New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created ‘Piltdown man’
Isabelle De Groote, Linus Girdland Flink, Rizwaan Abbas, Silvia M. Bello, Lucia Burgia, Laura Tabitha Buck, Christopher Dean, Alison Freyne, Thomas Higham, Chris G. Jones, Robert Kruszynski, Adrian Lister, Simon A. Parfitt, Matthew M. Skinner, Karolyn Shindler, Chris B. Stringer
Published 10 August 2016.DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160328
In 1912, palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur antiquarian and solicitor Charles Dawson announced the discovery of a fossil that supposedly provided a link between apes and humans: Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson's dawn man). The publication generated huge interest from scientists and the general public. However, ‘Piltdown man's’ initial celebrity has long been overshadowed by its subsequent infamy as one of the most famous scientific frauds in history. Our re-evaluation of the Piltdown fossils using the latest scientific methods (DNA analyses, high-precision measurements, spectroscopy and virtual anthropology) shows that it is highly likely that a single orang-utan specimen and at least two human specimens were used to create the fake fossils. The modus operandi was found consistent throughout the assemblage (specimens are stained brown, loaded with gravel fragments and restored using filling materials), linking all specimens from the Piltdown I and Piltdown II sites to a single forger—Charles Dawson. Whether Dawson acted alone is uncertain, but his hunger for acclaim may have driven him to risk his reputation and misdirect the course of anthropology for decades. The Piltdown hoax stands as a cautionary tale to scientists not to be led by preconceived ideas, but to use scientific integrity and rigour in the face of novel discoveries.
All DNA sequences are available on NCBI GenBank (KX533938-KX533939). The CT scans can be obtained from the Anthropology Curator at the Natural History Museum, London.
All authors provided written sections and feedback on the manuscript. L.G.F. carried out the DNA analyses. R.A. and M.M.S. contributed the geometric morphometric analyses. I.D.G. and C.D. performed the morphometric analyses. I.D.G., C.D., S.M.B., L.T.B., L.B. and C.G.J. carried out the Modus Operandi analyses. C.B.S., C.D., S.A.P., R.K., K.S., A.F. and A.L. provided the historical context. Dating analyses were performed by T.H. All authors authorize the publication of this work.
We declare that we have no competing interests.
The research of S.M.B., L.T.B., A.F., S.A.P. and C.B.S. is supported by the Calleva Foundation and the Human Origins Research Fund of the Natural History Museum.
There are too many people to thank individually for their assistance and engaging discussions on the topic of Piltdown, but we express special thanks for the assistance provided by the librarians and archivists at the Natural History Museum, and especially to John Farrant for drawing our attention to Mrs Dawson's letter held in the British Library.
Received May 11, 2016. Accepted July 14, 2016.
© 2016 The Authors.
Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.
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