Monday, September 19, 2016

The Boldest Hoax

Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. Back row (from left): F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A S Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Ray Lankester. Note the portrait of Charles Darwin on the wall. Painting by John Cooke, 1915

Today on Far Future Horizons we present another exciting episode of the PBS documentary series NOVA. This instalment of NOVA concerns the infamous Piltdown hoax.

For decades, a fossil skull discovered in Piltdown, England, was hailed as the missing link between apes and humans. Entire careers were built on its authenticity. Then in 1953, the awful truth came out: "Piltdown Man" was a fake! But who done it? In "The Boldest Hoax," NOVA gets to the bottom of the greatest scientific hoodwinking of all time.

The search for clues takes NOVA to the archives of Britain's august Natural History Museum in London, where intriguing documents shed new light on the notorious case. Offering theories on the deception are two prominent paleontologists at the museum, Chris Stringer and Andy Currant. Also sleuthing for NOVA are archaeologist Miles Russell of Britain's Bournemouth University, historian Richard Milner of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Giles Oakley, son of Kenneth Oakley, the scientist who blew the whistle on the hoax in 1953.

It all started in the early 1900s when a laborer digging near the village of Piltdown in southern England reportedly found a strange piece of skull that he passed on to Charles Dawson, a local amateur archaeologist. Dawson obtained more fossils from the site and, believing they were the remains of a very ancient human, approached Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum. In December 1912, the two jointly presented the reconstructed skull to the public as humankind's earliest ancestor.

"Piltdown Man was a really big deal in 1912 because it was a time when very little was known of human fossil remains," says historian Richard Milner. "It was perceived to be the missing link, the fossil that connected humans with apes." Notably, Piltdown Man was even more spectacular than the celebrated human fossils already discovered on the European continent, such as Neanderthal Man in Germany.

More remains turned up in Piltdown through 1915, the year before Dawson's death. These included a second partial skull and a strange bone artifact resembling a cricket bat—a fishy find that looked suspiciously like a hoax but was accepted by Woodward as an ancient implement. Forty years later, new scientific tests showed that Piltdown Man was a forgery, concocted in part from what was probably an orangutan's jaw. Suspicion immediately fell on Dawson, but there were other candidates.

Some scholars believe that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was the mastermind. Conan Doyle had a motive: a desire for revenge against the British scientific establishment for ridiculing his spiritualist research. He also had the opportunity, since he lived just a few miles from Piltdown and frequently played golf nearby. Others think that Woodward was the instigator or at least Dawson's collaborator since the fossils were faked with far greater skill than any amateur presumably possessed.

In recent years, another suspect has emerged: Martin Hinton, a staff member at the Natural History Museum who had the motive, means, opportunity, and personality to perpetrate an expert scientific fraud. Plus he left several suggestive hints. On the other hand, the evidence against Hinton can be read in more than one way, and the real swindler may be the obvious one: the man who had the most to gain from convincing the world that Piltdown Man was the fossil to end all fossils—Charles Dawson.

This episode of NOVA can be purchased from PBS Home Video.

PBS NOVA - The Boldest Hoax
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