From 1912 until about 1953, biologists interested in human evolution were being duped.
One hundred years ago, Charles Dawson presented his new find, a transitional fossil of an organism that plainly appeared part human and part ape, bearing a number of hallmarks of being a ‘missing link’ between modern man and early ancestors.. The fossil, found in Piltdown, England and was dubbed Eoanthropus dawsoni and was accepted as a welcome addition to the record of humanity’s existence.
It was just what was expected.
The Piltdown Gang
Expectations make fertile soil for a hoax. Darwin’s work predicted such a find would be made. The question was merely, who would find it? What would it look like? And how famous would this make the man who discovered it?
“Sir Arthur Keith, famous British paleontologist, spent more than five years piecing together the fragments of what he called a ‘remarkable’ discovery. He said the brain case was ‘primitive in some respects but in all its characteristics distinctly human.'”1
Over time, When the skull fragments of E. dawsoni, commonly called Piltdown man, were examined, doubts were raised as to whether it represented a single organism or several, which just happened to become mixed together in the unearthing. But these doubts took decades to culminate into action.
The best way to address the question was to determine whether the several pieces of skull were at least contemporaries of one another. They could still be a jumble, but it was a start. To assess the age of the fragments, fluorine dating was done. This method is used to determine the amount of time that a sample has been buried underground. The principle is that groundwater contains fluorine and the longer a sample remains buried, the more fluorine will become absorbed into the sample. This testing confirmed that the samples could still have come from the same source, but that they were both considerably more recent that initially suggested.2
Following this analysis, Carbon dating gave a more accurate age of the samples themselves indicating that they were both quite recent, but not from the same organism. Once this data came in, the house of cards fell and a number of other observations came to light confirming the hoax.
What does this teach us?
1. Science is difficult business. When everyone is working honestly, it is difficult. When people are willfully trying to subvert the process, it can take years to remedy. (I immediately think of the damage done by Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 Lancet paper and subsequent work that undermined the public’s trust in vaccines)
2. Science is self-correcting. Again, this can take time, but eventually, mistakes are worked out and our understanding of the world gradually improves.
3. People are people. With an obvious prize, people sometimes make their own luck.
4. No single experiment will always give accurate data. Extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence.
1. “The Piltdown Man Discovery: Unveiling of a Monolith Memorial”Nature 142, 196-197 (30 July 1938) | doi:10.1038/142196a0
2. “Relative Dating of the Piltdown Skull” Kenneth P. Oakley, Advancement of Science 1950