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The Hoax That Fooled the World: Piltdown Man

#10 Science in History

18 December 1912

The ‘fossil’ that fooled scientists for over 40 years.

Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). 'Piltdown Man", fake skull Sussex, England, 1912

It's 1912 and a Palaeolithic human fossil is discovered by amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson in a gravel pit near the village of Piltdown, East Sussex, England. The find, the first important fossil human skull ever to be unearthed in England, was announced at a meeting of the Geological Society of Great Britain today in 1912. The fossil was, at first, believed to be the "missing link" between humans and apes – ‘Piltdown man’ took pride of place in the catalogues for known, extinct hominids for the next 40 years.

In 1953, it was eventually revealed to be a hoax orchestrated by Dawson. The fossil was little more than animal bones and a modified human skull combined with a jawbone from an orangutan. The hoax has since been used as an example of how scientific theories can be manipulated using false evidence.

We shouldn’t be too hard on the scientists of the time: the combination of features seemed to provide evidence for the evolutionary development of humans from apes. Breakthroughs in scientific analysis eventually uncovered the truth - chemical analysis of the bones revealed that they had been artificially coloured, and the teeth had been filed down to make them look more human.

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