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A discussion about whether the popular pitdown man is real or a hoax

He revealed that a human skull and a modern orangutan jaw, both stained brown, had been deposited together in the gravel pit.

Weiner and his colleagues named Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist based in Sussex, as the prime suspect in the forgery. Dawson claimed that his involvement in Piltdown had started when workers digging for gravel found the skull fragments and handed them to him. It later emerged that Dawson was responsible for more than 30 forgeries.

It is speculated that Dawson committed these in the hope of becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society — a distinction he never achieved. High-tech forensic analyses led them to conclude that only a single hoaxer, presumably Dawson, was responsible. The case seems closed.

Study reveals culprit behind Piltdown Man, one of science’s most famous hoaxes

Research I have conducted recently and published in the South African Journal of Science suggests that Dawson may not necessarily have been the culprit in this particular case. I suspect someone realised that Dawson was a fraudster and decided to play a joke on him.

  1. It was his opinion that X found the real human jaw that went with the real skull. He is most insistent upon having seen them in his letters to Oakley, even though it was obvious in their correspondence that he was in trouble with the time of sighting, not the location.
  2. A joke gone wrong To my mind, we need to take another close look at the Piltdown case.
  3. The find set the pace for evolutionary research for decades and established the United Kingdom as an important site in human evolution.
  4. Aware of the age of the Wealdon gravels in the area, Dawson asked the men to be on the lookout for any interesting relics. If this is indeed the case, Dawson may be considered a victim of a joke that went terribly wrong.

Archival research in London and Paris leads me to believe that a French Jesuit priest was in on the joke — which went terribly wrong after palaeontological experts mistook Piltdown Man for the real thing.

This is a reminder that palaeontologists should always be extremely vigilant and thorough in ensuring that fossil finds are authentic. So who was this joker? As a young man he longed to become a professional palaeontologist. The seminary was within 50 kilometres of Piltdown, where Teilhard contributed to excavations in an amateur capacity.

In January 1913 De Chardin wrote an essay beginning with the words There was a time when the study of prehistory deserved to be suspect, and deserved to be the subject of jokes. His essay is about the current understanding of human evolution, but most strangely — and suspiciously — he omits all reference to the Piltdown Man even though its discovery had been officially announced just three weeks earlier. Almost immediately after the Piltdown announcement, Teilhard wrote to his Jesuit friend Felix Pelletier, with whom he had collected fossils in Sussex: We must do nothing.

We must wait for the criticisms that will follow.

A religious joker?

Marcellin Boule [an eminent French prehistorian] will not be taken in, especially because the finds are English. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I am not, I should point out, the first to suspect him.

  • Certainly new information flows much more rapidly today — thanks to the internet and social media — potentially a partial corrective to the problems connected to misleading claims;
  • It was "much more human than ape's jaw;
  • Have students share their responses to the questions.

Distinguished scientists like Louis Leakey and Stephen Jay Gould have previously suggested that Teilhard was involved in the Piltdown case. Gould was strongly suspicious about Teilhard because the hinge between the jaw and the skull — known anatomically as the condyle — was broken.

The first lower molar of the Piltdown orangutan. Scratch marks show that the tooth had been artificially filed down to give it the appearance of a human tooth.

Isabelle de Groote et al 2016, Royal Society Open Science Gould thought this was tantamount to Teilhard admitting that he knew of the forgery long before anyone else suspected it.

If the condyle had been preserved in the case of the Piltdown jaw, it would have been immediately recognised that it could not possibly have articulated with the human skull. In 1977 Kenneth Oakley, a palaeontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, told me he was giving Teilhard the benefit of the doubt — because he was a priest.

But Oakley also told me that Teilhard appeared to be agitated and very reluctant to talk about Piltdown when he was shown the evidence that led to the exposure of the hoax.

A strange cast of characters

Another famous palaeontologist, Phillip Tobias, said Teilhard was known as a joker. It is important to emphasise that both Teilhard and Martin Hinton, a palaeontologist at the British Museum, said they knew who the Piltdown perpetrator had been.

A strange cast of characters The Piltdown orangutan jaw came from Borneo.

It is probable that the jaw originated from an 1878 expedition. Most of the material collected on that trip was deposited in the British Museum of Natural History. Edgar Willett was trained at Oxford. He practised as an anaesthetist and served as a curator of a museum with expertise in anatomy.

He was also at Piltdown with Dawson at some point in time. Did Teilhard know about a Piltdown joke through Edgar Willett who, as an anatomist, could have had access to an orangutan jaw and other specimens in a private collection or museum? And could Edgar Willett have been in a position to facilitate a joke against Dawson with Teilhard as an adviser?

In a letter to the palaeontologist Kenneth Oakley dated November 28 1953, Teilhard wrote: Would it have been impossible for some collector who had in his possession some ape bones, to have discarded specimens into the pit? The idea sounds fantastic. But, in my opinion, no more fantastic than to make Dawson the perpetrator of the hoax. A joke gone wrong To my mind, we need to take another close look at the Piltdown case. Perhaps Dawson was hoist with his own petard: If this is indeed the case, Dawson may be considered a victim of a joke that went terribly wrong.