Men digging at the site in Sussex where Piltdown Man was discovered in 1912. For years thought to be an evolutionary missing link, it was in fact a hoax. Photograph by Nils Jorgensen/REX
by Alice Roberts
The history of palaeontology is littered with examples of famous frauds and fakes, often with eminent researchers in the field being thoroughly hoodwinked by some fairly shoddy fabrications.
One of the most famous is Piltdown Man. Discovered in a gravel pit in Sussex in 1912, a few ancient-looking fragments of a skull and jawbone quickly became hailed as evidence of a very early type of human, perhaps half a million years old.
The specimens were named Eoanthropus dawsoni (“Dawson’s dawn man”), after their discoverer, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson.
Piltdown Man was considered genuine until the 1940s, when new dating techniques and reanalysis of the bones began to provide damning evidence: the skull fragments came from a modern human and the jawbone from a young orangutan.
Even without accurate dating techniques, it’s astonishing how many scientists were taken in. Back in 1912, genuine fossils of early human species had already been discovered in France and Germany.
Piltdown, taken at face value, provided the eager Brits with an even more ancient and ape-like ancestor, while Dawson himself became a celebrity.