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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 12:21 GMT
Science marks Piltdown forgery
Piltdown, BBC/Natural History Museum
A reconstruction of the head of Piltdown Man
Science remembers its most embarrassing moment on Friday, when it marks the 50th anniversary of the unmasking of the Piltdown Man fossils as fakes.

When first discovered in 1911-15, the skull remains were said to be those of our most ancient ancestor - a "missing" link in the evolution of man and apes.

But in 1953, it was shown they had merely been stained and chemically treated to make them look old.

Now the original specimens are to be shown at the Natural History Museum.

"I think the more people find out about it, the more complex the whole of the hoax story becomes," Sue Hordijienko, curator of the new exhibition, told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"People are starting to consider the possibility that there wasn't solely one hoaxer, but it might have been a number of different individuals."

But it is solicitor and amateur fossil hunter Charles Dawson who stands in the frame for the prime suspect.

He claimed to have been given skull fragments by workmen digging at Barkham Manor in Piltdown in east Sussex - a site not previously known for fossil finds.

Map, BBC
He then found more bones and animal fossils at the site, digging with his friend at the then British Museum (Natural History), Arthur Smith Woodward, the keeper of geology.

Together, they presented the Piltdown finds to the world as the "earliest known Englishman".

But as advances in paleoanthropology showed the human skull had evolved in a different way to Piltdown Man's, suspicions grew that something had to be wrong with the Sussex specimens.

And on 21 November 1953, the results of new tests on the fossil fragments were published, demonstrating how they had been altered to make them look 500,000 years old.

The skull fragments were actually medieval and the jawbone was not even human - it had come from an orang-utan.

Hoax damage

"The famed Piltdown skull - revered, respected and renowned throughout the scientific world, is partly a fake... 500,000 years of history have gone with a bang," said one newspaper at the time.

Although Dawson and even Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, have been implicated in the fraud, no one has ever been confirmed as the faker.

Cottingley Fairies
Arthur Conan Doyle was among those who believed in the Cottingley Fairies
"Fifty years later, after the hoax was apparently exploded, we're still wondering who did it and why they did it," said Nick Yap, author of the book Great Hoaxes Of The World. "That makes it a very great hoax indeed."

Due to its very nature of discovery, science has always attracted a great number of hoaxes.

Famous examples include crop circles and faked photographs of aliens, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster.

While most are harmless - if inconvenient - pranks, some could go badly wrong, Mr Yap pointed out.

In the 1930s, Austrian scientist Dr Paul Kammerer was attempting to prove that creatures could pass on characteristics acquired during their lives - so-called Lamarckian inheritance.

He took for his subject midwife toads, which he claimed if forced to mate in water would soon grow the black, scaly pads on their hindlimbs found on other amphibians that normally copulate in ponds - and that subsequent generations would also have this trait.

The "nuptial pads" allow some frogs to hang on to each other while they mate.

Foolish fairies

"His experiments seemed to work," Mr Yap stated. "What he didn't know was that his assistants were actually coming out with Indian ink and painting the toads overnight.

"When he did discover this, the poor man went off into the Austrian hillside and blew his brains out."

Not all hoaxes have such tragic consequences - some only damage reputations.

"There're a lot of us who are suckers for hoaxes, and some people seem to almost make a profession out of it," Mr Yap said.

Arthur Conan Doyle was a great believer in Piltdown Man - and, also, more famously, in the Cottingley Fairies - seemingly shown in photographs taken by two Yorkshire schoolgirls in 1917.

Conan Doyle, who knew the family, was convinced - he even claimed that in one photo, the navel of an elf could be seen.

But in fact it was the head of a hatpin that had been used to attach fairy cut-outs to trees.

Only in the early 1980s did the girls admit to their hoax.

"It's astonishing that the actual fairies that are photographed were cut out of a book called Princess Mary's Birthday Book, which had a mammoth circulation in the First World War," Mr Yap said.

"You would think somebody recognised it."

Piltdown Man: The Context And Exposure Of A Scientific Forgery is an exhibition that runs at the Natural History Museum from 25 November.

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