Piltman Man mystery may be solved

2012-12-13 08:31
Experts have unveiled new bones related the find of Australopithecus sediba. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Experts have unveiled new bones related the find of Australopithecus sediba. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

kalahari.com

London - It was an archaeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. A century on, researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for Piltdown Man, the missing link that never was.

In December 1912, it was announced that a lawyer and amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson had made an astonishing discovery in a gravel pit in southern England - prehistoric remains, up to one million years old, that combined the skull of a human and the jaw of an ape.

Piltdown Man - named for the village where the remains were found - set the scientific world ablaze. It was hailed as the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans, and proof that humans' enlarged brains had evolved earlier than had been supposed.

It was 40 years before the find was definitively exposed as a hoax, and speculation about who did it rages to this day. Now scientists at London's Natural History Museum - whose predecessors trumpeted the Piltdown find and may be suspects in the fraud - are marking the 100th anniversary with a new push to settle the argument for good.

The goal, lead scientist Chris Stringer wrote in a comment piece published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, is to find out "who did it and what drove them" - whether scientific ambition, humour or malice.

Doubts

Stringer heads a team of 15 researchers - including experts in ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating and isotope studies - examining the remains with the latest techniques and equipment and combing the museum's archives for overlooked evidence about the evidence unearthed at sites around Piltdown.

"Although Charles Dawson is the prime suspect, it's a complex story," said Stringer, the museum's research leader in human origins. "The amount of material planted at two different sites makes some people - and that includes me - wonder whether there were at least two people involved."

Doubts grew about Piltdown Man's authenticity in the years after 1912, as more remains were found around the world that contradicted its evidence. In 1953, scientists from London's Natural History Museum and Oxford University conducted tests that showed the find was a cleverly assembled fake, combining a human skull a few hundred years old with the jaw of an orang-utan, stained to make it look ancient.

Ever since, speculation had swirled about possible perpetrators. Many people think the evidence points to Dawson, who died in 1916.

Other long-dead suspects identified by researchers include Arthur Smith Woodward, the museum's keeper of geology, who championed Dawson's discoveries and gave them vital scientific credibility.

The finger has also been pointed at museum zoologist Martin Hinton; Jesuit priest and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; and even Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived near Piltdown.

Stringer said the key may lie in a later find nearby - a slab of elephant bone nicknamed the "cricket bat" - that seemed to back up the first Piltdown discovery. It was revealed as a clumsy fake, carved with a steel knife from a fossilised elephant femur.

Hoax

One theory is that Hinton - sceptical but afraid to openly question Woodward, his boss at the museum - might have planted it thinking it would be spotted as a hoax and discredit the whole find. A trunk with Hinton's initials found in a loft at the museum a decade after his death in 1961 contained animal bones stained the same way as the Piltdown fossils.

Miles Russell, senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University, thinks the museum's work may shed new light on how the forgery was done. But he thinks there is little doubt Dawson was the perpetrator.

"He is the only person who is always on site every time a find is made," Russell said. "And when he died in 1916, Piltdown Man died with him."

Russell is author of the new book The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed - though he doubts speculation about the century-old fraud will stop.

"People love conspiracy theories," he said. "And this is one of the biggest scientific hoaxes of all time."

Whoever was behind it, the hoax delayed consensus on human origins, leading some scientists to question the authenticity of later finds because they did not fit with Piltdown Man.

Stringer said Piltdown Man stands as a warning to scientists always to be on their guard - especially when evidence seems to back up their theories.

"There was a huge gap in evidence and Piltdown at the time neatly filled that gap," he said. "It was what people expected to be found. In a sense you could say it was manufactured to fit the scientific agenda.

"That lesson of Piltdown is always worth learning - when something seems too good to be true, maybe it is."

- SAPA

Read more on:    archaeology
NEXT ON NEWS24X

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
66 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
 
Traffic
Lottery
 
  • Wednesday Delft - 20:37 PM
    Road name: R300 Southbound
    ROADWORKS - left lane closed at Hindle Road
  • Wednesday Sir Lowry's Pass - 17:57 PM
    Road name: Old Sir Lowrys Pass Road
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Bezweni Road
 
More traffic reports...
 

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Escape winter, head to Mauritius

Escape winter by spending 7 nights in Mauritius' tropical bliss from R13 215 per person sharing. Includes return flights, airport transfers and accommodation. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Get many eggs in one basket!

Gaming bundles: 2 Super Hits games for R99, 3 Disney games for R99 and more + exclusive accessory bundles only available on kalahari.com. While stocks last. Shop now!

25% off bestselling books!

The Real Meal Revolution by Tim Noakes, Jeffrey Archer’s Be Careful What You Wish for, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frank and many more titles. Shop now!

Up to 25% off electronics

Buy top electronics and save up to 25%. Such as kalahari.com’s 1# selling product the gobii eReader, Patriot X Porter flash drive, Asus Nexus 7” 3G tablet, Samsung Galaxy SIII, Lenovo G580 Notebook and many more. Shop now!

DStv HD PVR Decoder now R949

The DStv HD PVR Decoder has further revolutionised the television experience with lifelike viewing, sharper images, more vibrant colours and precision picture quality. Now R949, save R550. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 30% off appliances & homeware

Save up to 30% on appliances and homeware this Easter! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now.

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Canon EOS 600D

The Canon EOS 600D Digital Camera puts the widely respected...

From R5389.00

I'm shopping for:

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

You may find yourself fascinated by something which could draw you in to obsessively exploring this subject in depth....read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.