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Researchers claim new evidence unmasks the culprit in the infamous ‘Piltdown Man’ hoax

For those who don’t know, the Piltdown Man controversy essentially went like this. In the early 1900’s, evolution was still a controversial idea, and it had a far higher mainstream profile than today. In this context of extreme, but largely uneducated, public scrutiny, the idea of the “missing link” emerged. If man is descended from ape, went the argument, when where are our half-man-half-ape skeletons? (It was a decent question, and answered by the coming century of focused archaeological study, and dozens of real transitional fossils from the homo- line.)

Into this situation, an amateur “antiquarian” named Charles Dawson released a bombshell: He had found the missing link during the excavation of a gravel pit in Piltdown, England. His discovery, named Piltdown Man, would be heralded as one of the most important finds in the entire study of human evolution. It seemed to be precisely what we needed: a roughly ape-like, roughly humanoid hybrid. It was perfect!

Except, it wasn’t. First, most of the skull had been reconstructed from fragments found in the gravel pit itself — a pulverized skull that one researcher at the time described as providing “free scope to individual judgment in fitting the parts together.” Worse, later investigation showed that the teeth had been filed down to look more human, and that various parts of the skeleton had been stained to give them the appearance of age. The Piltdown Man discovery was a forgery — and good thing, because as real science made progress finding real skeletons around Africa and parts of Asia, the Piltdown skeleton was becoming more and more of an outlier.

See, Piltdown Man confirmed for the scientists at the time the precise morphological features they assumed must have developed, and when. The skeletal evidence that would later come out of Africa was flawed because it challenged the ideas that inspired Piltdown Man, and which were confirmed by him. The misinformation disseminated through Piltdown’s fame would hold back real science for decades to come.

So, who’s the blame for all this? Over the years, virtually everybody involved has been accused, but in their new paper in Royal Society Open Science, the team accuses Dawson, exclusively. Their analysis shows uniformity in the techniques used to produce the skeleton, meaning that it was likely a lone culprit. And DNA analysis of the teeth show that two different finds from two different locations likely came from the same semi-ancient orangutan — form opposite sides of the same jaw, in fact.

Charles Darwin, father of evolution... and cylonsCould Dawson have been duped into genuinely discovering a fake skeleton? Leaving aside the lack of motivation to do so (why go to these lengths to create a fake find and then let someone else get all the credit?), it’s Dawson’s other “finds” that are the most damning. His collection of rarities has been found to contain dozens of other fakes, including the skulls of several supposed ancient species that seem to have been altered with the same methods as Piltdown Man.

At the end of the day, it comes down to credibility. Maybe there could have been a group of conspirators working together, but this team claims their evidence refutes this theory. It was most likely a single forger responsible for the whole affair — and they don’t mince words on his identity. Charles Dawson did Piltdown Man.

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