Great Fakes: Piltdown Man

After hearing the story of a fake bureau from some dodgy Eastbourne antique dealers on a tour of the Royal Observatory I got to thinking about another great fake: the Piltdown Man. It seems like the South Coast is full of tricksters trying their luck with outrageous (and yet, somehow plausible) fibs.

What was the Piltdown Man?

The Piltdown Man was supposedly the mysterious ‘missing link’ between humans and apes, thus proving that evolution is more than just a very well documented and widely accepted theory.

In the early part of 1912, an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson contacted the Natural History Museum saying that he had found “a piece of thick human-like skull” in the gravel pits of Piltdown, Sussex. I am particularly fond of this sketch he drew of the geological layers of the site.

Dawson's sketch of Piltdown pits

Dawson’s sketch of Piltdown pits

Further skull pieces came to light soon after this, and Arthur Smith Woodward (Keeper of the Natural History Museum) fitted these pieces together to make a skull. Here’s a picture of the Museum’s geology staff, from 1883, that Woodward was still working there nearly 30 years later really says something about working in a museum.

Natural History Museum's Geology staff from 1883. Clockwise from left: Arthur Smith Woodward, William Davies, R Bullen Newton, Henry Woodward and Robert Etheridge.

Natural History Museum’s Geology staff from 1883. Clockwise from left: Arthur Smith Woodward, William Davies, R Bullen Newton, Henry Woodward and Robert Etheridge.

As more and more fossils of early man were found, doubt was cast on the authenticity of the Piltodown man. The Natural History Museum has a great section telling you about this.

What happened to the Piltdown Man?

Naturally, when the truth came to light in 1953, it was rather embarrassing for the Natural History Museum – hey, even the experts get it wrong sometimes!

If you go to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and have a look around their Chilled to the Bone: Ice Age Sussex  exhibition you can see a replica of the infamous skull.

A replica of the Piltdown Man's skull

A replica of the Piltdown Man’s skull

There is an absurd irony to this tale. 80 years after the Piltdown Man was ‘discovered’ genuinely early fossilised remains of  our human ancestors in the UK, actually the earliest, came to light not too far away from the site of the hoax in 1993.

It was official, Sussex was the earliest home of the earliest humans living in the UK, but they didn’t live in Piltdown, rather they chose to live in Boxgrove. The remains of the Heidelburg man are 500,000 years old and you can see them in the Chilled to the Bone exhibition too.

The oldest human remains found in the UK

The oldest human remains found in the UK

It is really quite something to compare the two skulls and really see just how much of a difference there is.

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One response to “Great Fakes: Piltdown Man

  1. Pingback: On the Origins of Species… | Jack's Adventures in Museum Land·

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