This is part of our continuing series of interesting stories that spotlight instances of science in all its glory completely blowing the big one. Last time, we talked about natural gas fires burning for decades against scientist’s predictions. Today, we look at a whodunit science mystery that chances are you’ve never heard about.
Evolution is a huge part of science today and one of the most polarizing theories of all time. This is not going to delve into evolution versus creationism and all of that good stuff. What we want to talk about is the Piltdown Man Hoax, as it has come to be called in scientific circles. Like a Sherlock Holmes-esque mystery, still today, no one knows exactly who was responsible for one of the most blaring examples of a scientific experiment being contaminated.
The story begins over a century ago. In December of 1912, two scientists of different fields joined together to make a huge announcement. Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist, and Charles Dawson, an amateur antiquarian, revealed their discovery of a human fossil in Piltdown, England. The human fossil was from a very early time. What made it so interesting was that it was a mash-up of a human skull and an apelike jaw. Of course, the finding gave pro-evolutions scientists something to salivate over. This could be ultimate proof of one of science’s most cherished theories. The fossil became known as the Piltdown Man in legend.
That wasn’t all they found. There were tools made of stone, mammal fossils, and an elephant bone. They would return in 1916 with similar findings. Scientists embraced the Piltdown Man but not everyone was on board. No one out and out accused Woodward and Dawson of fraud, but some felt that the findings were less than conclusive. It was surmised by many that the ape jaw and human-ish skull could have been mixed together in the earth over time and have no connection to one another. However, the legend of the Piltdown Man survived without much scrutiny all the way into the 1950s.
Then, the fossil was found to be a lot younger than Dawson and Woodward had indicated. They believed the fossil to be a million years old. Better technology and savvy revealed the fossil was a mere 50,000 years old. Slight discrepancy, eh? More tests separated the human skull and the jaw conclusively. One was from a modern human. The other from a modern orangutan. Meaning, the fossil find was meaningless and there was no Piltdown Man, at least not one with a telling apelike jaw. Keep in mind that not only did the Piltdown Man inspire a lot of scientists, but it even was separated as a new species and given a scientific name. Obviously this was all retracted when better experiments were able to prove the Piltdown Man to be a falsehood.
You may be wondering why two completely different fossils would be embraced by the scientific community as being connected when they obviously weren’t in the face of chemical testing. Well, circa 1912, archaeological technology was much less than it would be decades later. Scientists focused on observational evidence. The human skull and jaw did match, at least aesthetically. Now, scientists believe that someone purposely stained the bones and filed the teeth to make it more believable. It worked like a charm. But who actually decided to doctor the fossils? There was a lot to be gained. While you won’t hear much about it today, obviously, at that time it was an astounding scientific discovery and virtually validated the theory of evolution with physical evidence. Naturally, the discoverers were recognized at the top of their respective fields. Now, no one knows for sure who made that decision to create the illusion of factual evidence. Was it a conspiracy of everyone involved or did one man decide to do it and fool the other scientists with the specimen?
Does this disprove evolution? Of course not. There are tons of other evidence to examine, although none are a bulletproof solution like the Piltdown Man could have been, had it been authentic. But it does bring up some interesting questions? If the theory of evolution is correct, why is there not more fossils of the in-between stages of evolution? Why can a fossil record showing the evolutionary process not be laid out?
Another question is how did almost forty years of scientists believing they had real proof influence the evolution of the evolution theory?
Whatever you believe, it’s an interesting story and a real mystery. And one that you probably won’t see in your high school science textbooks.