Piltdown Hoax

Who perpetrated the Piltdown hoax?

The Piltdown hoax began in February 1912 when amateur British paleontologist Charles Dawson (1864-1916) contacted Sir Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944) concerning skull fragments which Dawson claimed were discovered by workmen digging in the Piltdown gravel pit in Sussex, England. Dawson and Woodward formed an excavation team and by the end of 1912 the rest of the “Piltdown Man” had been uncovered. This sensational “discovery” consisting of parts of a human skull, part of an orangutan jaw and several teeth from various animals, was officially presented to the Geological Society of London in December 1912. For 40 years, Piltdown Man remained a controversial topic within the scientific community, with high-profile scientists on both sides of the debate. In 1953, Piltdown was finally proven to be a hoax. The bones had been stained to make them appear ancient while the teeth had been sloppily filed to change their wear pattern. The Piltdown hoax remains one of the most notorious scientific hoaxes of the 20th century.

Who perpetrated the Piltdown hoax? No one knows for sure. A long list of suspects has been compiled over the years but none of the accused have ever been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Charles Dawson is the obvious suspect. He made the initial discovery (without any confirmed witnesses), was part of all of the subsequent, finds and was involved in the promotion of the Piltdown Man right up until his death in 1916 (four years after the initial discovery). Dawson has been accused of involvement in several other frauds and forgeries as well making him an even more likely suspect.

Sir Arthur Smith Woodward and the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, both friends of Dawson and both involved in the subsequent discoveries following the initial find, have been accused.

Martin Hinton, curator of zoology at the British Museum at the time of the Piltdown discoveries, became a suspect in the 1970s when a trunk bearing his initials was discovered in the British Museum, containing animal remains stained in a manner similar to the Piltdown remains. More stained animal remains were found at Hinton’s estate. Hinton was known for his practical jokes. In addition to these four prime suspects, many others have been accused including renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) and prominent anatomist and paleontologist Sir Arthur Keith. Despite all of the allegations, the identity of the perpetrator of the Piltdown hoax remains a mystery.

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