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A restoration by Professor J. H. McGregor

Scientific American Supplement (1914)

Piltdown Deception

September 5, 2009

In November of 1912 Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Natural History Museum introduced the world to humanity’s “missing link.”  It came in the form of an ancient human skull dug from a gravel pit in what is now East Sussex, England.  The discovery and announcement launched what is widely believed to be the greatest scientific fraud in recorded history. 


Palæolithic Man

The fossil human skull and mandible to be described by Mr. Charles Dawson and Dr. Smith Woodward at the Geological Society as we go to press is the most important discovery of its kind hitherto made in England. The specimen was found in circumstances which seem to leave no doubt as to its geological age, and the characters it shows are themselves sufficient to denote its extreme antiquity. Journal Nature, December 19, 1912 


The finding of Piltdown Man was met with great fanfare, especially in the august community of British science.  Prior to the announcement most discoveries of early man had come from the Continent.  Notably the famous German fossils from the Neander Valley, that became known as Neanderthal Man.  At the turn of the twentieth century there was enormous pressure to expand human understanding of its own origins.  Science was producing remarkable discoveries in astronomy, chemistry, and industrial materials.   In support of Darwin’s theory of evolution some manner of bridge between early hominids and man’s cousin the ape was of keen importance.  Piltdown Man provided the elusive “missing link” and brought fame and fortune to its keepers. 


And keeping was in part the reason why the forgery went undiscovered for nearly forty years.  The original skull and fragments were held in deep secret by Dr. Woodward and his small staff at the Museum.  Molds and copies of the original skull were made and put on public display.  Only copies were offered to visiting scientists who came to study  the link between man and his earliest origins.  Rarely, if ever was the original skull brought into the plain light of day.  When it was, it was offered to admirers in brief, tightly controlled viewings and then whisked back into the Museum archives.  As it turned out Piltdown Man had a lot to hide.  Not only was he a fraud, but those who kept his secret likely knew it.


The Earliest Known Man 

The palæolithic human skull which has been dug up from a Sussex gravel pit is evidently one of the most important archæological "finds" ever made. There seems to be no doubt whatever of its genuineness, and more than a possibility of its being the oldest remnant of a human frame yet discovered on this planet. Manchester Guardian November 21, 1912


The Piltdown hoax was successful for so long because it was managed by a small but powerful group of well respected scientists.  Their influence and specialized knowledge of paleontology put them at the wheel of scientific consensus.  There were few British scientists who would doubt the opinion of Woodward, whose reputation was sterling in the scientific community.  And though there was skepticism among some of Europe’s scientists, they joined the consensus to accept the Piltdown find as part of an emerging map of human evolution. 


What is instructive about the affair is the assuredness of fact that the majority of scientists and well educated scholars gave to the discovery.  The press followed the lead of key scientists, and the public followed the reports in the press.  With the unswerving opinion of leading scientists, nearly the whole of the public was taken in.  In a sense everyone involved stood to benefit from proof of man’s missing link.  Certainly discoverers Woodward and Dawson who named their find Eoanthropus dawsoni, and the British Museum which stood on the highest ground of science.  And dozens of researchers and scholars who wrote of and studied Piltdown Man for the next forty years.

The Piltdown Skull

In my opinion, then, Mr. Dawson is to be congratulated on having made the immensely important discovery of the remains of one of the beings who made the eolithic flint implements, and that we are at last able to form some idea of what these immensely ancient people were like.  

 J. Reid Moir, The Times of London December 25, 1912


But there is a long history of theories and beliefs that are held by the cognoscenti and delivered to the vast public as irrefutable fact.  It seems fair to speculate that since the dawn of civilized man there have always been Flat Earthers.  Men, governments, religions and institutions who knowingly distort the truth to gain or maintain status.  It is an oddly primitive instinct that allows the most unlikely of men to commit fraud and deceptions in order to feed their egos.  It is an instinct we have alluded to before: man’s pride.


Darwin Theory Is Proved True 

Prof. Arthur Keith says that the discovery marks by far the most remarkable advance in the knowledge of the ancestry of man ever made in England and supports the view that man was derived not from a single genus or species, but from several different genera. "It gives us a stage in the evolution of man which we have only imagined since Darwin propounded the theory.”   

The New York Times December 22, 1913


In 1949 the British Museum gave permission for the Piltdown fossils to be analyzed by the newly arrived fluorine absorption test.  The result showed the bones to be far younger than had been assumed, no more than 600 years.  Even then there was no immediate conclusion of fraud.  The idea that someone had duped the entire science community for nearly forty years was a difficult pill to swallow.  Is was not until 1953 that Oxford paleontologist J. S. Weiner, Sir Kenneth Oakley and Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark jointly exposed the hoax by demonstrating the crude manipulation of the fossil’s teeth.  


In 2012, two short years from now we might celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the greatest scientific fraud in human history.  It is a dubious occasion, except for one purpose.  To revisit the circumstances by which the Piltdown deception was allowed to unfold.  To that end it serves a sober warning of man’s predilection to distort truth for gain.  Richard Harter author of Piltdown Man, The Bogus Bones Caper, sums it up succinctly: 


“The hoax succeeded in large part because of the slipshod nature of the testing applied to it; careful examination using the methods available at the time would have immediately revealed the hoax. This failure to adequately examine the fossils went unmarked and nnoticed - in large part because the hoax admirably satisfied the theoretical expectations of the time.  


The hoax illuminates two pitfalls to be wary of in the scientific process. The first is the danger of inadequately examining and challenging results that confirm the currently accepted scientific interpretation. The second is that a result, once established, tends to be uncritically accepted and relied upon without further reconsideration."