In 1912, a British amateur archaeologist announced a major discovery in Piltdown Village, Sussex. While exploring Pleistocene gravel beds, Charles Dawson found a human-like skull fragment and informed the Natural History Museum.
Dawson and the museum’s geology keeper, Arthur Smith Woodward, returned to the gravel bed and found more skull fragments, a jawbone, primitive tools, and teeth.
If they came from the same creature, the bone fragments were unusual. The jawbone resembled an ape, and the skull was human-like. An unfortunate coincidence, the jaw joint that would have determined the bones’ identity was lost during fossilization.
However, Smith Woodward reconstructed the bone fragments and presented them at a Geological Society meeting that year, claiming they were evidence of a 500,000-year-old human ancestor.
The US and mainland Europe were skeptical, but Britain believed the bones belonged to one person. For a time, scientists believed the bones were a “missing link” between humans and our ancestors due to their ape and human-like traits.
Testing decades later showed it wasn’t. Researchers used fluorine dating in 1953 to prove the bones were different ages. The skull fragments and jawbones were not all from one person unless they were lost many years apart in the same place. Further investigation revealed that the bones had been altered, including putty repairs and pebble filling to look like fossilized bones. Because of their design, the bones fit what scientists expected to find in a missing link.
Even in the future, a team tried to figure out who was behind the Piltdown man hoax. Did Dawson, Smith Woodward, or others plant the bones to be found?
The team found that the ape-like bones came from a single orangutan, likely raised in Borneo due to their rarity in Europe. The bones may have come from three medieval humans.
“The consistency in the [modus operandi] observed in the specimens, and the use of a limited number of specimens to create both the Piltdown I and Piltdown II material, are indicative of a single forger,” the study wrote, naming Dawson as suspected. “Dawson was a great networker and knew what the British scientific community was looking for in a missing link between apes and humans: a large brain, an ape-like face and jaws, and heavily fossilized materials that indicated great antiquity. As a longtime collector, he would have known what fossil mammals and stone tools to add to prove its age.”
Dawson’s career, in which he published many papers but did not advance, and a letter to Smith Woodward saying “I have been waiting for the big ‘find’ which never seems to come along” may have inspired the team. It did for a moment before being revealed.