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Dawsonii Eoanthropus – the most famous fraudulent fossil in the world

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Prehistory, Science on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about Piltdown Man originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Piltdown man discovered, picture, image, illustration

Dr Arthur Woodward examining Piltdown Man

God created man in His own image on the sixth day of the Creation.

This statement from the Book of Genesis was believed to be the plain, literal truth by men of the civilised world for many centuries. Then as learning and science became more advanced, it became harder for scholars to accept the bald Biblical statement as a scientific fact.

The final blow to the Biblical tradition, in the eyes of the scientific men, came when Charles Darwin published his famous book The Origin of Species. This explained how the animals, birds and fish that we see in the world today evolved from earlier types into the present species. In other words life began in the ooze of a primaeval world as single-cell, jelly-like creatures, then developed into various plants and swimming creatures, which in turn evolved into other species that crawled from the waters on to land and so on. Each stage of development took millions of years, of course.

It was seen that Man was an animal, not a creature of Divine Inspiration made in a single day. Man had obviously evolved as had all other living things. Man it seemed had descended from the apes (the animal most resembling man) or from an ancestor shared with the apes.

Now before the turn of this century many prehistoric fossils of apes and man had been found. Yet no trace of a species had been revealed to form the final missing link between man and the apes.

The scientific world was therefore keenly on the look-out for “The Missing Link,” a creature half-ape and half-man.

In spite of intensive searches in some of the most likely places, The Missing Link, or so it seemed, was found quite by accident in Sussex, England.

One day, in the year 1908, some workmen were loading a little handcart with gravel from a roadside pit. It was good gravel, very suitable for their purpose of filling in holes in the road. As the men shovelled the gravel they discovered a skull. It was something like a human skull, but strangely misshapen. It was very brown, which made them think that it must be very old. It was so brown that at first one of them thought it was an old coconut shell. So he hit it and broke it.

Only then did one of the men remember that Mr. Dawson, a local solicitor who was in charge of the estate of land upon which they stood, had told them that he would like to see any old bones that they might find in the course of their work. They gathered up the fragments as best they could and handed over the bits and pieces to Mr. Dawson.

He carefully examined the remains.

Now Charles Dawson was something of a local expert on fossils, prehistoric remains and even ancient ruins. He cautiously wrote to his friend Dr. Arthur Woodward of the British Museum. They examined the gravel pit more closely and other remains were found, including the jaw of the skull and teeth and bones of deer, beaver, hippopotamus and elephant. All these indicated to the learned men that the skull must be half a million years old.

The skull was carefully reassembled and the jaw attached, and it was presented to a crowded meeting of the Geological Society in London during December, 1912, as Dawsonii Eoanthropus – nicknamed the Piltdown Man, because Piltdown was the place where he was found.

Scientists noticed that the skull was somewhat human in shape, showing the development of the human brain, whilst the jaw had retained the likeness of that of an ape. Here was a creature that combined ape and man. So surely it was the long-lost Missing Link, unearthed by a workman’s shovel.

It was the luckiest find of a generation. It was the complete answer to the problem of evolution. Experts wrote books and built theories on the basis of the Piltdown find.

Even so, there were some men who just did not believe it. They said that the Piltdown Man must be a fake. It was pointed out that the jaw did not fit properly to the skull and more than likely came from a different creature altogether.

Charles Dawson found another Piltdown skull in a ploughed field not far from where the first one had been discovered. The matter was settled. Or so it seemed until other prehistoric human and semi-human remains were turned up in other parts of the world. The remains of prehistoric men unearthed in Java, Pekin and Africa, although not actually Missing Links, showed that man had evolved from the apes in a different way to that suggested by the Piltdown Man.

Gradually researchers found it harder, if not impossible, to fit the Piltdown Man into the orderly descent of man.

Poor old Piltdown was the odd man out!

Finally Professors J. S. Weiner, W. Le Gros Clarke of Oxford and Dr. Oakley of London examined the Piltdown remains with all the technical resources and devices available to them in the year 1953.

They proved by chemical and radioactive analysis that the Piltdown Man was a fake.

The skull was a mere tenth of the age claimed for it, whilst the jaw was that of a modern ape, probably an orang-utan, carefully distorted and stained to give it the appearance of great age.

The author of the cleverly faked fraud remains unknown to this day, yet he had plunged the wise men of science into dispute and turmoil for forty years.

Some say Charles Dawson was the faker, his motive being a lust for scientific fame. Others say that he was the victim of a hoax. Whoever was the culprit, he knew just where to place the fraudulent fossil so that it would be found – by accident!

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