After an eight-year examination, a team of researchers has concluded that the infamous Piltdown Skull hoax—consisting of human skull fragments together with an ape-like jaw having two teeth—was the work of a single forger: the “discoverer” and original suspect Charles Dawson. The study clears other suspects touted over the years, including the French priest Teilhard de Chardin, English paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward, Scottish anatomist Arthur Keith, and, among others, famed Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.
Piltdown burst onto the scientific scene in 1912 when the long sought-after “missing link” between man and his ancestors was reportedly discovered. The site was a gravel pit near Piltdown Common in Sussex, and the finder an amateur fossil collector named Charles Dawson. Despite a few skeptics, many thought Piltdown Man was the transitional form postulated by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The discovery also appealed to English pride, since previous anthropological discoveries were made elsewhere.
The illusion of the fossil hominid that was half human, half ape lasted for over four decades. When it was exposed as a hoax in 1953—a mix of human skull fragments and an orangutan jawbone—the glare of suspicion fell upon the late Dawson. However, even his chief accuser, Dr. J.S. Weiner, conceded in his The Piltdown Forgery (1955), that there was another possibility: that Dawson was the victim of a prank, in which he may not even have participated, that got out of hand. As a result, seeming droves of armchair detectives rushed to find alternate suspects or at least co-conspirators.
I weighed in in 1992 with “The Piltdown Perpetrator” (chapter 8 of Mysterious Realms, co-author forensic analyst John F. Fischer). This investigation looked at six major aspects of the case, all pointing to Dawson as the lone forger:
1. The presence of individuals at each of the several digs that retrieved the various skull pieces. Although Teilhard and Woodward had sometimes worked beside Dawson and even found a few of the fragments, only Dawson was consistently present at the “finds.”
2. The time span. The first fragment, a parietal piece, was found about 1908, according to different versions of the story, and the discoveries ended in 1915. All of the prime suspects (I considered twelve) lived many years after the last find was reported—except Dawson, who died in 1916, the finds dramatically ending with his death.
3. The evidence of “Piltdown Man II.” In 1915 a second set of bones (cranial pieces and a molar) was allegedly found about three kilometers away, and Charles Dawson was the sole discoverer.
4. Stained fragments. The various fragments had been stained with chemical solutions. It turned out that Dawson had once asked a chemist how bones could be treated to make them look older.
5. Motive. Dawson had much to gain from the Piltdown hoax. His Piltdown Man—which he named Eoanthropus dawsoni, Latin for “Dawson’s dawn-man”—would have made him famous. But for his untimely death, he probably would have been knighted.
6. Dawson’s nefarious activities. In addition to plagiarism and purchasing a property under false pretenses, Dawson also made grand claims for other items that are now regarded as bogus. These include a “Roman” statuette that supposedly represented the oldest known use of cast iron but is probably a nineteenth-century curio, as well as alleged Roman bricks that, tested more recently by thermoluminescence, are revealed to be modern.
Now a new expert review convicts Dawson as sole perpetrator of the Piltdown hoax. Tests of the faked fossils show a consistent modus operandi including the use of staining employed as an artificial aging technique. Significantly, DNA tests reveal that the molar from Piltdown II (the “find” solely connected to Dawson) is clearly linked to the original Piltdown teeth, all coming from the same orangutan jawbone, believed to be from West Borneo.
The article, “New Genetic and Morphological Evidence Suggests a Single Hoaxer Created ‘Piltdown Man,’” was written by Isabelle De Groote and fifteen co-investigators, and published in Royal Society Open Science, August 10, 2016. Having read their extensive report, I commend the researchers on their methodology and successful results. Those who were wrongly suspected now have their reputations fully restored.