|Piltdown Man © wood engraving (ed. 40) image: 7 x 5 in. $70.00 (go to "Hi There" for purchase information)|
A hoax in the early 1900s set the science of paleontology back decades. A road crew, digging in a gravel pit near the town of Piltdown, England, came upon some bone fragments. They took the fragments to a local lawyer named Charles Dawson who was an amateur paleontologist. He, in turn, took the fragments to Arthur Woodward of the British Museum. Charles and Arthur went to the site and "discovered" other fragments which they claimed were from the same individual. Not to be outdone by Neanderthal in Germany and Cro-Magnon in France, British Scientists welcomed this "discovery". It wasn't until the 50s, when all the characters of this story had passed away and Piltdown Man was accepted in scientific textbooks, that a couple of scientists did some checking. They found that, though a portion of the skull was 50,000 years old, the jawbone was that of a contemporary primate which had been treated with chemicals and had some dental work to make it appear old and human-like. So who pulled off this hoax? Was it the crew working on the road? Doubtful. Was it the lawyer? Maybe. But he would have to either fool the scientist from the British Museum or the scientist was part of the hoax too. But wait! There's another player in this game. Years later a trunk was discovered in the British Museum which had belonged to Martin Hinton, an employee who had held a grudge against Woodward. Fragments of bone which had been treated with the same chemicals as the "Piltdown Man" ape jawbone were found in the trunk.
Who is that masked man behind the phony skull and the ape jawbone?
A final footnote to this story: The author who believed in fairies and the spirit world, and who had a strong interest in paleontology, Arthur Conan Doyle, lived near Piltdown and supported the "discovery"!
Back to Collection of Odd-Balls
Back to Wood Engravings