Selecting anything that is the greatest or most significant or whatever in history is walking on thin ice – there is rarely clear agreement.
On the other hand, there is often an event that appears to receive special attention and one feels justified in suggesting it as a possibility. I have come to feel that way about the “Piltdown Man”, a “paleoanthropological fraud in which bone fragments were presented as the fossilized remains of a previously unknown early human.”
From the beginning there were doubts about its authenticity, but when an article appeared in an established scientific journal in 1916, Piltdown Man received sufficient attention to be treated with a certain amount of respect.
It was not exposed as a hoax until 1953. An amateur archaeologist by the name of Charles Dawson was responsible for the forgery – this all took place in England at the edges of the English scientific community.
This ‘”discovery”’ was directly related to the theory of evolution which was proposed in the 1859 book by Charles Darwin titled “The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.” The theory posited that humans evolved from lower animals, but there was a “missing link” between apes and man — thus, the search for archaeological evidence that would support this evolutionary leap.
It also came to constitute a form of competition between countries to gain the bragging rights as the site of such an event. (Humans did not emerge in the British Isles; we evolved in northeast Africa!)
At a meeting of the Geological Society of London, Charles Dawson claimed that workmen at the Piltdown gravel pit had discovered fragments of a skull. He took additional finds to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geological department at the British Museum, which resulted in further attention.
“From the British Museum’s reconstruction of the skull, Woodward proposed that Piltdown Man represented an evolutionary missing link between apes and humans.”
Several big names chimed in on both sides of the controversy, which continued for years. And on July 23, 1938 a memorial to mark the site where Piltdown Man was discovered by Charles Dawson was unveiled. Even Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Homes books, and the French philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, became involved in the controversy.
In November of 1953 Time magazine published what came to be the final statement on the controversy – it was a hoax and the likely perpetrator was Charles Dawson. (He was found to have perpetuated several other fraudulent finds!)
In short, the Piltdown Man was a “composite of three distinct species. It consisted of a human skull of medieval age, the 5,000-year-old lower jaw of an orangutan, and chimpanzee fossil teeth. Someone had created the appearance of age by staining the bones with an iron solution and chromic acid. Microscopic examination revealed file-marks on the teeth, and it was deduced from this that someone had modified the teeth to a shape more suited to a human diet.”
Like so many things in life, science takes time. But it’s hard to believe how many scientists there are who spend much of their lives attempting to prove or disprove other peoples ideas and theories.
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.