December 18

This Day in History

General Interest

Dec 18, 1912:

Piltdown Man discovered

After three years of digging in the Piltdown gravel pit in Sussex, England, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announces the discovery of two skulls that appear to belong to a primitive hominid and ancestor of man, along with a canine tooth, a tool carved from an elephant's tusk, and fossil teeth from a number of prehistoric animals.

Despite muted criticism from a minority of paleontologists, the majority of the scientific community hailed the so-called Piltdown Man as the missing evolutionary link between ape and man. The remains were estimated to be up to a million years old. For the next decade, scientists heralded the finding of Eoanthropus dawsoni, or "Dawson's Dawn-man" in Latin, as confirmation of Darwin's still-controversial theory of human evolution.

In the 1920s and '30s, however, the Piltdown gravels were found to be much less ancient than believed, and other finds of human ancestors around the world seemed to call the authenticity of the Piltdown Man into question. In 1953, at an international congress of paleontologists, the Piltdown Man was first openly called a fraud. An intensive study of the remains showed that they were made up of a modern human cranium--no more than 600 years old; the jaw and teeth of an orangutan; and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Microscopic tests indicated that the teeth had been doctored with a file-like tool to make them seem more human. Scientists also found that the bones had been treated with chemicals to make them appear older. Other fossils found in the Piltdown quarry proved to be authentic but of types not found in Britain.

The person who orchestrated the hoax never came forward, but in 1996 a trunk in storage at the British Museum was found to contain fossils treated in the exact same manner as the Piltdown remains. The trunk bore the initials M.A.C.H., which seemed to suggest that Martin A.C. Hinton, a volunteer at the British Museum in 1912 and later a curator of zoology at the institution, was likely the culprit. Some theorized that he was attempting to embarrass Arthur Smith Woodward, curator of the British Museum's paleontology department, because Woodward had refused Hinton's request for a weekly pay raise.

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