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9. Piltdown Man 1912

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The “Piltdown Man” is a famous hoax consisting of fragments of a skull and jawbone collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, a village near Uckfield, East Sussex. The fragments were thought by many experts of the day to be the fossilised remains of a hitherto unknown form of early human. The Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni (“Dawson’s dawn-man”, after the collector Charles Dawson) was given to the specimen.

The Piltdown hoax is perhaps the most famous archaeological hoax in history. It has been prominent for two reasons: the attention paid to the issue of human evolution, and the length of time (more than 40 years) that elapsed from its discovery to its exposure as a forgery. It was exposed in 1953 as a forgery, consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan combined with the skull of a fully developed, modern man. The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown, but suspects have included Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Arthur Conan Doyle as well as numerous others.

From the outset, there were scientists who expressed skepticism about the Piltdown find. G.S. Miller, for example, observed in 1915 that “deliberate malice could hardly have been more successful than the hazards of deposition in so breaking the fossils as to give free scope to individual judgment in fitting the parts together.” In the decades prior to its exposure as a forgery in 1953, scientists increasingly regarded Piltdown as an enigmatic aberration inconsistent with the path of hominid evolution as demonstrated by fossils found elsewhere.

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