Friday, 17 February 2012
Hundred Years Ago: Piltdown Man Was Seen as Evidence for Evolution
Piltdown Man is one of the greatest hoaxes of science. Image courtesy of J. Arthur Thomson, The Outline of Science, 1922.
People often see what they expect to see. A hundred years ago (1912), Piltdown Man was the best evidence for Darwinian evolution. For several decades it was almost treated as a relic.
Recently, the British daily The Observer reported on a project that was launched to find out what Piltdown Man was really about. This icon of evolution was shown to be a fraud in 1953.
Piltdown Man was a mixture of three different creatures: a human skull hailing from the Middle Ages, an orangutan’s jawbone and a chimpanzee’s tooth. The bones had been chemically doctored to make them look older than they were and the teeth had been filed.
In the early 20th century, Great Britain lacked its own ancient human fossil. The Germans had Neanderthal Man and the French had their Cro Magnon fossil, so this might explain why British scientists accepted Piltdown man without examining the fossil critically, although the signs of fraud were obvious.
It is probably no coincidence that so many of the greatest hoaxes in science have a Darwinian connection. This might say something about the willingness of people to believe in evolution.
McKie, Robin. 2012. Piltdown Man: British archaeology's greatest hoax. The Observer (5 February).