Notorious ‘ape-man’ fossil hoax pinned on one wrongdoer

New Piltdown Man probe rules out coconspirators in famous anthropological fraud

skull fragments

PILTDOWN SKULLDUGGERY  Human skull fragments from the 20th century fossil fraud known as Piltdown Man contain clues to forgery methods used by one man to trick the anthropological establishment, a new study finds.

I. De Groote

New investigations of England’s infamously fraudulent Piltdown Man fossils reveal a mix of clever and clumsy methods used by one man to fool early 20th century scientists for 40 years.

Lawyer and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson modified orangutan and human bones to resemble what scientists of the time anticipated a “missing link” between apes and humans would look like, say paleoanthropologist Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University in England and colleagues. Dawson and British paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward announced the discovery of what they called Eoanthropus dawsoni, or Dawson’s dawn man, in December 1912.

Consistent forgery techniques employed on an orangutan jaw, four orangutan teeth and six braincase pieces from two or perhaps three humans point to Dawson as the lone culprit who planted faux fossils in a gravel deposit near Piltdown village, De Groote’s team reports August 10 in Royal Society Open Science. The results provide the strongest evidence to date that Dawson had no help in perpetrating the hoax.

“Hopefully this is the final, or close to the final, nail in the coffin of the Piltdown story, confirming Dawson’s guilt and sole responsibility,” says archaeologist Miles Russell of the Bournemouth University in Poole, England.

As an artifact collector for a local museum, with access to collections of animal bones, Dawson could easily have obtained an orangutan jaw, Russell says. Russell previously argued that Dawson not only created Piltdown Man on his own but also fabricated many finds in his personal collection, including an alleged reptile/mammal hybrid fossil.

High-resolution 3-D imaging by De Groote’s team shows that the orangutan jaw was cracked lengthwise, probably while being stretched by hand from its two ends. Dawson had to widen the jaw’s tooth sockets to remove two molar teeth, which in great apes have telltale curved roots, the researchers say. Dawson then filed the teeth to appear more humanlike and repositioned them in their sockets. A thin layer of putty kept the teeth in place.

“I was surprised by how major some of the modifications were, changes which had not been noticed before,” says study coauthor Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London.

Since publication of a scientific paper in 1953 and a 1955 book exposing the Piltdown Man hoax — long after Dawson’s death in 1916 — a lengthy list of proposed coconspirators in the embarrassing affair has accumulated. Names include Smith Woodward and French priest Teilhard de Chardin, who attended some Piltdown excavations.

Dawson didn’t need their help, De Groote says. Imaging studies of the internal structure of Piltdown orangutan teeth indicate they came from the same individual. So do matching sequences of mitochondrial DNA extracted from two teeth, one of which came from a second Piltdown site. Before he died, Dawson had informed Smith Woodward of further Eoanthropus finds about three kilometers from the first site.

Dawson did a better job of forging humanlike wear on a tooth from the second site. He may have learned from comments of some early scientific critics of Piltdown Man, the investigators suspect.

Gravel was placed in cavities of two Piltdown teeth, through holes where the roots had been damaged. These cavities were plugged with pebbles held in place by the same putty used on the orangutan jaw.

Dawson created his forgery from at least two human skulls, since remains from the same rear section of the braincase were planted at both Piltdown sites, De Groote’s group says.

Dawson had access to medieval burials during his archaeological work. He could have selected the thickest skull fragments he could find from medieval individuals to pass off as Piltdown Man, Russell suggests. Dawson knew that such bones would appear particularly apelike. Radiocarbon dating of Piltdown skull fragments remains inconclusive.

To match the color of Piltdown gravel, Dawson stained his phony fossils reddish brown. He did the same to nonhuman animal bones, stone tools and a carved bone that were planted as part of the sham.

Dawson’s ambition to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a major scientific honor that he was nominated for but didn’t receive, may have motivated him to fake finds that culminated in Piltdown Man, the researchers say.

The new study demonstrates that Dawson “satiated his attention-seeking by perpetrating skillful, and not so skillful, fraud,” says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. When Dawson faked a skull that his peers wanted to be real at least as badly as he wanted official recognition, “they gave him pass after pass.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on August 3, 2016, to correct the scale bar on the image of the tooth.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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