I want to believe: Piltdown Man and the truly British hominid
“In Piltdown Common, Sussex, England, an English paleontologist, Mr. Dawson, discovered, about a year ago, a fairly complete human skull representing the most ancient relic of the human race in the British Isles, and one of the oldest found anywhere.”
Scientific American, January 1913
Until its unmasking in 1953, Piltdown Man was considered to be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of its time. It was described in contemporary accounts as “evidently one of the most important archæological “finds” ever made” , and by Lankester in 1915 as “the most startling and significant fossil bone that has ever been brought to light. The Neandermen and the Java skull-top are simply commonplace and insignificant in comparison with it.”.
It was only after the weight of real evidence of hominid evolution made the features of the skull increasingly anomalous that the fraud was revealed.
So why did they do it? And why did so many people believe the hoax? Though there were a number of possible suspects, including local solicitor Charles Dawson and geologist Arthur Smith-Woodward, the actual perpetrators were never proven.
Once the Piltdown find was thoroughly examined, it proved easy to dismiss as a fraud. As Sir Gavin de Beer said in 1954, “We have laid the ghost of Piltdown Man, who, as it happens, never fitted very happily into any scheme of man’s evolution.”. However this critical review did not take place until 1953.
Why did it take so long to discredit an obvious fraud? A number of reasons were suggested by Richard Harter in 1996. These included the credentials of the discoverers, a willingness to believe from the wider palaeontological community, a lack of scientific tools to prove the fraud, the skill of the forgery, the match of the fraud to prevailing scientific knowledge, and sheer luck.
The Piltdown “discovery” took place in a period of rapid development in the relatively young field of palaeontology, with a number of important discoveries being made in Asia and Europe.
At the same time, Britain’s star was in decline; its competitive economic position had been deteriorating since the 1880s . Stringer notes that “by 1912, British archaeologists […] were desperate for a convincing early Briton.” . In the pre-Great War context, the temptation to manufacture a truly “British” hominid must have been great. Both Dawson and Smith-Woodward stood to gain personally from the fraud, but the contemporary archaeological establishment were also culpable in their uncritical acceptance of the find.
In the end, the fakery of Piltdown Man was unnecessary to the human story in Britain. Excavations at Boxgrove in 1993 (only 70km from Piltdown) confirmed the presence of Homo heidelbergensis in Britain back as far as 500,000BC. Stone tools discovered at nearby Pakefield between 1998 and 2002 pushed the first human presence back to around 700,000 years ago.
The Literary Digest asked the telling question in 1915 – “Is it right to call a man who lived in what is now Sussex many thousand of years ago–so far in prehistoric times that he had not altogether lost ape-like characteristics–an “Englishman”?”
Recent discoveries have shown that the early “British” people are almost certainly unrelated to the modern people of Britain. The early history of Britain is one of tentative settlement, failure to thrive in adverse conditions and local extinction, with at least seven abandonments of settlement over the 700,000 years . Continuous habitation in Britain dates back at most 11,500 years.
So even if Piltdown Man were genuine, he would not have, after all, been the truly “British” hominid that the times craved.
2. Buckley, Dr Ian. “A Case History: Britain, Empire Decline and the Origins of World War One.“The British Empire. N.p., 2007. Web. 16th Jan 2013.