Piltdown Hoax

The Piltdown hoax is one of the most famous forgeries in the history of anthropology and archaeology. Fragments of bones, found in 1912 by Charles Dawson in a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, were believed to have belonged to a missing link in the evolution of man. The fragments indicated a creature with both ape and human characters. Both the scientific world and the general public alike celebrated the discovery as it was thought that an ancient Englishman was the missing piece of an evolutionary jigsaw. Although there were voices questioning the authenticity of the find, the Piltdown man, or Eoanthropus dawsoni, (Dawson’s dawn-man) as it was scientifically called, was the subject of many academic papers for years to come.

It was only in 1953 that an Oxford anthropologist, Joseph Weiner, working in the Department of Human Anatomy at Oxford University, conclusively proved that it was the biggest hoax in the history of anthropology. Weiner used an orangutan’s jaw which he broke to remove the tell tale signs of an ape jaw: the place where the jaw articulates with the cranium and the front of the jaw, just as the Piltdown man’s were. Weiner also noticed that the surfaces of the two neighbouring molar teeth show different planes of alignment that does not happen naturally. By filing the teeth down in different directions Weiner produced a fragment that was identical with the Piltdown find. The forgery had been exposed.

Weiner’s orangutan jaw and the plaster cast of the Piltdown jaw find were discovered in 2008 when I was assessing a box of various fragments of bones and pieces of plaster casts that I have collected from the Department of Human Anatomy. The Department wanted to dispose of the remnants of the teaching and other collections, not realizing the historical significance of some of the specimens.

Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Zoological Collections