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Last Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Piltdown's lessons for modern science
By Professor Chris Stringer
Natural History Museum

A new book reveals how recent research has uncovered a goldmine of information about the history of human habitation in Britain.
Piltdown skull   Image: Natural History Museum/BBC
The Piltdown skull fooled scientists for more than 40 years

Here, Homo britannicus author Chris Stringer describes how efforts to search for evidence of early Britons were hampered by wrong turns and false leads, including the granddaddy of all scientific forgeries.

In the early years of the 20th Century, British archaeologists were becoming increasingly desperate for a human fossil to show that our island had deep prehistoric roots.

Our greatest rival, Germany, had the Heidelberg jaw and the original Neanderthal bones. France had Neanderthal fossils and early modern humans at Cro-Magnon to complement their beautiful cave art. Even the Dutch had Java Man, which they had brought back from the Dutch East Indies.

Stone handaxes had been found in Britain, so it was clear that early people had lived here. Some scientists also believed in more primitive stone tools called eoliths, though we now know these were often no more than naturally broken rocks. The absence of a single significant human fossil from Britain was conspicuous.

The time was right for the appearance of Piltdown Man: the earliest Englishman with the earliest cricket bat.

Not cricket

Charles Dawson, a British solicitor and amateur fossil hunter, claimed that some time before 1910, a workman had handed him a thick, dark-stained piece of human skull that had been found in gravels at the village of Piltdown in Sussex.

The "cricket bat"   Image: BBC/Natural History Museum
The "cricket bat" would have threatened Dawson's plans
By 1912, Dawson had found more of the skull, and had contacted his friend Arthur Smith Woodward, the keeper of geology at the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum, where I work).

Together, they excavated the Piltdown site, where they discovered more skull fragments, fossil animal bones, stone tools and a remarkable lower jaw.

Additional finds, including a bizarre elephant bone implement shaped like a cricket bat, helped swing the opinions of British sceptics in favour of the discovery. But Piltdown's days were numbered. Discoveries of possible human ancestors in Africa and Asia in the 1920s and 1930s pushed Piltdown into an increasingly peripheral position.

Part of the cleverness of the hoax was the way in which it suited preconceived ideas about what early humans should look like
Finally, in 1953, stringent scientific tests were applied, exposing the lower jaw as a forgery. Later analyses would show the whole assemblage of bones and fossils at Piltdown had been planted.

The human skull was that of a modern person, the jaw from an orang-utan. Both had been artificially stained to match the gravels.

Charles Dawson remains the prime suspect. He was the first person to seriously search for and report fossils at the site and was present when all the major finds were made.

He is now linked with several suspected forgeries, most of which were "missing links" between previously known stages in either evolution or technology.

Sent off course

Dawson was daring to a point, but he took things one step at a time. For example, he waited until experts predicted what size Piltdown Man's canine would be and, lo and behold, the next year a canine turned up of just the right size.

The dig at Piltdown   Image: Natural History Museum
The time was right for an early Englishman to emerge
However, I don't think Dawson would have done something as grotesque and outrageous as the "cricket bat", as it would have threatened the entire story he was trying to construct. Martin Hinton, a volunteer in Smith Woodward's department at the British Museum and later the Keeper of Zoology, had the means and motive to create this object.

In the 1970s, a canvas trunk bearing the initials MH was found in loft space above the old Keeper of Zoology's office. Inside were mammal teeth and bones carved in the style of the Piltdown material.

We also know from letters that Hinton was aware the Piltdown finds were suspect. I think he made and planted this absurd object to warn the forgers that the game was up - only to find it hailed as one of the earliest known bone implements.

1912 - Discoveries publicised
1914 - 'Cricket bat' surfaces
1915 - Charles Dawson dies
1949 - Piltdown ages queried
1953 - Fossil fakes unmasked
Piltdown was particularly damaging for us in Britain, because British scientists clung to it for far longer than they should have done. It clouded their judgment and affected their interpretations of genuine fossils.

For example, when australopithecine fossils started to turn up in South Africa during the 1920s, prominent British-based anatomists like Sir Arthur Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith wouldn't take them seriously because they believed in Piltdown Man.

Lessons learnt

Part of the cleverness of the hoax was the way in which it suited preconceived ideas about what early humans should look like.

Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith thought a large brain was such an important part of humans today that it must have a long and deep evolutionary history. Piltdown had a high, domed skull with a large brain, confirming their belief in the antiquity of these features in the human lineage.

Seven-hundred-thousand-year old stone tool from Pakefield   Image: Natural History Museum/Harry Taylor
Stone tools from Pakefield in Suffolk are 700,000 years old
In other countries, Piltdown was viewed with more caution if not downright suspicion. The scientist Franz Weidenreich, who fled Nazi Germany to work in the US during the 1930s, had seen what a potential human ancestor could look like after working on the Peking Man fossils from China. Of course, they looked nothing like Piltdown Man.

He said of Piltdown: "The sooner the chimaera 'Eoanthropus' is erased from the list of human fossils, the better for science."

Weidenreich didn't have an explanation for it and he couldn't say outright that it was a fake; but he knew there was something seriously wrong with it.

In other countries, Piltdown was viewed with more caution if not downright suspicion
Hopefully, the Piltdown saga has taught those of us who study the evolution of humans some important lessons that we should apply today.

Firstly, we mustn't let preconceived ideas run away with us. Secondly, specimens have to pass certain basic tests.

Science thrives on scepticism, which is why the extraordinary discovery of the "Hobbit" fossils in Indonesia has prompted a lively scientific debate over its status.

Science is also self-correcting. In Britain, during the first half of the 20th Century, people simply shut their minds to other evidence and continued to believe in Piltdown because it fitted their beliefs and was the only significant human fossil we had.

Further work

We now have genuine human fossils to speak of from Britain, including a shinbone and teeth from Boxgrove dating to about 500,000 years ago and part of the skull of an early Neanderthal that was unearthed at Swanscombe in Kent.

Homo floresiensis (l) and Homo sapiens (r)   Image: PA
The discovery of the "Hobbit" fossils has prompted a lively debate
The first phase of our Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project has pushed back the evidence of humans in Britain by 200,000 years.

We have also shown that humans tried to settle in Britain at least eight times, but on seven of those occasions they subsequently perished as Britain was hit by successive ice advances.

In the second phase of AHOB, due to last until 2010, we plan to uncover further details about these ancient colonisations.

Piltdown Man is now on show once again, at an exhibition in Bonn, Germany, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the original Neanderthal fossil.

It still gets a lot of attention, because it is, as much as anything, a whodunit story.

Once proudly held up as the earliest known Englishman, Piltdown is now displayed as a lesson from the past, of a prehistory of Britain and a stage of human evolution that never was.

Homo britannicus is published by Penguin Books. Chris Stringer is Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum in London. He is also director of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project.

Delving deep into Britain's past
01 Oct 06 |  Science/Nature
Britain's human history revealed
05 Sep 06 |  Science/Nature
Tools unlock secrets of early man
14 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature
Fossil fools: Return to Piltdown
13 Nov 03 |  Science/Nature
Charles Dawson: 'The Piltdown faker'
21 Nov 03 |  Science/Nature


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