Getting Down With the Piltdown Man

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Painting of scientists involved with the Piltdown Man, titled "The Piltdown Gang" by John Cooke 1915
“The Piltdown Gang”, painting by John Cooke, 1915 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Suggested alternate title, “Old White Dudes Get Fooled”

It’s an oldie, but a goodie: The story of the Piltdown Man. Or, as the old drinking song that I just made up goes:

“Those Germans got some real old bones,
But Britain’s are far better!
Piltdown Man, go forth and own
Those Prussians in the jimmy!”

It’s a really terrible song, which is why they only sang it when they were drunk. And British.

So, okay, that song may be fake, but the Piltdown Man is very, very real. It’s also very fake. It’s a very real fake. And while it screwed up the study of human evolution for decades, the debunking of that fraud is also an example of science actually working. Eventually. It took a minute, but in the end, even what was arguably one of the greatest hoaxes in history couldn’t stand up to science forever. And when we look at the reasons it succeeded, it turns out that pretty much all the blame goes to the fact that all scientists, shockingly, are just as flawed and screwed up as any other human. There wasn’t anything wrong with the scientific process itself. We just didn’t really follow it for a bit there.

A reconstruction of the Piltdown Man skull.
A reconstruction of the orginal fake
Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)., CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The trouble all started with Charles Darwin, of course. He just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Good old Chuck, having pissed everyone off with his famous book about the theory of evolution, went on in 1871 to publish another irritating book called “The Descent of Man”, where he explained how humans evolved from other kinds of animals, just like everything else because they weren’t some kind of special exception to the rule. This kind of shouldn’t have needed to be said, but given how pissed off people were at him for bringing up evolution to start with, it actually did need to be pointed out.

And, while he set off some really weird controversies that continue to this day, scientists at the time were thrilled with this notion. It was terribly exciting, because this wasn’t just some random idea. It was a well thought-out theory that could be tested. If true, if humans descended from some other kind of creature, perhaps something that looked more like an ape, then there should be fossils of these ancestral humans. Maybe not many. They might be rare. Fossils in general are pretty rare, given how many individual plants and animals must have lived and died over the past billion years without leaving any sort of trace. But with some luck and determination, you ought to eventually be able to find something to back the claim up. And sure enough, we did. The only thing was, those damned bloody Germans found it before the Brits did.

How Dare They Conduct Their Own Science!

Yep, in 1907, a jawbone of a human ancestor called Homo heidelbergensis was found in Germany. It was definitely similar to a modern human jawbone, and yet absolutely different from one as well. Besides which, it was over 600,000 years old. It was the best evidence ever, at the time, to back up Darwin’s theory of human evolution, and it was a big effing deal for the world of science. The problem was… it should have been found in Britain. At least, that’s what the Brits thought.

See, you gotta remember the time period here. In 1907, the tensions that led to World War I were already being felt. The British Empire… and it was still very much an Empire at that point… badly needed to know that it was superior to everyone else, and that meant that humans must have evolved in Britain. They simply must have. They certainly couldn’t have evolved in Germany. Germans were… well, so German. If the first human wasn’t English, then why were all the people in all those other countries so inferior? They obviously just needed to hunt a little harder for ancient humans in Great Britain. Preferably in England. Preferably in the more respectable parts of England. And while I am exaggerating a bit here, I’m also kind of not. Some people really did feel like that. And yeah, in 1907 they were already worried about a war with Germany. So the Germans making this huge discovery that was shaping our view of the evolution of the human species was really stealing their thunder, and some might have viewed it as almost a matter of national security. Certainly a matter of national pride.

old drawing comparing the Piltdown Man, presumed real at the time, to chimpanzee and Neanderthal skulls
Illustration from The American Museum Journal, 1914
A. baby chimp B. Piltdown Man C. Adult chimp D. Neanderthal

Luckily, in the nick of time, proof of British superiority was discovered. That proof was provided by a British gentleman by the name of Charles Dawson. Dawson was a lawyer by trade, but he was a passionate amateur paleontologist. He was always stalking the countryside, looking for fossils of any sort, as well as showing off and trading his finds with other gentlemen fossil collectors. And in 1912, he wrote to his buddy Arthur Smith Woodward, a geologist and paleontologist at the British Natural History Museum. Woodward was not only a fellow British gentleman, he was also a legit professional scientist whose credentials were already established. Charles Dawson told Woodward that he had the find of a lifetime on his hands. He said that at a gravel pit near the town of Piltdown, he had found a few bits of ancient human skull that would put that bloody German jawbone to shame. That was all Woodward needed to hear.

“By Jove!” he cried, “Let’s have at them! Tally ho! Colonialism!” And after taking a look at the bits of skull and some other random animal fossils that Dawson had found at the same site, he agreed that they certainly looked very old, and that they should go to this Piltdown gravel pit and try to find some more cool fossils. And they did. They hit the jackpot, in fact. They not only found some more human skull fragments, they also found a partial jawbone, some loose human teeth, the tooth of an extinct elephant species, and some crude stone tools. The real prize was the jawbone. This thing looked more like the jawbone of an ape than that of a human, while the skull fragments looked more like a modern human. Assuming the jaw went with the skull fragments, this was exactly what scientists at the time expected the “missing link” between humans and our ape-like ancestors to look like. They thought… incorrectly… that our big brains must have evolved first, and that this then drove the evolution of all our other traits. So a skull that held a big brain but that had the jawbone of an ape fit the bill perfectly. The teeth matched too… they looked kind of like ape teeth, but they had a wear pattern that was characteristic of the way humans wore their teeth down, not apes. The Piltdown Man had saved British paleontology, just when they needed it most. It was rather convenient.

Sure I’ll take your word for it

Woodward took these fossils and studied them eagerly. They were stained the same color as the gravel in which they were found. They had the appearance of great age. He determined that they must be half a million years old, based on their appearance and the known age of the other animal fossils they were found with. Knowing that the purpose of science is personal fame and respect, Woodward made sure nobody but himself, Dawson, and a very few other trusted individuals could study the fossils, so that they would be sure that all the credit would go to them. Eventually, someone snitched on them before they could get a bunch of papers published, though, and soon the Piltdown Man was in all the newspapers. Scientists from outside Woodward and Dawson’s little group started asking to see the fossils. Scientists who weren’t British started making requests. Obviously that wouldn’t do, but they did make some casts of the fossils and passed them out. It was nothing like seeing the real thing, but it was the best most other scientists were going to get for many years to come.

There were a few skeptics of the discovery, once news broke out. There were certainly plenty of things to question. The Piltdown dig sites had been handled sloppily at best. The two leads on the research were Dawson, an amateur, and Woodward, an expert not in fossil humans but in fossilized fish. The jawbone looked a little too much like an ape’s. Some noted that some important bits, such as the canine teeth, were missing from the remains.

Photo of Arthur Smith Woodward
Arthur Smith Woodward. Poor guy should have stuck with fish.

However, for most people, the possibilities were simply too exciting to spend much time worrying about these things. Experts in the fields of paleontology, anthropology, and human anatomy were soon squabbling over how to interpret the find, how to reconstruct the skull. Woodward went with a skull that was really a hybrid between a human and an ape. Others came up with a skull that was closer to modern humans. They argued endlessly over who was right, and this debate took up much more space in the professional discourse than any of the questions from the skeptics. Woodward was all in on the importance of the Piltdown Man as a “missing link” between humans and an ape-like ancestor, and he defended his views aggressively. Dawson may have discovered the bones, but the Piltdown Man soon became Woodward’s baby. His delicate, dead, bony little baby. He started calling it “The Earliest Englishman”.

Then, in 1913, Dawson and some friends of his found some more bones and stone tools at a second site near Piltdown, including that canine tooth that some of the other scientists were wondering about. It looked more like the large canine of an ape than the puny canine tooth of a human, but it had wear patterns more like what you’d find on a human tooth. In other words, it looked exactly like what Woodward predicted it should look like. This new discovery quieted some of the skeptics… one find like this might be a fluke, but finding similar evidence at a second location had to mean something. And that perfect canine tooth solidified Woodward’s vision of the Piltdown man as the correct one. He was becoming a leading authority on ancient man.

Piltdown Man naturally loved cricket, rugby, and football (soccer not the other one)

More digs were conducted while the scientific community debated over what to do about all this, and more bits of skull and stone tools were found. Most significantly, Woodward found in a gravel pit a big chunk of fossilized elephant bone. It had been carved in to some sort of tool, though what it could have been used for, nobody was sure. It was long, flat, and several inches wide. To any fan of proper British sport, it clearly looked like the top half of a cricket bat. The press, of course, loved this and ran wild with it. The notion that the “Earliest Englishman” may have actually played cricket with a bone bat was too delicious to not put into print. Nobody seriously thought it was a cricket bat… probably… but that’s what they wound up calling it anyway, since they couldn’t figure out what else it could be used for.

Then, in 1914, the Great War finally broke out over the European continent. This was a bit of an inconvenience for everyone, even aloof paleontologists. One of Dawson’s fossil-hunting buddies went off to serve as a stretcher bearer in the war. Dawson himself started having health troubles. The Piltdown business stalled out, with a few holdouts still questioning the importance of the find. Finally, in 1916, Dawson died, leaving the Piltdown legacy in the hands of Woodward. He had one last contribution, however. Woodward was really selfish with his work, and so he waited until 1917 to tell the world that in 1915, before he died, Dawson had made another discovery at a third site. More skull fragments, a molar, and some animal fossils. Now they had enough skull fragments to account for two different Piltdown Men with similar features, and the critics gave up. If there were two of these things from different locations that looked the same, then it was hard to argue it was anything but exactly what Dawson and Woodward had claimed all along. Nobody even worried about the fact that Woodward had no idea where this third dig site was or that Dawson had left no record of the location. The debate was over, and Woodward had won.

Memorial stone marking where the Piltdown fossils were "found"
Memorial stone marking where the first Piltdown fossils were… umm…. “found”
Photo by Nick Woolley, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Piltdown Man remained the ultimate human fossil find for years and years. Starting in the 1920’s, more remains of human ancestors started to turn up… not in Britain, oddly enough, but in Asia and Africa. Mostly little bits and pieces, but one more complete find in China, named the “Peking Man”, was good enough to give scientists pause… it did not look much like the Piltdown Man. However, not everyone took Peking Man seriously. Piltdown Man was the king of human fossils, and if this new guy didn’t match up with it, then there must be something sketchy about it. Most scientists kept using the Piltdown Man as their model for what ancient humans looked like. But that didn’t last much longer. As more and more fossils turned up, from different species of human and of different ages, it gradually became clear that the Earliest Englishman was actually the anomaly. Woodward had been wrong all along. Ancient man did not look like a modern man with a giant jaw. Their brains didn’t approach the size of the modern human’s until relatively late in the game. Piltdown slowly became an afterthought rather than the center of the field.

Finally, in 1953, a couple of spoil-sports decided to ruin things for everyone, once and for all. Chemistry had made huge strides in the 1940’s. It was now possible to run tests on these fossils that folks in 1913 would never have imagined. By analyzing the fluoride and nitrogen composition of the Piltdown artifacts, they were able to determine that the upper skull fragments were more like 500 years old, not 500,000. They were a little thicker and heavier than the average human skull, but still within the range of what’s normal. The lower jaw that so fascinated early scholars turned out to be not very old at all, and definitely couldn’t be from the same individual as the other remains. Now that the jig was up, fresh eyes examining the bones could tell right away that that jawbone was, in fact, the jaw of a modern orangutan. The loose teeth, including that famous canine, were also from an orangutan. Someone had used a file to shape them so that they looked more like human teeth, and to simulate the wear patterns common to humans. The bones had also been chemically treated to make their mineral content more like that of fossils than of modern bones. Then they had been chemically stained to match the color of the gravel at the Piltdown site.

There’s something rotten in Piltdown

If these bones had all been 500 years old and just normal bones that somehow wound up somewhere they shouldn’t have, maybe they could have chalked it up to one big misunderstanding. But the filing of the teeth and the chemical treatments could only mean one thing. Piltdown had been a hoax, from beginning to end. Not a single artifact had been real, in fact. The animal fossils had all been legitimate, but they could mostly be shown to have come from other sites in Britain. The stone tools were modern forgeries as well. The famous cricket bat had been carved from a real fossil elephant bone, all right… but a steel knife had been used. No stone or bone tool could have made the cuts found on it. It turns out, there had never been anything in the Piltdown gravel pits but gravel.

Well, shit. This was awkward. Sure, nobody had been worried about the Piltdown Man for years and years, and it no longer was very relevant. Exposing the fraud didn’t really change anything about our understanding of human evolution. But for many years, Piltdown had shaped our views. In fact, in hindsight, it had probably delayed the study of human ancestors for a while, as we tried to figure out how to square the Piltdown Man’s human-ape hybrid features with the actual fossils of Australopithecus and Homo erectus we were finding. And…

Yes, I know, it’s a funny name. Can we just… get past that? Please? Okay, great.

And now that the hoax had been exposed, the study of evolution, and to a lesser extent, science in general both took a hit. Creationists, who were horrified at the thought that humans had evolved from anything at all, latched on to the Piltdown hoax as proof that the entire study of evolution was a joke, one that perhaps scientists were perpetrating intentionally. Some people started to ask, if scientists had been fooled by this for so long, how can we trust them about anything? These weren’t terribly big problems, of course. The Piltdown Man never did fit in with the other human fossils, the ones that were definitely, undeniably legitimate. So, rather than mucking things up, taking that out of the equation actually made the field more coherent. And while some people might question the legitimacy of other branches of science because of this, the benefits of scientific research had only become more and more clear in the post World War II era. It was still pretty embarrassing, though.

Dawson with the chemistry set in the gravel pit (we’re playing Clue here)

The immediate question, after the excitement quieted down a bit, was whodunnit? And why? Woodward and Dawson were the obvious suspects, but there was plenty of suspicion to go around. Everyone involved with the digs or the analysis of the finds came under scrutiny. There was even this author guy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was thought to possibly have been involved in it. He was mostly known for writing some obscure little detective stories, but he happened to live near Piltdown at the time this all went down, was a bit of a fossil hound himself, and was fascinated by the Earliest Englishman. Speculation ran wild. Theories began to emerge. Everything everyone said and did at the time was examined.

Dawson, the amateur fossil hunter, almost had to be involved. He had his hands in every element of the affair. And as more time went by, more and more suspicious things cropped up. Someone had once gifted him an old human skull. He’d been discovered staining bones in his law office. No new fossils were found after his death. And he had all the knowledge required to pull the whole thing off.

Bust of the Piltdown Man, an artist's imagining
A bust depicting what an artist at the time thought the Piltdown Man might look like

Dawson also had motive. He was a lawyer, but he really wanted to be taken seriously as a legitimate paleontologist. Most notably, he desperately wanted to join the prestigious Royal Society, England’s famous invitation-only scientific organization. One of the earliest presidents of the Royal Society had been a guy named Sir Isaac Newton, and Dawson very much wanted to be counted among their ranks. But his fossil finds, while sometimes excellent specimens, were never of much scientific interest. Until Piltdown.

Oh, and we now know that he had committed many smaller frauds as well. Turns out, Dawson had passed off at least 38 less significant fossils and archeological specimens that were fakes. So… pretty much case closed for Dawson.

Most of the other characters involved were eventually ruled out, either definitely or by general consensus. Woodward was the other big suspect, but it didn’t really add up. He had a perfectly good career at the British Museum, so why risk being caught in a scandal? For a variety of reasons, he’s generally thought to have been a victim of the hoax just like everyone else. There still remained some theories about a couple of Dawson’s acquaintances that were impossible to prove or disprove, however, so the question of whether or not Dawson acted alone remained a mystery. Until 2016, that is. If the technology available to scientists in the 50’s would have seemed amazing to a fraudster in 1913, imagine what we have at our fingertips now would seem like to them. So a few folks decided to settle the matter once and for all. DNA analysis, CT scans, and advanced x-ray techniques revealed the final mysteries of the Piltdown hoax.

Long story short, the techniques used to create the forgeries were nearly identical for all the pieces. It was as distinctive as a fingerprint. They were absolutely all made by the same person. Maybe someone else knew about the hoax, but Dawson was almost certainly the only one who actually created them and stuck them in those gravel pits.

Why did everyone fall for the Piltdown Man?

In hindsight, the hoax should have come to light a lot sooner. It was all just too convenient. So much was taken for granted. Dawson’s word was just trusted, and if people didn’t trust him, well, Woodward trusted him, and people trusted Woodward. Nobody ever conducted an independent excavation at Piltdown. Nobody had even been concerned that the last batch of fossils that turned up after Dawson’s death didn’t even come from a known location. Everyone basically just dropped the ball.

So… were the creationists and science skeptics right? Had science itself failed? Might not anything science has revealed be, in fact, a fake?

I don’t think so. When you look at what made the Piltdown hoax possible, it was human error every step of the way, not a flaw in the scientific process. The British were eager to defend their considerable national pride, which the German fossil discovery threatened, even if only in an obscure way. Then there was the state of science at the time. Or, not of science, but rather scientists. Woodward’s behavior of hoarding his discoveries was not unusual at the time, and it meant fewer people got to take an objective look at the things. And there was such an eagerness to find the next great human fossil. This notion of the “missing link” really bothered people. Not just Christian creationists, but scientists, too. They knew the evidence for evolution theory was already piling up too high to be ignored, but they also knew they’d never hear the end of it if they couldn’t find some ancient human relatives. Paleontologists needed to find the Piltdown Man. The British Empire needed to find him. And while Woodward didn’t need to find him, he certainly was thrilled and excited to be the lead on that discovery once it fell in his lap.

photo of the Piltdown Man Tavern
Until recently, there was a Piltdown Man Tavern celebrating the fraud in Piltdown. I guess they got over it.
photo by Immanuel Giel, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In other words, nobody really wanted to be critical of the Piltdown Man. So people saw what they expected to see, what they wanted to see. Enough of it made sense that they were willing to overlook the rest. There were plenty of loose ends, but nobody wanted to pick a thread and start pulling. Normal science wasn’t really conducted. Peer review wasn’t adequately done. Competing theories were dismissed without actually being tested. It was a perfect storm of human flaws… ambition, pride, arrogance, and yeah, naiveté. For so many, the thought that someone would have intentionally committed a fraud was unthinkable. The very notion was completely shocking. Even the guys who uncovered the hoax in the 50’s did so almost reluctantly. Nobody wanted to speak ill of the dead. Nobody wanted to believe that a fellow scientist, even an amateur, would just flat out lie. They didn’t look too closely at the evidence because, on some level, exposing a fraud would have been a bigger tragedy than going down a dead end in scientific research for decades.

So what does the Piltdown Man teach us, then? The obvious is that if it’s too good to be true… then look out. Another is the importance of transparency and peer review. Hoarding specimens, evidence, and data may seem like a good idea to someone trying to protect their career, but it’s harmful to science overall. Science actually works best when as many people as possible poke and prod at it, trying to tear it apart. And finally, I’d say that it’s important to keep in mind that there’s all kinds of ways people can screw up their research. Sometimes results are forged deliberately, but often… very often… they happen because scientists are just people. They have blind spots. They get overconfident, overeager. And it can happen to any of us. So we can’t just take things on trust, whether it’s some scheming lawyer or a true giant of science. We still test and re-test Einstein’s theories and formulas to this day, and that’s as it should be. Because if you think Einstein was a flawless man, well… maybe you should ask his first wife about that. Or his first cousin. Who was also his second wife. Yep.

The Piltdown Man is an incredible story, not about science so much as it is about human psychology. I mean, they found a fake cricket bat, for crying out loud, and nobody batted an eye. Science didn’t fail. We just failed to conduct science. Part of the whole point of the scientific method is to remove our bias, our preconceptions, our blind spots, and the failure to really follow it back then led to all of those things working together to muck things up. So, maybe you can’t trust people, but you really should trust science.

One thing is still bugging me, though… do you think I can start a fake British drinking song fad on YouTube before this whole lockdown thing finally goes away? That sea shanty thing had a moment there and I wanna get in on that action while some of us are still stuck at home.

MORE READING:
What the Piltdown Man can teach science today
Piltdown Man: British Archeology’s Greatest Hoax
Study Reveals Culprit Behind Piltdown Man

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