Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery

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Natural History Museum, 1990 - Social Science - 272 pages
On the night of December 18, 1912, a packed meeting of the Geological Society of London listened to Charles Dawson, a rural lawyer and an amateur geologist, make an exciting announcement: he had found evolution's missing link in an old gravel pit near Piltdown Common. Together with Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum and a noted authority on prehistoric archaeology, Dawson had discovered the shattered remnants of a thick, human-like skull together with a simian jaw--the fossils of a strange creature halfway between apes and human beings. Though debates raged over reconstructing Piltdown Man from these remains, few doubted their authenticity--and it was not until forty years later that further tests proved they were an elaborate fake.
Written by anthropologist Frank Spencer, Piltdown tells the story of this incredible hoax, the greatest forgery in the history of modern science. Spencer begins by taking us back to the debates in Edwardian Britain over the antiquity of Homo sapiens and the public excitement over the search for the missing link between apes and human beings. He recounts Dawson's initial "discovery" of the shattered skull, the further dramatic finds made with Woodward in the midst of the furious scientific debate over Piltdown Man, and the great public argument between Woodward and Arthur Keith over the reconstruction of the head (Keith, an anatomist and Conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, won fame by promoting his own theory of a very human-like version of the Piltdown skull). Spencer also traces the increasing confusion and doubt over Piltdown Man as later archaeological discoveries were made in Africa and China: the Piltdown Man didn't seem to fit the emerging picture of human evolution, and an ever-larger number of scientists claimed that the jaw did not belong with the skull. Finally, he captures the dramatic uncovering of the hoax, closely following anthropologist Joseph Weiner's fascinating investigation in 1953. Weiner--troubled by the inconsistencies of Piltdown Man--revealed that the remains consisted of a modern human skull and the jaw of an orangutan, treated with chemicals to simulate great age and planted at the Piltdown site.
Yet the question of who perpetrated the forgery has remained to the present day. Certainly Dawson, a rural solicitor who craved a great scientific reputation, was intimately involved. But who provided the tremendous expertise behind the hoax, and why would such a learned authority risk his career on a highly public fake? Was it Woodward, the great archaeologist most closely associated with the find? Keith, the prominent anatomist? Or was it Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest who found a critical tooth at the site? Spencer draws on original documents from the archives of the British Museum and other sources to identify the missing conspirator, in a startling and convincing revelation. Compelling and authoritative, Piltdown offers a gripping account of this great hoax and the final word on one of the deepest mysteries of modern science.

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Piltdown: a scientific forgery

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The most famous case of fraud in science is that of Piltdown Man, a specimen consisting of a partial skull and lower jaw which were once purported to belong to a prehistoric human ancestor. Its ... Read full review

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About the author (1990)


About the Author:
Frank Spencer is Professor of Anthropology at Queens College, City University of New York.

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