Who was the Piltdown Man?
The Piltdown Man was discovered in 1910–12 and heralded as an evolutionary marvel. But it was actually one of the greatest hoaxes in the history of science. Jonny Wilkes explains more…
The discovery of the fossilised remains of Eoanthropus dawsoni in 1910–12 was heralded as proof of the evolutionary link between apes and humans. English lawyer and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson made the find on Piltdown Common near Lewes, East Sussex, and they were announced as a previously unknown species of hominin from 500,000 years ago.
The credibility of the so-called Piltdown Man went unchallenged for over four decades. Only in 1953 was the truth revealed: it was a human skull from medieval times with an orangutan jaw and teeth (plus one tooth perhaps belonging to a chimpanzee), all stained to make them look older.
The exposure of the hoax helped scientists work out the true sequence of human evolution – the Piltdown Man had long been a thorn in the side of REAL fossil research around the world – yet the identity of the forger remains a mystery to this day. It could have been Dawson, keen to gain entrance into the Royal Society, or French priest and palaeontologist at the dig site, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has even been suspected as he lived near Piltdown. Perhaps he thought the hoax would be a match for his literary creation, Sherlock Holmes.
This Q&A first appeared in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.