On this day in history : 21st November 1953 – The Natural History Museum has to face the task of admitting the ‘Piltdown Man’ was a hoax….

Ever since Darwin had published his theory ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859, the search had been on to find the missing link connecting ape to human…. Neanderthal remains had already been found in France and Germany….but there were those in Britain who wanted to prove we too played a part in the evolution of man…. So, when lawyer and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson discovered fossil remains in a gravel pit at Barkham Manor, Piltdown, Sussex – it seemed their dreams had come true….

Charles Dawson Public domain – US

Dawson ‘discovered’ the remains between 1910 and 1912; as he did so the fragments of fossil skull, teeth and an unusual ape jaw bone were all sent to the Natural History Museum…. From the fragments a skull was constructed, which seemed to provide the missing link between ape and human….and on the 18th of December 1912 it was presented to the World by the Geological Society in London…. It was officially named Eoanthropus Dawson – or, ‘Dawson’s dawn man’ – after the man who had ‘found’ the fossils…. Thought to be nearly a million years old, Britain could now have claim to the oldest fossil human remains ever found…. Of course, there were experts overseas who were sceptical, as things didn’t quite ‘fit in’ – but as the remains had the endorsement of the Natural History Museum they were generally accepted….

Painting by John Cooke, 1915 – The Piltdown Skull being examined…. Charles Dawson second from right, back row – John Cooke – Public domain

It was in the late 1940s that new technology for fossil dating arrived…. In 1949, Dr. Kenneth Oakley, of the Natural History Museum tested the Piltdown fossils – and it was found they were not nearly as ancient as thought….more like 500 years old…. Further investigation discovered the ‘human’ teeth were in fact the filed down teeth of an orangutan…. The teeth had been an important part of the original conclusion – as they were midway in size between ape and human it was thought they were evidence of evolution…. It was also discovered that the skull fragments, although unusually thick boned, were from a far more recent time….

Replica of Piltdown Man skull : Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) CC BY-SA 4.0

Other finds from the site – stone tools, bones and teeth of extinct British animals, such as rhinoceros, elephant and beaver – were proven genuine…. But all – along with the skull fragments and jaw – had been boiled and then stained to match the environment in which they had been ‘found’….

So, why the hoax? Various reasons have been put forward…. Dawson died in 1916 – no more finds were made at Piltdown after his death…. One theory is that he did it to gain entrance to the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge….

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