Reconstruction of the Piltdown skull Click to enlarge image
The Piltdown skull combines parts of a modern human skull, the lower jaw and teeth of an orang-utan, and a poorly-painted canine tooth, also ‘found’ at Piltdown. The teeth were carefully filed down to simulate human wear. Tell-tale parts of the jaw, which meet the skull, were broken off. The Piltdown skull bones are human but are geologically younger than other, genuine, fossil bones from the same site. They were stained to look old. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

1912 - Piltdown Man ‘discovered’ in England.

The Piltdown Man Hoax

In a gravel-pit at Piltdown Common, Southern England, in 1912, amateur collector Charles Dawson ‘discovered’ what appeared to be the long-sought ‘missing link’ between apes and humans. This fortuitous find – nine pieces of a large-brained human skull and an ape-like lower jaw with two teeth – was readily accepted by the British establishment due to their belief that a large brain was one of the first human features to evolve. Although inconsistent with later discoveries, ‘Piltdown Man’s’ authenticity remained virtually unchallenged for 41 years.

Proving the fake

In 1953, advanced analytical and dating techniques proved Piltdown Man to be a fake. The mandible was stained with potassium bichromate and the teeth had been filed down. Fluorine testing proved that the pieces of the skull were of different ages. This was confirmed in 1959 by carbon dating, which provided a date of about 600 years for the skull!

Who dunnit, and why?

Was the Piltdown ‘find’ a hoax that went too far to be admitted, or an attempt to fool a rival? Although the hoaxer has never been identified, the strongest case has been made against Charles Dawson as the perpetrator. The only question really is whether he did it on his own or was assisted by a scientist. Dawson died in 1916, long before the ‘Piltdown Man’s’ authenticity was challenged.

Could a similar hoax happen today? - Not likely! Modern chemical, physical and anatomical screening techniques make it virtually impossible.