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.

A genetic map of Britain

Our Settlers exhibition tells the story of the peopling of Britain, from the arrival of the earliest modern humans over 40,000 years ago to the population of the present day. At the centre of the exhibition is a genetic map of Britain – the first of its kind to be produced of anywhere in the world. But what exactly does this map show us and how was it created? Brian Mackenwells from the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics explains…

While maps can be used to show us where we need to go, the one at the heart of the People of the British Isles study was used to show us where we’ve been. Researchers from the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics wanted to reach back through time by looking at our genetic code.

We obviously can’t travel back a hundred years and sequence people’s DNA, so the next best thing is to sequence the genome of people whose grandparents were all from the same rural area. This is because people in rural areas at that time had a tendency not to travel very far, so the researchers guessed that the genes of their descendants would be like (slightly jumbled) snapshots of the genetic history of the area they were from.

This video, commissioned from Oxford Sparks especially for the exhibition, expands on this idea.

So the People of the British Isles researchers sequenced the DNA of just over 2,000 people and set to work analysing it all. The scientists looked for individuals with common genetic patterns and grouped them together. They had no idea where the individuals were actually from; the system just grouped people whose small genetic variations seemed to be the most similar to each other.

Here’s an example of the process. Imagine you were presented with a list of colours like these and asked to group them.

You would probably group them something like this:

There would be a ‘sort of red’ group, a ‘sort of green’ group, and a ‘sort of blue’ group. This is what the pattern-matching system was trying to do with genetic codes: make clusters of people who seemed to be similar to each other based on very small genetic variations.

But the really surprising bit came next. We took each individual in the study and plotted them on a map of Britain based on the location of their grandparents, using a symbol to denote which genetic cluster they had been placed in.

We weren’t sure what to expect. Would the symbols be spread out randomly over the map,  or would there be groupings? What might the groupings mean?

The result was striking: the genetic clusters are, for the most part, linked to quite specific geographical areas, as you can see in the final map here.

The People of the British Isles genetic map of Britain was the first map of its kind of anywhere in the world. Each marker represents a participant in the study, and the different symbols represented different genetic clusters. It’s clear that the genetic clusters are connected with geography.

What is this map revealing to us? When we compared these different groups to the unique genetic markers of different European populations, working with archaeologists and geographers, we were able to start to understand the meaning of the map. You can clearly see the genetic footprints left by historical migration and events from hundreds of years ago. The video below explains more about this.

The locations of many of the clusters correspond to regions controlled by known historical tribes and kingdoms. The map also shows how places like Northern Ireland and Western Scotland seem to share a genetic heritage.

You can learn more about the map, and the things we’ve learned from it, at the Settlers exhibition until the 16 September 2018.

Skeleton keys

by Chris Stimpson, visiting researcher from Queen’s University Belfast

Visitors to the museum will be familiar with the striking parade of mammal skeletons in the court, where they can get a close look at a polar bear’s jaws and peer up through the rib cages of Indian and African elephants, amongst many other things. But these mounted specimens are just a small sample of the animal skeletons that are looked after by the museum.

The main collection of skeletons is carefully stored in behind-the-scenes spaces such as the museum’s Tradescant Room. For researchers who work on animal bones found in archaeological sites, collections like these are not just important – they are essential.

Comparison of an archaeological pig astragalus (ankle bone, left) with an articulated reference specimen from the museum collection (opposite leg, OUMNH.ZC.19948) of an Indonesian wild boar (Sus scrofa). Radiocarbon dating of charcoal indicates the archaeological specimen is over 17,000 years old.

Differences in size, shape, proportion, and the number and arrangement of bones and teeth are a great aid to identification. Teeth in particular often have features that help identify the animal they came from. Bones also have articulations and facets which can be helpful, though identification can be more challenging than with teeth.

Comparison of an archaeological premolar (top), with the upper right tooth row of a goat-like animal called a serow (Capricornis sumatraensis) from the museum’s collection (OUMNH.ZC.21654). Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the site indicates the archaeological specimen is over 5,000 years old.

These challenges are part of the work I am doing on the SUNDASIA Project which is undertaking archaeological and palaeoecological investigations in the Tràng An World Heritage Area, in Ninh Binh Province, Northern Vietnam. Working with Vietnamese colleagues, we are investigating climatic and landscape changes that have affected – and may affect – the limestone karst forest over thousands of years. In particular, we’re looking at the responses of human, animal and plant communities to these changes.

The limestone karst landscape of the Trang An World Heritage Area

During our cave excavations we have recovered bones from a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians. Radiocarbon dates from charcoal in the cave deposits suggest this material ranges from 30,000 to 5,000 years old. This is great, but what can these bones tell us of animal life and human hunters at different times in the past? What has changed and why? And what could it mean for the future of Tràng An?

Excavations underway in Hang
Moi, a cave site in Trang An

Before we can begin to answer juicy research questions like these, we need to identify the bones. This is where collections like those held in the museum really come into play. Only with access to skeletons of known animals – where there is knowledge of family, genus or species classification – can we compare the excavated material and identify what we have found.

And while old bones and skeletons may smack rather of death, with a little patience and a good comparative collection like that in the museum, it is remarkable what a few specimens can tell you of life in different times and places that we otherwise know little about. Museum collections are a key to the past, present, and perhaps even to the future.

Climbing down the primate family tree

This is the first in a short series of articles to accompany the new Stone Age Primates temporary display at the Museum, created with the Primate Archaeology group at Oxford University. Here, Michael Haslam, ERC Senior Research Fellow in Primate Archaeology, outlines the importance of this emerging field of study.

Humans evolved over millions of years. You can see displays about this in natural history museums all over the world, usually with skulls of extinct ancestors such as Homo erectus. Alongside these bones there are often stone tools of various shapes and sizes, showing how our technology has also changed over time. Ultimately, human tool use has led all the way from sticks and stones to the computer, phone or tablet that you’re using to read these words.

However, for all those millions of years other members of our family were evolving too. What if we had an archaeological record for non-human animals as well? The Primate Archaeology project at Oxford University exists to answer this question.

Rise of Modern Humans display
‘The Rise of Modern Humans’ display in the Museum

Primates, the group that humans belong to, also includes apes and monkeys, as well as more remotely related animals such as lemurs. Yet when we see these animals in museums, they very rarely have a set of their own extinct ancestors on display, or any examples of the technologies that they have developed.

Why not? For one thing, it is difficult to find fossil ancestors of animals that live mostly in tropical forests because their bones aren’t preserved well in that environment. And most primates, like most animals, don’t use tools in the wild, so there is nothing left behind to tell us about their past behaviour.

But there is another reason. We view the human past as a series of ancestors evolving towards the way we are now; yet we tend to see monkeys and apes as unchanging over time. If asked to imagine a chimpanzee three million years ago, you would probably picture something that looks like a chimpanzee today. But modern chimpanzees didn’t exist back then, just as modern humans didn’t.

Wild chimpanzee at Bossou, Guinea. Photo by Michael Haslam.
Wild chimpanzee at Bossou, Guinea. Photo by Michael Haslam.

The main reason we think of humans as changing and evolving is because of the archaeological evidence that we’ve collected. As we discovered more and more bones and stones it became clear that dozens of human ancestor species have lived on Earth, including close relatives such as the Neanderthals in Europe and Asia.

A hammerstone used by a capuchin, on display in the Museum
A hammerstone used by a capuchin, on display in the Museum

So what would we find if we looked for the archaeology of other primates? They don’t build cathedrals, or use pottery or metal, and they don’t leave behind written messages like the Egyptians, Maya or Romans did. That’s a problem. But the solution to the problem is actually the same one that archaeologists have always used for human ancestors: find the stone tools.

There are three types of wild primate that use stone tools: the chimpanzees of West Africa (Pan troglodytes verus); the Bearded Capuchin monkeys of Brazil (Sapajus libidinosus); and the Burmese Long-tailed Macaques of Southeast Asia (Macaca fasciaulria aurea). They mainly use stones as hand-held hammers, to break open hard foods such as nuts and shellfish. The capuchins also use stones to dig in the hard ground, which helps to protect their fingers when searching for roots or spiders to eat.

Wild long-tailed macaque using a stone tool at Laem Son National Park, Thailand. Photo by Michael Gumert.
Wild long-tailed macaque using a stone tool at Laem Son National Park, Thailand. Photo by Michael Gumert.

The Primate Archaeology Project was set up at Oxford University in 2012, supported by the European Research Council. Since that time, our team has spent many months watching these animals use stone tools in the wild. We record how they select certain sizes and types of stones (you wouldn’t use a soft sponge as a hammer, and neither would they!), and how they carry their tools around from job to job like a modern tradesman. We used these observations to work out what primate tools look like today, and then we went digging into the past.

We found macaque tools buried in beach sands in western Thailand, and ancient capuchin tools in the forests of northeast Brazil. In both cases, we recognized the tools because they were similar to ones still in use today. Importantly, we also found that the tools were damaged in very particular ways by the monkeys that had used them, because hitting hard things together usually means that one of them gets broken.

Primate archaeology excavation, Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil. Photo by Michael Haslam
Primate archaeology excavation, Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil. Photo by Michael Haslam.

We used radiocarbon dating to work out that the archaeological capuchin tools were at least 600 years old. That means that there were monkeys sitting around in Brazil with stone hammers, cracking and eating nuts, before Christopher Columbus ever left Europe. Previous excavations in the Ivory Coast have found even older primate tools – chimpanzees there were using stone hammers more than 4,000 years ago!

Primate archaeology is still a new research field, with more questions than answers, but then so was human archaeology when it began. We really don’t know what technology apes and monkeys were using during the millions of years that they have evolved, but we are taking the first steps towards solving that mystery.

Stone Age Primates display in the Museum
Stone Age Primates display in the Museum

Working with the Museum, the Primate Archaeology project team has put together a new temporary display, ‘Stone Age Primates’, to sit alongside the current human evolution cases in the Museum. In the display you can learn more about the research and see tools used by primates past and present. You can also follow the group on Twitter @primatearch.