On the trail of the Piltdown hoax

The latest display in our single-case Presenting… series takes a look at the famous Piltdown Man hoax, and Life Collections manager Mark Carnall tells us how the display came about…

Visiting researchers to the zoology collections at the Museum often give us an excuse to dig deeper into our own material, and one such recent enquiry led me into the intriguing story of the Piltdown Man hoax.

Professor Andrew Shortland from Cranfield University contacted us to enquire about the Piltdown Man material in our collections, as part of research for a book on hoaxes and forgeries in anthropology that he is writing with Professor Patrick Degryse of KU Leuven.

I knew we had some Piltdown material here thanks to this page written by Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, but I hadn’t had an excuse to investigate any further. The enquiry was also timely as we’d just transferred a collection of palaeoanthropology casts, models and reconstructions from our Earth collections to bring our human collections into one place. I knew from our move project team that there was some Piltdown material awaiting processing – perfect.

For those who don’t know the Piltdown Man story, a short history is in order. In the early 20th century, amateur fossil hunter Charles Dawson brought a collection of human remains excavated from gravel pits in Sussex to the attention of Arthur Smith Woodward, then Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History). Woodward and Dawson collected further material and presented the remains as those of Eoanthropus dawsoni (‘Dawson’s dawn man’), an important fossil human from Britain.

Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. Back row (from left): F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A. S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and E. Ray Lankester. Charles Darwin looks on from a portrait on the wall. Image via Wikipedia.

R.F. Damon-produced endocast and associated label recording the presentation of this specimen to the Museum by Arthur Smith Woodward

The discovery looked set to put Britain on the map when it came to evidence of human evolution, but suspicions were quickly raised about the authenticity of the material. Such was the skill of the forgery – meticulous breaking, abrading and staining of various archaeological and historic specimens – that it wasn’t until dating techniques, chemical analyses and some experimental palaeoanthropology in 1953 that the hoax was conclusively put to bed.

In turned out that the Piltdown ‘remains’ were a mix of medieval bone, an orangutan jaw, and chimpanzee teeth maltreated to look like an evolutionary intermediate between humans and other apes.

For 40 years or so the hoax refused to go away and numerous casts, models and reconstructions of Piltdown Man were made, sold, exchanged and gifted to museums and universities. These included casts of the original material as well as reconstructions of the skull and even reconstructions of the endocast – a cast of the inside of the skull.

The Museum has a selection of this material, but as Professor Shortland examined the collections, two specimens stood out.

The first is an R. F. Damon-produced endocast presented to the Museum by Arthur Smith Woodward himself. Smith Woodward was known as an expert on fossil fish but published widely on zoological topics. As a scientist of some repute there’s been long-standing speculation about his role in the hoax. Was he wholly duped by Dawson, or was he in on the hoax from the beginning? If it’s the former, then the presentation of this endocast shows Smith Woodward disseminating research he presumably took some pride in. If it’s the latter, perhaps it was a way of cementing the hoax as legitimate by spreading specimens far and wide.

Joseph Weiner’s experimental fake created by modifying an orangutan jaw, alongside a cast of the Piltdown jaw

The second significant specimen is a worked orangutan jaw produced by Joseph Weiner, one of the three authors who debunked the hoax in a 1953 Nature paper titled The Solution of The Piltdown Problem. Weiner modified the orangutan jaw to replicate the original hoax specimen. Thanks to Professor Shortland’s knowledge of the hoax, he sent through a copy of Weiner’s book on the Piltdown Man where this exact specimen is pictured.

The Piltdown Man hoax wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last hoax, fake or forgery in the history of science, but it remains one of the most well-known and stands as a warning of the dangers of hubris in the discovery and description of the natural world.

The Weiner jaw and Damon endocast will be on display alongside other Piltdown Man material in our Presenting… case from 9 January to 8 March 2020.

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