of Man,” published in 1924,

    “It was not the adoption of the erect attitude that made Man from an Ape, but the gradual perfecting of the brain and the slow upbuilding of the mental structure, of which erectness of carriage is one of the incidental manifestations.”

    The Piltdown skull was just the evidence he needed to prove his theory. Again quoting from the book,

    “Within the month after its delivery a dramatic confirmation was provided of the argument that in the evolution of Man the brain led the way. For the late Mr. Charles Dawson (in association with Dr. – now Sir Arthur – Smith Woodward) brought to light in Sussex the remains of a hirtherto unknown type of Primate with a brain that, so far as size is concerned, came within the range of human variation, being more than 200 larger than that of the more ancient and primitive member of the Human Family (Pithecanthropus), in association with a jaw so like that of a Chimpanzee that many of the leading palaeontologists believed it to be actually the remains of that Ape.”

    Well aware of the arguments of its detractors, Smith went to incredible lengths to rationalize his belief that the skull was genuine. For example,

    “In most of the attempts to reconstruct the Piltdown skull the right parietal bone has been displaced in the diagram (Fig. 21), in which it is shown in relation to the left parietal. Many details of its structure indicate this to be its only possible position with reference to its fellow. But the restoration of this bone to its true position, in addition to establishing the symmetry of the lambdoid suture necessarily raises the occipital bone into a position that is nearer the vertical – because on the right side part of the lambdoid suture is on the occipital and part on the right parietal bone, so that if the latter is pushed forward to occipital must be raised up, i.e. its upper part rotated forward. The peculiar conformation of the left parietal bone further establishes the correctness of this orientation of the occipital. For near its postero-inferior angle, at what I have called the “parietal angle,” the bone is bent in a way that is quite distinctive. The surface behind this bend is brought into a plane corresponding to that of the occipital bone, so that all doubt as to the correctness of the latter’s orientation vanishes. When the skull is restored in this way its conformation is quite distinctive, and differs profoundly from all other human skulls, recent or fossil.”

    Who could argue with such profound reasoning by one of the greatest authorities of the day? It even took in Sir Arthur Keith, seated, second from left in the picture, a brilliant man in his own right, who had originally strongly doubted that the skull was genuine.

  8. I still have my copy of The Piltdown Forgery, given to me ~1955 at age 5 or 6(!), inscribed by my honorary grandfather Jess Jackson, who died shortly thereafter (1956). Dr. Jackson was the grand old man of the English dept at Wm & Mary, who my father had developed a personal friendship with after studying Old Norse under him ~1935. Why would anyone give such a young kid a copy of a book like that, I can only guess that it may have been that I had expressed fascination with skeletons after Halloween, and I suspect that the actual book may have been one that he received to review.

    The point of mentioning all of this is that, while the book was mentioned from time to time after that, there was never the slightest suggestion from any adult I encountered back then that this was in the least an indictment against evolution. It was an unfortunate historical diversion, which further evidence had revealed. So, it’s possible to grow up with Piltdown without having it used on you as a brainwashing tool.

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