Culprit behind Piltdown Man hoax revealed

Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle has been cleared of hoaxing the scientific world with remains that were once believed to be the ‘missing link’ between humans and apes.

Between 1912 and 1914, museum palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and solicitor Charles Dawson claimed the fossils of a human skull and ape-like jawbone had been found in Piltdown in Sussex.

Now one of the men who announced the discovery of the Piltdown Man fossils is likely to have been behind the infamous forgery, according to new analysis.

This new fossil, called Eoanthropus dawsoni — “Dawson’s dawn man” — supposedly showed a new evolutionary link between apes and humans.

The remains, with an ape-like jaw and braincase like a modern human, were stained dark reddish-brown like the gravel deposit they were recovered from.

Mr Dawson claimed to have discovered further evidence at a second site, close to the original, prior to his death in August 1916.

Doubts were immediately raised about the authenticity of the find, but it took the scientific community 40 years to unveil it as an elaborate hoax. When the remains were found to be a medieval human skull and ape’s jaw, suspicion for the hoax fell on Conan Doyle

He lived nearby and was a fossil collector, and even mused in his novel The Lost World about how easy it would be to create a fossil hoax.

Research has revealed the forgeries were created using a limited number of specimens, all constructed using a consistent method — suggesting the perpetrator acted alone.

It is highly likely that an orangutan specimen and at least two human skeletons were used to create the fakes, which are still kept at the Natural History Museum.

The work, which points the finger of suspicion firmly at Dawson, was undertaken by a team led by Liverpool John Moores University and used the latest scientific methods.

Culprit behind Piltdown Man hoax revealed

Dr Isabelle De Groote, from the university and lead author on the paper which is published in Royal Society Open Science, said the results point to a clear conclusion.

“Although multiple individuals have been accused of producing the fake fossils, our analyses to understand the modus operandi show consistency between all the different specimens and on both sites,” she said.

“It is clear from our analysis that this work was likely all carried out by one forger: Charles Dawson.”

DNA analysis found that both the canine tooth planted at the first Piltdown site and the molar from the second probably came from one orangutan.

The shape and form of the molar from the second Piltdown site was almost certainly from the other side of the jawbone planted in the first site.

Culprit behind Piltdown Man hoax revealed

3D X-ray imaging scans showed that many of the bones and a tooth were filled with Piltdown gravel and the openings plugged with small pebbles.

Holes in the skull bones were filled with dental putty, which was also used to re-set the teeth in the jaw and to reconstruct one of the teeth that fell apart while it was being ground down.

Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Natural History Museum, said: “Our work shows that a century on, we can add a new chapter to the Piltdown story through new investigative techniques.

“For example we found surprising evidence that the forger had even removed the molars in order to modify them, and had then replaced them in the jawbone.”

New genetic and morphological evidence which suggests a single hoaxer created the Piltdown Man is published in Royal Society Open Science.


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