Study Names Man Behind One of Great Scientific Hoaxes
Charles Dawson was apparently the sole perpetrator behind Piltdown Man
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 10, 2016 3:50 PM CDT
A image of the Piltdown Man, supposedly a missing link in human evolution but actually a scientific hoax perpetrated in 1912.   (AP Photo/Natural History Museum)

(Newser) – In 1912, an ambitious lawyer named Charles Dawson discovered a fossilized skeleton with the skull of a man but the jaws of an ape in a British gravel pit, the Telegraph reports. For the next three decades, Eoanthropus dawsoni—better known as Piltdown Man, named for the location it was discovered—was seen as an important step in human evolution, a "missing link" between apes and humans. In reality, it was "arguably the greatest scientific crime ever committed in Britain," paleoanthropologist Isabelle De Groote writes in Scientific American. In a study published Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, De Groote and her team believe they've finally solved once and for all who faked Piltdown Man by combining, carving, and dyeing human and orangutan bones.

After new scientific methods proved Piltdown Man was a fake in 1953, blame was placed alternately at the feet of Dawson, a British paleontologist, a priest who helped with the excavation, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes—or some combination thereof, Science reports. An expert says Conan Doyle's motivation would have been to get revenge on "the scientists who mocked him for expressing a belief in spiritualism." But De Groote's research puts the blame solely on Dawson, who likely worked alone. She says Piltdown Man shows "evidence of one hand, one maker, one signature." That maker is probably Dawson, who was found to have committed at least 38 forgeries and desperately wanted to be recognized by the scientific community. (These real-life hobbit fossils are almost certainly not hoaxes.)