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Piltdown hoax

Piltdown was an archaeological site in England where in 1908 and 1912 human, ape and other mammal fossils were found together. In 1913 at a nearby site was found an ape's jaw with a canine tooth worn down like a human's. The general community of British paleoanthropologists came to accept the idea that the fossil remains belonged to a single creature that had had a human cranium and an ape's jaw. In 1953, Piltdown 'man' was exposed as a forgery. The skull was modern and the teeth on the ape's jaw had been filed down.

To those who are skeptical of science, such as Charles Fort and the Forteans, such episodes as Piltdown are taken to be proof that science is, more or less, bunk. To those who have a better understanding of the nature and limits of science, Piltdown is little more than a wrong turn down a series of roads which, despite such detours, eventually arrives at the right destination.

How had so many scientists been duped? Stephen Jay Gould offers several reasons, among them wishful thinking and cultural bias. The latter, no doubt, played a role in the lack of critical thinking among British paleoanthropologists. But, above all, the Piltdown forgery demonstrates the fallibility of scientific knowledge. It demonstrates, too, the way theories and facts are related in science. Theories are the filters through which facts are interpreted (Popper). Theories try to explain and make sense of facts. On the other hand, facts are used to test theories. Gould notes that today a human cranium with an ape's jaw is considered to be extremely implausible and far-fetched. But in the early part of this century, anthropologists were imbued with the cultural prejudice which considered man's big brain as his ticket to rule, the main evolutionary feature that made it possible for man to develop all his other unique features. Since there was a pre-conceived notion that man's brain must have developed to its human size before other changes occurred in human structure, a human cranium with an ape's jaw didn't arouse as much suspicion as it would today. Fossil discoveries since Piltdown clearly show a progression from small-brained but upright, hence non-simian hominids, to larger-brained upright humans. Scientists "modeled the facts" and confirmed their theory, "another illustration," says Gould, "that information always reaches us through the strong filters of culture, hope, and expectation" (Gould 1982, p. 118). Once committed to a theory, we see what fits with the theory.

The main reason Piltdown was not spotted as a fraud much earlier was that scientists weren't allowed to see the evidence, which was kept securely locked in the British Museum. Instead of focusing their attention on examining the "facts" more closely with an eye to discovering the fraud, scientists weren't even allowed to examine the physical evidence at all! They had to deal with plaster molds and be satisfied with a quick look at the originals to justify the claim that the models were accurate.

Another reason some scientists were duped was probably because it was not in their nature to consider someone would be so malicious as to intentionally engage in such deception. In any case, one of the main fallouts of Piltdown has been a virtual industry of detectives trying to identify the hoaxer. The list of suspects includes:

Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist who brought in the first cranial fragments from Piltdown;

Tielhard de Chardin, theologian and scientist who accompanied Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward (Keeper of Geology at the British Museum [Natural History] in 1912) to Piltdown on expeditions where they discovered the mandible;

W. J. Sollas, a professor of geology at Oxford;

Grafton Elliot Smith, who wrote a paper on the find in 1913;

Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes; and

Martin A. C. Hinton, a curator of zoology at the time of the Piltdown hoax. A trunk with Hinton's initials on it was found in an attic of London's Natural History Museum. The trunk contained bones stained and carved in the same way as the Piltdown fossils.

The evidence in each case is circumstantial and not very strong. What is highly probable is that there will be more books speculating on the identity of the Piltdown hoaxer.

the moral of Piltdown

The moral of Piltdown is that science is a fallible, human activity which does not always take the most direct route in fulfilling its aim of understanding nature. When an anomaly such as the discovery of a human cranium with an ape's jaw occurs one must either fit it into a new theory, re-examine the evidence for error in discovery or interpretation, or show that the so-called anomaly is not really an anomaly at all but in fact fits with current theory. Which route a scientist takes may be guided more by personal hopes and cultural prejudices than by some mythical objectivity characterized by the collection and accumulation of colorless, impersonal facts to be pigeonholed dogmatically into a General Theory of Objective Truth and Knowledge.

But to characterize scientists as arrogant buffoons making claims that often turn out to be false, and to make a caricature out of science because it is not infallible and does not arrive at absolutely certain claims, belies a grave misunderstanding of the nature of science. The buffoons are those who demand absolute certainty where none can be had; the buffoons are those who do not understand the value and beauty of probabilities in science. The arrogant ones are those who think that science is mere speculation because scientists make errors, even egregious errors, or at times even commit fraud to push their prejudices. The arrogant ones are those who can't tell the difference between a testable and an untestable hypothesis and who think one speculation is as good as another. The buffoons are those who think that since both scientists and creationists or other pseudoscientists pose theories, each is doing essentially the same thing. However, all theories are not empirical, and of those that are empirical not all are equally speculative. Furthermore, those creationists who think that Piltdown demonstrates that scientists can't accurately date bones should remember that methods of dating such things have greatly improved since 1910.*

Because of the public nature of science and the universal application of its methods, and because of the fact that the majority of scientists are not crusaders for their own untested or untestable prejudices, as many pseudoscientists are, whatever errors are made by scientists are likely to be discovered by other scientists. The discovery will be enough to get science back on track. The same can't be said for the history of quacks and pseudoscientists where errors do not get detected because their claims are not tested properly. And when critics identify errors, they are ignored by true believers.

(note: Yet another book on the Piltdown hoax has been published since the Hinton trunk discovery. Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution by John Evangelist Walsh (Random House, 1996) points the finger at Dawson once again.)

See also Aztec UFO hoax, Blondlot, Cardiff Giant, Carlos hoax, Cottingly fairy hoax, Arthur Ford hoax, Forteans, Ica stones, Mary Toft hoax, orgone energy, pathological science, Piltdown hoax, Pufedorf hoax, Steve Terbot, hoax, and the Sokal hoax.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Anderson, Robert B. "The Case of the Missing Link," Pacific Discovery (Spring 1996).

Feder, Kenneth L. "Piltdown, Paradigms, and the Paranormal." Skeptical Inquirer 14.4 (1990) 397-402.

Gee, Henry. "Box of Bones 'Clinches' Identity of Piltdown Paleontology Hoaxer," Nature (May 23, 1996).

Gould, Stephen Jay. "Evolution as Fact and Theory," in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983).

Gould, Stephen Jay. "Piltdown Revisited," in The Panda's Thumb, (New York: W.W Norton and Company, 1982).

Johanson, Donald C. and Maitland A. Edey. Lucy, the beginnings of humankind (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1981).

Popper, Karl R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959).


The Debunking of Three Hoaxes: fairy photographs, Piltdown man, and faked Vermeer paintings by James Opie: "Innocent hoaxes begin as lighthearted spoofs or practical jokes, few of which get out of hand. Malignant instances may or may not cost us money, but, more importantly, they distort our view of the past, waste valuable time, and deflect us from authentic lines of study."

Piltdown Man - The Bogus Bones Caper by Richard Harter

Piltdown: the man who never was by Lee Krystek

The Piltdown Plot Last updated 01-Dec-2013

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