In 1912 Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist claimed to have discovered the ‘missing link’ between ape and man. He had found part of a human-like skull in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown village in Sussex, England. Dawson wrote to Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum at the time, about his find.
Dawson and Smith Woodward started working together, making further discoveries in the area. They found a set of teeth, a jawbone, more skull fragments and primitive tools, which they suggested belonged to the same individual.
Smith Woodward made a reconstruction of the skull fragments, and the archaeologists hypothesised that the find indicated evidence of a human ancestor living 500,000 years ago. They announced their discovery at a Geological Society meeting in 1912. For the most part, their story was accepted in good faith.
However, in 1949 new dating technology arrived that changed scientific opinion on the age of the remains Using fluorine tests, Dr Kenneth Oakley, a geologist at the Natural History Museum, discovered that the Piltdown remains were only 50,000 years old. This eliminated the possibility of the Piltdown man being the missing link between humans and apes as at this point in time humans had already developed into their Homo sapiens form.
Following this, biological anthropologist Dr Joseph Weiner and human anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, both from Oxford University, worked with Dr Oakley to further test the age of the Piltdown findings. Their results showed that the skull and jaw fragments actually came from two different species, a human and an ape, probably an orangutan. Scratches on the surfaces of the teeth, visible under the microscope, revealed that the teeth had been filed down to make them look human. They also discovered that most of the finds from the Piltdown site had been artificially stained to match the local gravels.
The conclusion: Piltdown Man was an audacious fake and a sophisticated scientific fraud.
We hold many documents and photographs relating to the Piltdown man, including correspondence between Woodward Smith and Dr Oakley and communications within the Museum’s palaeontology department. The Museum also has a large collection of photographs of the original findings and cranial restoration. There are also a number of Museum publications on the Piltdown story.
Composition: Case files, correspondence, case papers, photographs
- Arthur Smith Woodward
- Charles Dawson
- Dr Kenneth Oakley
- Dr Joseph Weiner
- Wilfred La Gros Clark
- Fossil Man: 10 Monochrome Photographic Cards Relating to the Piltdown Man, 1922 (Archive Cat. #: DF509/142)
- The Solution of the Piltdown Problem, by Wiener, J S; Oakley, K P and Le Gros Clark, W E, 1953 (Archive Cat. #: DF512/7/1)
- Further Contributions to the Solution of the Piltdown Problem, 1955 (Archive Cat. #: DF512/7/2)
- Palaeontology Leaflet. Leaflet number 2: The Piltdown Man Hoax, 1973-1974 (Archive Cat. #: DF516/4/30)