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After three years of digging in the Piltdown gravel pit in Sussex, England, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announces the discovery of two skulls that appear to belong to a primitive hominid and ancestor of man, along with a canine tooth, a tool carved from an elephant’s tusk, and fossil teeth from a number of prehistoric animals.
Despite muted criticism from a minority of paleontologists, the majority of the scientific community hailed the so-called Piltdown Man as the missing evolutionary link between ape and man. The remains were estimated to be up to a million years old. For the next decade, scientists heralded the finding of Eoanthropus dawsoni, or “Dawson’s Dawn-man” in Latin, as confirmation of Darwin’s still-controversial theory of human evolution.
In the 1920s and ’30s, however, the Piltdown gravels were found to be much less ancient than believed, and other finds of human ancestors around the world seemed to call the authenticity of the Piltdown Man into question. In 1953, at an international congress of paleontologists, the Piltdown Man was first openly called a fraud. An intensive study of the remains showed that they were made up of a modern human cranium–no more than 600 years old; the jaw and teeth of an orangutan; and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Microscopic tests indicated that the teeth had been doctored with a file-like tool to make them seem more human. Scientists also found that the bones had been treated with chemicals to make them appear older. Other fossils found in the Piltdown quarry proved to be authentic but of types not found in Britain.
The person who orchestrated the hoax never came forward, but in 1996 a trunk in storage at the British Museum was found to contain fossils treated in the exact same manner as the Piltdown remains. The trunk bore the initials M.A.C.H., which seemed to suggest that Martin A.C. Hinton, a volunteer at the British Museum in 1912 and later a curator of zoology at the institution, was likely the culprit. Some theorized that he was attempting to embarrass Arthur Smith Woodward, curator of the British Museum’s paleontology department, because Woodward had refused Hinton’s request for a weekly pay raise.
The Piltdown Man: The Greatest Scientific Fraud of the 20th Century
If today we were to read that the remains of the first Englishman in history have been unearthed along with his cricket bat, we would immediately dismiss it as fake news. But a little more than a century ago was another epoch, not only in terms of more limited scientific knowledge, but also of self-serving biases that kept such bizarre news alive for 41 years. It was not until 21 November 1953 that the greatest scientific fraud of the twentieth century, the Piltdown Man, was officially refuted.
In February 1912, palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward, curator of geology at the Natural History Museum in London, received a letter from Charles Dawson, a lawyer by profession and an enthusiast of hunting antiquities. They were united by a long friendship centred on their common passion for fossils, and on that occasion Dawson brought great news: in a river gravel pit near Piltdown, in Sussex, he had discovered fossil fragments of a human skull. The first piece had been found four years earlier by a worker in the pit, and later Dawson himself had recovered several more pieces.
Skull of the “Eoanthropus Dawsoni” (Piltdown Man). Credit: Wellcome Images
From June to September, Dawson and Woodward excavated the gravel pit, with the occasional collaboration of the French Jesuit and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The campaign was a resounding success: in addition to additional fragments of the skull, they also recovered a partial jaw, teeth, fossils of animals and some primitive tools. On 18 December 1912, Dawson and Woodward presented to the Geological Society the brand new reconstruction of the skull of Eoanthropus dawsoni, a missing link between apes and humans that would have lived half a million years ago.
Brain versus brawn
The man of Piltdown. Photograph: Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Three special features mark out Homo sapiens from the rest of the primate world. We walk upright we make complex tools and we have big brains. And of these features, it was thought – for a long time – that big brains came first. They drove a need to free hands and arms in order to make tools – which our developing intellects subsequently invented. Hence the easy reception given to the finds at Piltdown. They accorded with the notion that human intellect has a deep-rooted evolutionary past. But we now know that this sequence is not the case. Upright stance came first, tools came later and big brains, measured in terms of modern human standards, arrived last. The Piltdown forgery was a bad guess.
Archaeoraptor Liaoningensis: Fake Dinosaur-bird ancestor
The most recent and perhaps the most infamous evolution frauds was committed in China and published in 1999 in the journal National Geographic 196:98-107, November 1999. Dinosaur bones were put together with the bones of a newer species of bird and they tried to pass it off as a very important new evolutionary intermediate.
"Feathers For T-Rex?", Christopher P. Sloan, National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 196, No. 5, November, 1999, pp.99,100,105Interesting Quote - "National Geographic has reached an all-time low for engaging in sensationalistic, unsubstantiated, tabloid journalism" Storrs L. Olson, Smithsonian Institution
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News Articles Published on The Archaeoraptor Liaoningensis Discovery
New technologies have allowed scientists to subject the bones to fresh scrutiny.
The research team found that it is highly likely a single orangutan specimen and at least two human specimens, possibly from the medieval period, were used to create the fake fossils.
We now know the orangutan specimen was likely a member of the subspecies that lives in Sarawak, Borneo.
CT scans revealed the teeth were filled with gravel from the Piltdown sites. This image shows pebbles in the molar found at Piltdown II.
The research reveals that the whole collection of bones was prepared for the fraud in the same way.
Prof Stringer explains, 'The same modifications were made on the orangutan and human material from both the Piltdown sites.
Through our scientific tests, we have shown it is likely that the same orangutan jaw was used.
'It points to the central involvement of Charles Dawson, the only person known to be connected with the supposed discoveries at the second Piltdown site.'
X-ray imaging and high-resolution CT scans showed several of the bones and teeth had been loaded with gravel and the holes plugged with small pebbles, all of which came from sediment similar to that found at Piltdown.
A gravel block from Piltdown inside the Museum's CT scanner © Karolyn Shindler
As well as this, the same putty was used throughout the bones to both hold the gravel plugs in place and restore one of the teeth in the orangutan jaw.
DNA analysis has linked the canine and molar teeth from the two separate Piltdown sites to the same orangutan individual.
Lead author Dr Isabelle De Groote from Liverpool John Moores University, adds, ‘Although multiple individuals have been accused of producing the fake fossils, our analyses to understand the modus operandi show consistency between all the different specimens and on both sites.
'It is clear from our analysis that this work was likely all carried out by one forger: Charles Dawson.’
What’s the damage done?
This lack of transparency resulted in an absence of accurate information in the scientific community.
It ultimately took until the later decades of the 20th century for the Piltdown bones to be fully discredited. The hoax was likely created by Dawson himself, though who exactly concocted the scam is still debated – “Sherlock Holmes” author Arthur Conan Doyle’s name has even been mentioned as a possible perpetrator.
As Berkeley anthropologist Sherwood Washburn offered in a letter, “My opinion is that if more people had seen the originals sooner the fake would have been recognized.” Confusion had arisen because so few scholars were granted access to the original evidence.
Part of what finally put Piltdown Man to rest was the nature of new discoveries emerging. They informed researchers’ developing understanding of the human past and began turning much scientific attention away from Europe toward Asia and Africa.
While it is impossible to know with certainty, the Piltdown Man episode likely slowed scientific progress in the global search for human ancestors. What is clear is that the claims worked to muddle popular knowledge about human evolution.
Published on 10/31/2019
CATEGORIES: Origin Stories
The latest episode of The Leakey Foundation’s Origin Stories podcast explores the story of the infamous Piltdown Man hoax.
When Piltdown Man was discovered in a gravel pit outside a small English village in 1912, it was celebrated as a “missing link.” The find captured the public’s imagination and became world-famous. The problem was that Piltdown Man was a complete fraud. The purported fossils were actually made up of modern human bones and an orangutan mandible.
The Piltdown hoax suspects have included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, and the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. Now, more than 100 years later, scientists have narrowed the suspects down to a single culprit.
Research published in 2016 by Isabelle de Groote et al. used DNA analyses, high-precision measurements, spectroscopy, and virtual anthropology to tie all of the evidence to one person.
Listen and share!
This episode of Origin Stories was produced by Leo Hornak and edited by Julia Barton with sound design by Katie McMurran. The host and series producer is Meredith Johnson, our senior producer is Catherine Girardeau.
You can also listen to Dr. Joseph Weiner’s Leakey Foundation lecture on Piltdown Man. Weiner was one of the first people to expose the Piltdown fraud. This lecture was recorded in 1980.
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In 1912 Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist claimed to have discovered the ‘missing link’ between ape and man. He had found part of a human-like skull in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown village in Sussex, England.
Dawson wrote to Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum at the time, about his find.
Dawson and Smith Woodward started working together, making further discoveries in the area. They found a set of teeth, a jawbone, more skull fragments and primitive tools, which they suggested belonged to the same individual.
Smith Woodward made a reconstruction of the skull fragments, and the archaeologists hypothesised that the find indicated evidence of a human ancestor living 500,000 years ago. They announced their discovery at a Geological Society meeting in 1912. For the most part, their story was accepted in good faith.
However, in 1949 new dating technology arrived that changed scientific opinion on the age of the remains Using fluorine tests, Dr Kenneth Oakley, a geologist at the Natural History Museum, discovered that the Piltdown remains were only 50,000 years old. This eliminated the possibility of the Piltdown Man being the missing link between humans and apes as at this point in time humans had already developed into their Homo sapiens form.
Following this, biological anthropologist Dr Joseph Weiner and human anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, both from Oxford University, worked with Dr Oakley to further test the age of the Piltdown findings. Their results showed that the skull and jaw fragments actually came from two different species, a human and an ape, probably an orangutan.
Scratches on the surfaces of the teeth, visible under the microscope, revealed that the teeth had been filed down to make them look human. They also discovered that most of the finds from the Piltdown site had been artificially stained to match the local gravels.
The conclusion: Piltdown Man was an audacious fake and a sophisticated scientific fraud.
We hold many documents and photographs relating to the Piltdown Man, including correspondence between Woodward Smith and Dr Oakley and communications within the Museum’s palaeontology department. The Museum also has a large collection of photographs of the original findings and cranial restoration. There are also a number of Museum publications on the Piltdown story.
9 Fossils and Finds That Were Total Fakes
Some ruses can only go on so long before the fraud is uncovered. Here are just a few "remains" someone tried to pass off as the real deal before getting caught.
Perhaps the most notorious fraud in the search for a "missing link" (which is a misnomer, by the way) was the Piltdown Man. Charles Dawson, who proclaimed the find in 1912, was rather, shall we say, eccentric. The non-credentialed paleontologist and anthropologist had plenty of discoveries under his belt, ranging from valid to fallacious to outright frauds, before Piltdown rocked the world.
There's plenty of reasons to be suspicious of any claimed "missing link," and that's especially true for a skull found in a quarry in the United Kingdom, far from the source of the great apes in Africa. Dawson proclaimed the Piltdown man fell somewhere between apes and humans.
Not so much. It turned out in the end that Piltdown was a great ape, but a 1953 investigation conducted long after Dawson's death revealed it to be a modern ape bleached and artificially weathered to look like a 500,000-year-old jawbone. Research from 2010 suggests that Dawson acted alone in the fraud.
A 1924 paper in Scienceput forth a remarkable discovery: a tooth that seemed to indicate that North America, and Nebraska in particular, had a great ape to call its own (aside from Sasquatch, of course).
There was no deliberate hoax behind Nebraska Man, but there was no Nebraska Man, either. The fossil was that of a wild pig called a peccary. Though now confined to Central and South America, the piggies roamed the Great Plains in the Pleistocene.
Nevertheless, the story of Nebraska Man snowballed out of control after the 1920s announcement. Harold Cook, the rancher who found it, simply believed it to be a higher primate. The press spun it out of control until it was practically a Nebraska caveman. This, in turn, caused the creationist community to seize on the fossil as evidence of flimsy evidence for a progression to humanity. Really, it was just a pig's tooth and Darwin is still right.
Some of the most important dino fossil discoveries have come out of China. But so have a few frauds.
Here's what we know: warm blooded dinosaurs, usually predatory carnivores, made the slow evolutionary step into birds we see today, including ducks. Yes, you have to accept the duck as a dinosaur, despite all your better judgment.
But as with much of the fossil record, there are blanks to fill in. An animal's bones don't simply become a fossil. The climate has to be right for the sediments to settle in without erosion, leading to incomplete fossils and other blanks to fill in. A once-arid region may turn wet, or migration may move animals from one climate to another, leaving holes in the path between the velociraptor-like dinosaurs and the mallard.
So it was with some fanfare that the archaeoraptor came to the forefront in 1999, but not without heavy reservation. Put simply, the scientific community didn't buy it, but National Geographic did. Author John Pickrell attributes the phenomenon of fake fossils on poor farmers in China hoping to carve out a little cash.
A paper in Nature caught the fraud by identifying the specific parts. It seems that various dinosaur fossils were applied to remains of a Yanornis martini , a newly discovered early bird.
I'm just going to throw this out there: if you find what appears to be the remains of a 10-foot previously unknown mummified giant in upstate New York, odds are that it's a fake.
George Hull ordered the gypsum statue to be carved in 1868, moving it slowly between artisans before bringing it to upstate New York. There it was "discovered" and became something of an attraction. Of course, the victims of the hoax weren't scientists, but the general public dropping a couple quarters to see what they thought was a genuine giant.
Hull himself really just wanted to prove that religious people would buy anything that fit into a Biblical narrative, marking the Cardiff Giant as not just a hoax, but a rather mean-spirited one.
The real story behind the Alyoshenka myth is very shaky, complicated by the lack of present evidence of its existence. But in certain, shall we say "less skeptical" UFO circles, it is a legend.
The Alyoshenka story, as it stands, is that a woman in the Ural Mountains of Russia found a premature child in an area that was once a testing grounds for nuclear weapons. Authorities were alerted, the woman was taken to a mental health facility, and the child was taken soon after.
Due to its deformities, some believed it to be authentic proof of an alien child, especially when the myth spread that it was taken away by the regional government. In many spurious sources, it resurfaces every few years, including claims of DNA testing. Some prove it's an alien, others not so much. If in fact Alyoshenka was ever real at all, it was likely the result of mutation or medical malady rather than extraterrestrial origin.
The Fannia scalaris, also known as the latrine fly, is very much a real insect. Sometime in the mid-19th century, an amber-encased fly was sold to a British collector. Over the years, it traded hands before arriving in 1922 at Britain's Natural History Museum. In 1966, a scientific study remarked on the similarities between the supposedly historic specimen and the latrine fly.
That's because it was a latrine fly. Whoever forged it encased a modern day fly in amber at a time when preserved insects were a hot, sought-after item. A chance 1993 handling of the specimen discovered the seam in the amber, leading to the uncovering of a nearly 150-year-old forgery.
In 1878, E.D. Cope reported the discovery of a vertebrate belong to what would be the largest dinosaur to ever live, the Amphicoelias fragillimus . Just that one bone was reported to be five feet tall, making the whole creature a titanic 190-foot-long dino. But as relayed in a 2016 story on FiveThirtyEight, there is a slight problem: nobody knows where the vertebrate is. And nobody is entirely sure it existed at all.
Rivalries between scientists in the 19th centuries may have given rise to the rumors of the fossil, which eventually found its way into the records of the American Museum of Natural History. However, the bone itself never arrived at the museum, it seems. Further evidence claims that most long-neck dinosaurs would top out at about 100 feet long, making the existence of this behemoth improbable.
Did dinosaur and man ever walk side-by-side? Well, take a look at this photo and get back to me. The simple answer: we walk side-by-side with their descendants today. As for the terrible thundering lizards themselves, they were all driven to extinction 65 million years ago. (If you're thinking of Nessie right now, cool your jets. The plesiosaurs were actually marine reptiles.)
The Piluxy River site in Texas has some of the most famous dinosaur tracks in the nation, but a few of them (pictured over here) seem to show intertwined human and dinosaur tracks. Lo, there were two sets of tracks, and then one, and it's because the carnivorous raptors were carrying us (in their mouths) all along, right?
Despite this picture becoming a favorite of creationists, evidence refutes that these were human tracks at all. Rather, research showed that the prints were likely dinosaur footprints making a certain impression in the ground, and that portions of the toes can still be seen despite erosion.
Mermaids are supposed to be beautiful, majestic temptresses luring sailors into the ocean deep. The Fiji mermaid was none of those things. An artifact of P.T. Barnum (arch entertainer, circus founder, and amiable con artist), the Fiji mermaid was a monkey torso sewn on to a fish backside and reported to be the mummified remains of a mermaid.
After purchasing it in 1842, Barnum incorporated it as a sideshow attraction in his circus. Eventually, the relic was "lost" in a fire, though there are some doubts as to this being its real fate given the number of copies and knock offs that proliferated after the original was first put on display.