Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1953, 'Piltdown Man' was exposed as a hoax.

Piltdown man was an alleged species of extinct hominid, discovered in Piltdown, Sussex, whose fossil remains intrigued scientists for years, but was later exposed as fraudulent.  

Between 1908 and 1912, Charles Dawson, a lawyer by profession and a geologist by preference, discovered fragments of what he took to be a prehistoric creature, including a cranium and a jawbone. Dawson took the specimens to A S Woodward of the Palaeontology Department of the British Museum who pronounced them to be a previously unknown humanoid creature. Woodward declaimed that this specimen was the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans. The new species was named Eoanthropus Dawsoni (Dawson’s Dawn Man), in honour of its discoverer.  

Many eminent scientists of the day accepted the remains as genuine. Woodward reconstructed a skull from the fragments. Constant revisits of the sight brought forth more pieces including two human-like molar teeth, worn down by constant use. There was some criticism from the Royal College of Surgeons who use copies of the fragments and constructed a skull of different proportions. Other types of humanoid, known as Neanderthals, had been discovered in other parts of the world but they differed from Piltdown Man in the proportions of the cranium. Overall the discovery was taken as genuine and as proof that human evolution had taken place in Britain and not just in France or Germany or Africa as some foreigners were suggesting.  

However, in later years, certain suspicions began to arise. In 1926, it was discovered that the Piltdown gravels were not as ancient as had previously been supposed. In the 1930’s and 1940’s more Neanderthals were uncovered, leaving Piltdown Man in complete isolation in the evolutionary progression.  

In 1953, a complete re-evaluation of the remains was undertaken. It was found that the relics consisted of a human cranium, about 600 years old, the jaw of an orang-utan, about 500 years old, and some chimpanzee teeth over 100 years old. Chemical tests showed that the items had been stained with chromium and iron sulphate to give the appearance of antiquity and that the teeth had been filed down to ensure a snug fit.  

It has never been established who perpetrated the hoax but there are several suspects. Dawson is the prime suspect. He gained a reputation as a scientist for the discovery and was elected to the Royal Society.  Woodward too is a suspect. He gained promotion in the British Museum on account of his publications. Other suspects are the Reverend Pierre de Chardin, a French priest and palaeontologist and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who accompanied Dawson in his excavations. In 1976, a strange trunk was found in storage at the British Museum bearing the initials M A C H. The trunk contained a variety of ancient bones all stained in the same manner as Piltdown Man. Suspicion then fell on Martin A C Hinton, an assistant of Woodward who at the time of the discovery was engaged in a salary dispute with Woodward. It now seems highly probable that Hinton composed the fake specimen in order to make Woodward look a fool and face dismissal.

Previous day       Next day      

©2006 Ward’s Book of Days