Nobody would likely appreciate having the words hoax and fraud permanently associated with the name of their hometown. Yet in 1908, the discovery of some bone fragments and teeth left local residents of the English village of Piltdown helpless as nationalism, tunnel vision, and wishful thinking hoodwinked the specialists who pondered the findings’ significance. These bones certainly have much to teach, but not, as it turns out, about the discovery of a missing link in the evolution of man.
In the early 20th century, paleoanthropology, the study of human-like fossils, was hardly 50 years old. The discovery of fossilized bones that resembled those of humans in the German Neander Valley in 1856 caused museums to re-examine their fossil collections. These were bones that had been collected previously over several decades. In many instances, their fossils matched the recent discovery in Germany, and so they were reclassified as Neanderthals. In due time, scientists determined that Neanderthals were an extinct species and not an intermediary in the development of Homo sapiens. Early on, however, this determination encountered some resistance. One noted scientist and evolution doubter, for instance, tried to explain away the Neanderthals’ prominent brow ridges by saying that Neanderthals were simply early humans who frowned a lot.
This was an exciting time for the burgeoning field of paleoanthropology. If Neanderthals were not the missing link between small-brained, four-footed apes and man, what was? Human-like fossils were turning up in France and Germany along with stone tools of a similar age, whereas British investigators were finding tools but no fossils. At the same time nationalism, which eventually led to The Great War, was stirring. It was 1912 and Charles Dawson’s timing was perfect. As an accomplished amateur scientist he was privileged to announce his discoveries, beginning in 1908, to the Geological Society of London—a discovery of fossilized skull fragments, a jaw bone, and several teeth. They came from a gravel pit near Piltdown, a village about 40 miles south of London. Was this the missing link?
The prevailing opinion was that man’s direct ancestors were ape-like creatures who first developed large brains. Then later, modification in the shapes of the jaw and pelvis allowed this smart animal to manage a varied diet and to walk upright. Civilization eventually ensued. Dawson’s discovery fit this opinion. His Piltdown Man (or it could have been a woman) had a large braincase and a primitive ape-like jaw with canine teeth that were intermediate between apes and modern man. It was the missing link.
The Piltdown fossils became a pivot point for any evolutionary theory that followed, usually using Dawson’s findings for support, but at least having to address them if there was disagreement. The discovery stirred national pride in both paleoanthropologists and the British public. Museum exhibits flourished. Drawings and models of the imagined the living appearance of Mr. Piltdown, however, attracted far more attention than the fossils themselves. He became part of popular culture and the subject of numerous newspaper articles, letters to the editor, postcards, books, chapters, and monographs. He was a rock star. His discoverer, Charles Dawson, basked in Mr. P’s limelight, and the glorious reputation of both remained unsullied for decades. Then …
Forthcoming in the next post: Fossil Fraud Foiled.