The Legacy of Piltdown Man – dead but not buried... by David Bate

Here David explains how paleoanthropological hoax 'Piltdown Man' lives on...

The Piltdown skull
Original image from the fantastic GeolSoc blog on #Piltman100
© Geological Society of London
The once touted ‘Earliest Englishman’, the missing link between man and the apes, was long ago dismissed as an outrageous fraud. Yet the legacy of Piltdown Man lives on. Whether providing backing ‘vocals’ to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, gracing the label of a fine Sussex wine, featuring in a host of novels―some decidedly weird―or providing fuel for creationist obfuscation, it seems we are loath to consign this scientific embarrassment to obscurity. There is also the vexed question of the identity of the perpetrator(s) of the crime―a matter that has exercised a good few minds. The list of suspects exceeds two dozen and includes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a goose! Most likely it was Charles Dawson, the discoverer, who committed the dastardly deed.

While the Natural History Museum and the Geological Society of London played principal hosts to the unfolding story, the British Geological Survey can also claim to have played its part in the affair. The importance of detailed geological mapping here provides a salutary lesson.

In 1912, when the discovery was formally announced, the existing geological map omitted to record the smaller terrace gravels of the River Ouse in East Sussex. This allowed Dawson to claim a much greater age for the unmapped Piltdown gravel than was actually the case. It was subsequent revision mapping by the Survey that revealed the true age of the deposit and led the way to the unmasking of the fraud.

Portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. John Cooke, 1915
Original image from the fantastic GeolSoc blog on #Piltman100
© Geological Society of London
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Piltdown ‘discoveries’ (ca 1912–14) the BGS has released an Annotated Select Bibliography of the Piltdown Forgery, containing more than 1190 entries. While the document may sound dull, there are many curious details to be found buried within its extensive commentaries, for the legacy of Piltdown is not only scientifically interesting but yields some very strange stories.

A PDF of the bibliography is freely available here or visit our web-based exhibition.