Piltdown man

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Coordinates: 50 ° 59 ′  N , 0 ° 4 ′  E

Three views of the Piltdown skull: reconstruction from 1915 by James Howard McGregor
Replica of the Piltdown skull

The supposed remains of an early man became known as the Piltdown Man , which was found before 1912 in a gravel pit near the village of Piltdown near Uckfield in south-east England and exposed as a scientific forgery in 1953 .

The fragments of a skull and a mandibular bone were believed by British experts at the time to be the remains of a previously unknown human ancestor. They gave them the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni (about "Dawson's Man of the Dawn"), in honor of its discoverer Charles Dawson (1864-1916), a British lawyer and amateur archaeologist.

Doubts about the authenticity of the find and, after the forgery was unmasked, the search for its originator lasted for decades and produced an extensive body of literature.

Historical background

Few remains of early humans had been found at the time of the Piltdown finds; The best known were the Neanderthals from the vicinity of Düsseldorf (the fossil Neandertal 1 , 1856), the Java man (1891), the lower jaw from Mauer (1907) and the Neanderthal find La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 from France. The scientists mostly interpreted the finds as transitional forms to modern humans, but the sparse finds still allowed a multitude of interpretations, including the question of the order in which the developmental steps took place on the way to modern humans. The Piltdown find seemed to be able to answer this question once and for all and was therefore a sensational discovery. This probably explains its rapid acceptance, although the circumstances of the find remained dubious.

The special features of the find were his advanced age, which was estimated at around 500,000 years, a large, similar to already modern man skull cap and an even more primitive jaw, of the one great apes recalled. From this combination - in particular by English-speaking scientists - far-reaching conclusions about the tribal history of humans were drawn , including that the development of modern humans took place in Europe and that humans developed a large brain very early on. The first Australopithecus finds, according to Taung's child , were therefore not recognized by British and American paleoanthropologists as pre - humans for decades , because they came from Africa and had only very small brains.

German and French researchers, on the other hand, had doubts from the start about the informative value of the Piltdown fragments due to precise knowledge of the Neanderthal finds. Even in the light of later fossil finds from Asia and Africa, the Piltdown man was at best able to assert himself as a puzzling subsidiary branch in the human family tree, since these occupied a completely different path of development from modern man, altogether younger and with a late onset of enlargement of the brain volume. The meaning of the Piltdown man remained controversial for 40 years until it was exposed as a fake in 1953: The skull of a modern person and the skillfully manipulated lower jaw bone of a monkey were buried in the gravel bed along with other fragments of animal bones and stone tools.

The Piltdown finds are kept in the archives of the Natural History Museum in London.

Discovery and Publication

The 1915 painting shows (from left) standing:
Frank O. Barlow, Grafton Elliot Smith , Charles Dawson , Arthur Smith Woodward ; seated: Arthur Swayne Underwood , Arthur Keith , William Plane Pycraft and Ray Lankester .

The exact circumstances under which the Piltdown skull was discovered have not been adequately documented. Charles Dawson reported that he was given a first fragment of a human skull by a worker while visiting the Piltdown gravel pit in 1908. He therefore repeatedly visited the gravel pit in the following years and discovered several other skull fragments. He gave each of these finds to Arthur Smith Woodward , curator of the geological department of the British Museum . Woodward was very interested in the finds and accompanied Dawson several times to the site, where they jointly found between June and September 1912 other parts of the skull and one half of a lower jawbone that was missing the joint attachment. At times, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin also took part in the excavations in the gravel pit.

On December 18, 1912, Arthur Smith Woodward and Charles Dawson announced during a meeting of the Geological Society of London that the skull fragments were an epoch-making find. Woodward's reconstruction based on the fragments found was largely similar to the skull of a modern person, with the exception of the occiput , a region at the transition from the skull to the spine, and the size of the brain, which is only about two-thirds of that of a modern person, and only approximately human-like teeth and the jawbone, which is no different from that of today's young chimpanzee. Relying on the high scientific authority of the British Museum, Woodward interpreted the Piltdown findings as a missing link between apes and humans. The scholars at the Natural History Museum in London ascribed - despite initial doubts - an age between 200,000 and 500,000 years. That would have made him much older than the Neanderthal. The announcement of the discovery immediately met with great interest both among experts and among the British population: The Manchester Guardian newspaper had already reported on the find at the beginning of December 1912, with the result that the meeting of the Geological Society of London was so well attended like none before. The news of the Piltdown find went as a sensation around the world. Over 500 scientific and journalistic publications dealt with the Eoanthropus dawsoni , including the overview The earliest Englishman by Arthur Smith Woodward, edited posthumously by Arthur Keith.

For the British and some US paleoanthropologists in particular, the find was a confirmation of their theoretical considerations that the development of a large brain was a prerequisite for the incarnation and that the growth of the brain was the development of other characteristics of modern humans (terrestrial way of life, more upright Gait, use of tools, development of language and culture). Therefore, the early onset of criticism of Woodward's reconstruction of the Piltdown fragments went largely unnoticed. At the Royal College of Surgeons , for example, copies of the fragments were used for a reconstruction that was much more like modern humans than Woodward's in terms of brain size and other properties. The reputation that Woodward enjoyed among his specialist colleagues ultimately prevented any open criticism of his reconstruction.

In 1915, Dawson claimed to have found fragments of a second skull in a location about two miles from the location of the original finds. After Dawson's death in the following year, the location in question (Piltdown II) could no longer be precisely identified, and the finds are poorly documented. Even Woodward does not seem to have visited the second site.

Commemoration of the discovery

Memorial stone at the site

On July 23, 1938, Sir Arthur Keith unveiled a memorial near Barkham Manor to mark the site where the Piltdown Man was discovered by Charles Dawson. Keith ended his address with the words:

“As long as a person is interested in his long-forgotten history, in the inconsistencies our early ancestors went through and in the changing events which overtook them, the name of Charles Dawson is sure to be remembered. We would do well to associate his name with this picturesque corner of Sussex - the scene of his discovery. I now have the honor of unveiling this monolith dedicated to his memory. "

The (translated) dedication on the memorial stone reads:

“Here in the old river gravel, Mr. Charles Dawson, FSA , 1912–1913 found the fossilized skull of the Piltdown man. The discovery was described by Mr. Charles Dawson and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 1913-15. "

The nearby pub was renamed "The Piltdown Man" in honor of the find.

Exposure of the forgery

The disclosure of the Piltdown forgery on November 21, 1953 by Wilfrid Le Gros Clark , Kenneth Page Oakley (1911-1981, British Museum ) and - on his initiative - Joseph Sidney Weiner (1915-1982, University of Oxford ) was in many academic circles received with relief. The Piltdown man had previously been viewed as a deviation that was completely in contradiction to the essential main direction of human evolution, as it appeared to show fossil hominini discovered in other places in the meantime . The method developed at the beginning of the 1950s to measure the fluoride content of fossils resulted in a different, but in any case far earlier, age for the Piltdown finds than the originally estimated date in the middle Pleistocene . A subsequent age determination by means of radiocarbon dating was able to prove in 1959 that both the skull and the lower jaw were only a few hundred years old. In doing so, she showed that the Piltdown Man is a composite fake.

The bones found consist of a medieval human skull, the 500 year old lower jaw of an orangutan and its teeth. The old age appearance was created by staining the bones with an iron solution and potassium dichromate. The area where the jaw joins the skull caused difficulties with the forgery, as the shape of the jaw differs significantly in monkeys and humans. This problem was solved by breaking off the tell-tale ends of the jaw. The teeth in the jaw were filed to match, and it was this filing that led to doubts about the credibility of the entire piece: it was noticed that the tip of one of the molars was beveled at a widely different angle from the other teeth. Microscopic examinations showed grinding marks on the teeth and it was concluded that the teeth had been machined to change their shape, since monkey teeth have a different shape of the cusps than human teeth. High-resolution X-rays revealed that the teeth and bones inside were filled with pebbles to make fossils heavier than recent bones.

Perhaps the most incredible find was an "artifact" near the bones that scientists believed was a tool or part of a skeleton. This petrified thigh bone of an elephant showed signs of processing by human hands, but no meaningful use could be ascribed to it. In 1914, its shape reminded some of the investigating scientists most closely of a cricket bat, but this finding had no further consequences at the time. Presumably the author of the forgery wanted to draw attention to his work, but the researchers around Woodward only saw their theories confirmed with each new find.

The level of technical competence of the Piltdown forgery remains a topic of discussion, but the special nature of the forgery lies in the fact that it offered the experts of the time exactly what they were looking for: convincing proof that human evolution started from the brain - and in Europe had taken place. It has also been suggested that nationalism and racism also played a role in the acceptance of the fossil as an original, as the demand had previously arisen that Britain needed a "First British" to oppose the fossil finds of hominids in others Parts of the world, particularly France and Germany, had been found.

Possible counterfeiters

The identity of the Piltdown forger remains as unknown as his motives. Many authors suspect that what is arguably the most famous natural science scam was a prank that got out of hand. Suspicions could be proven for all researchers involved in the find. So Dawson, Woodward, Teilhard de Chardin, the anatomists Arthur Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith were accused as well as Arthur Conan Doyle , who at the time lived 15 km from the site. He was assumed to have a motive for revenge because established science had violently attacked his research on spiritual beings.

Virtually everyone who has ever come into contact with the find has at some point been suspected of the crime. In 1978, for example, the London paleontologist Brian Gardiner brought another possible perpetrator into the discussion. He holds Martin Alister Campbell Hinton (1883–1961) for the originator of the farce. At the time of the find, Hinton had worked as a freelancer and until 1945 as a curator for zoology at the Natural History Museum in London and died in 1961. He left a trunk in the museum warehouse, which was found in 1978. The case contained animal bones and teeth that had been filed and stained in a manner similar to the Piltdown finds. Shortly before his death, Hinton had also written to a colleague how longingly he had dreamed as a young student of finding the missing link between man and monkey propagated by Charles Darwin in the hills of Sussex . He wrote that "the temptation to invent the discovery of an ape-man" could simply have been "irresistible", especially among "members of the paleontological community with unsound character". However, this suspicion did not go unchallenged either.

Other authors consider Charles Dawson to be the most likely originator of the forgery, since he was the only one to be present at all of the finds in Piltdown I, he only knew the Piltdown II site and there have been no further finds since his death in 1916. It is also proven that he presented a whole series of archaeological finds to science, which later turned out to be falsified, including Roman brick stamps and a figurine as allegedly the earliest evidence of the production of cast iron in Europe. Even if Dawson is considered the most likely forger of the Piltdown Man, it is doubted that he acted alone, and the question of possible accomplices still preoccupies scientists today. Scientific research from 2016 also makes it very likely that Charles Dawson produced the fakes himself.

Reception through pop culture

Already in 1917 created early short story Dagon by HP Lovecraft refers people to the Piltdown. Lovecraft also mentions him in the later short story The rats in the walls .

The Piltdown Men were an American instrumental rock band from Los Angeles that released some successful singles on Capitol Records in the early 1960s.

Mike Oldfield lists "Piltdown man" as one of the instruments he plays on his 1973 album Tubular Bells . This refers to the second track on the album, which was inspired by the early hominids and sung with a rough voice. In the 2003 reworking of the album, this part is called "Caveman".

In "The Psychiatrist", a 1979 episode of the Fawlty Towers , a guest from the lower class is referred to as a "Piltdown wimp".

In March 1994, Apple Computer introduced the Power Macintosh 6100, code-named "Piltdown Man". A little later in the same year, the Macintosh computer game Marathon was released, in which messages addressed to the protagonist with the word "piltdown" in the header can be read on the screen of small computer terminals. This is supposed to indicate that these messages are part of a deception and that their alleged sender does not even exist.

See also


  • Frank Spencer: Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery. Oxford University Press, 1990, ISBN 0198585225
  • Henry Gee : Box of bones 'clinches' identity of Piltdown palaeontology hoaxer. In: Nature . Volume 381, 1996, pp. 261 f., Doi: 10.1038 / 381261a0 , full text
  • John E. Walsh: Unraveling Piltdown: The science fraud of the century and its solution . Random House, New York 1996, ISBN 0-679-44444-0 ( excerpt ).
  • Christian Müller-Straten: Files closed: The "Wizard of Essex" and his world-famous Piltdown skull . In: Museum Aktuell. No. 216, 2015, pp. 23-30
  • Lydia Pyne: Piltdown: A Name Without a Fossil. Chapter 2 in: Dies .: Seven Skeletons. The Evolution of the World's Most Famous Human Fossils. Viking, New York 2016, pp. 51-83, ISBN 978-0-525-42985-2

Web links

Commons : Piltdown Man  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. See for example the original reports on the finds , the secondary reports and the overview works , all compiled on the Clark University homepage by Charles Blinderman and David Joyce.
  2. Arthur Smith Woodward: The earliest Englishman . Watts, London 1948 ( full text ).
  3. The Piltdown Man Discovery. Unveiling of a Monolith Memorial . In: Nature . Volume 142, July 30, 1938, pp. 196 f., Doi: 10.1038 / 142196a0 .
  4. Piltdown Man hoax findings: Charles Dawson the likely fraudster. On: nhm.ac.uk from August 10, 2016
    Study reveals culprit behind Piltdown Man, one of science's most famous hoaxes. On: sciencemag.org from August 9, 2016
  5. ^ Brian Gardiner / Andy Current: The Piltdown Hoax: Who done it? . Linnean Society of London 1996. See Henry Gee: Box of bones 'clinches' identity of Piltdown palaeontology hoaxer . In: Nature. Volume 381, 1996, pp. 261 f., Doi: 10.1038 / 381261a0 .
  6. Posse in the Pleistocene. In: Der Spiegel . No. 23, 1996, p. 198. See Roger Highfield: The charming eccentric with a passion for pranks. Old canvas trunk holds identity of Piltdown hoaxer . In: UK News Electronic Telegraph. May 23, 1996. The quote is literally: "The temptation to invent such a discovery of an ape-like man in a Wealden gravel might well have proved irresistible to some unbalanced member of old Ben Harrison's circle."
  7. "Martin Hinton, whom Gardiner now believes was the perpetrator, is just another to be added to this list. The evidence presented may show that he was involved, probably with others, but in no way is it proved. "Edward T. Hall: Riddle of the tenth man . In: Nature. Volume 381, 1996, p. 728, doi: 10.1038 / 381728a0 .
  8. Mike Pitts: Piltdown - Time To Stop The Slurs . In: British Archeology. Volume 74, January 2004.
  9. ^ Norman Hammon: Piltdown Founder the Faker? In: London Times. December 31, 1996 ( HTML version ).
  10. Piltdown Man hoax centenary event held on BBC News September 22, 2012
  11. Chris Stringer : The 100-year mystery of Piltdown Man. In: Nature. Volume 492, No. 7428, 2012, pp. 177-179, doi: 10.1038 / 492177a
  12. Isabelle De Groote et al .: New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created Piltdown man. In: Royal Society Open Science. Online publication of August 10, 2016, doi: 10.1098 / rsos.160328