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What an amazing discovery! The university is a-buzz (is that a real word?) with the news, everyone is talking about the Sussex skull. It’s a palaeolithic human skull which has been dug up in Sussex and it is evidently one of the most important archaeological finds ever made. There seems to be no doubt whatever of its genuineness, and more than a possibility of being the oldest remnant of a human frame ever discovered. It is said to be from at least as early a period as the famous Neanderthal skull, whilst it would appear from its shape to represent a still more primitive human type. In spite of the extreme secrecy of the authorities who are in possession of the relic, the news is leaking out and is causing great excitement among scientists, although there are very few even among geologists and anthropologists who have any first-hand information.

Some say that a few weeks ago men quarrying in a deep gravel pit turned up a human skull. However, the men in the office over here at university seem to know that it was discovered by an amateur archeologist called Dawson years ago. This Dawson, a lawyer by profession, is a steward of several manors, among them that at the Barkham farm in Piltdown. He is a widely known antiquarian and amateur geologist with respectable credentials. He had already discovered important plants and animals and published books on various antiquarian subjects, but his biggest passion is hunting fossils and bones. Why didn’t he come forward when he found the bones?

Anyway, the experts will not venture an opinion as to the date, but most probably the man lived millions of years ago. It was the age when the cave bear, the woolly-haired rhinoceros, and the mammoth roamed over Europe. The girls are of course joking that those are still not extinct, ‘just have a look at Mrs Henderson’. The jokes of this sort are of course endless. The Daily Mail newspaper refers to the discovery as a woman, but only to use it to mock the Suffragette movement, as is usual on those pages. Well, the rest of us ARE excited about this milestone in the history of man!

This find is of course most important for the theory of evolution as it suggests that man had a common origin with the apes. Since Darwin’s theory gained acceptance in the last fifty years, the need has been felt for discovering “the missing link” between the highest apes and the lowest men. This might be it!

We’ll find out more in December when the Geological Society of London will be holding an ‘inquest’ and hear the opinions of Dawson and other illustrious members.

Spoiler alert: it was a hoax. Details below.

Read the original article about the first discovery from the Manchester Guardian here. In fact a whole website (and many more) is dedicated to the hoax, including transcripts of original reports, articles and books: http://www.clarku.edu/~piltdown/pp_map.html

The Piltdown Man, a ‘discovery’ made on 21 November 1912, is one of the best-known paleoanthropological hoaxes of the twentieth century.

The bone fragments, consisting of parts of a skull and jawbone, were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human. They were said to have been collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, England. The Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni (“Dawson’s dawn-man”, after the collector Charles Dawson) was given to the specimen.

Painting by John Cooke (1915). Back row: (left to right) F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A. S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Sir Ray Lankester. Charles Darwin is overseeing the proceedings as a portrait on the wall.

The significance of the specimen remained the subject of controversy until it was exposed in 1953 as a forgery. The Piltdown hoax has been prominent for two reasons: the attention paid to the issue of human evolution, and the length of time (more than 40 years) that elapsed from its discovery to its full exposure as a forgery.

As early as 1922, publications began to discredit the find and ‘the monkey theory’. In November 1953, Time published evidence gathered variously by Kenneth Page Oakley, Sir Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark and Joseph Weiner proving that the Piltdown Man was a forgery and demonstrating that the fossil was a composite of three distinct species. It consisted of a human skull of medieval age, the 500-year-old lower jaw of a Sarawak orangutan and chimpanzee fossil teeth. Someone had created the appearance of age by staining the bones with an iron solution and chromic acid. Microscopic examination revealed file-marks on the teeth, and it was deduced from this that someone had modified the teeth to a shape more suited to a human diet. The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown, but suspects have included Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Arthur Keith, Martin A. C. Hinton, Horace de Vere Cole and Arthur Conan Doyle.