Perhaps the greatest scientific fraud of all time was perpetrated in 1912 when Charles Dawson, a man with a driving ambition to gain a coveted Fellowship of the Royal Society, supposedly discovered the missing link between man and ape.
The find actually consisted of: a human skull, around 500 years old; an orang-utan jawbone; and chimpanzee teeth filed down to accord better with an omnivorous diet.
The 'discovery' was made in the village of Piltdown, near Uckfield in Sussex, hence the adoption of the name Piltdown man. Dawson presented information on the finds, supposedly made over a period of several years, at a meeting of the Geological Society of London on December 18 1912.
There was a real desire for the so-called missing link to be found at last, and when some scholars weighed in behind the find as a major scientific breakthrough, others who had doubts tended to voice them with less volume than they would otherwise have used. Many avoided voicing them at all for fear of ridicule, and perhaps because they dearly wanted a major British discovery. The Emperor's New Clothes for the scientific community.
Scientists from outside Britain had more courage: most tellingly of all in 1923 Franz Weidenreich almost precisely identified what the fragments really were.
Oxford Professor of Anthropology Kenneth Oakley demonstrated beyond doubt that Piltdown Man was a hoax in 1953. A review of other finds by Dawson showed a great many were fakes, some extremely crude.
With an irony not realised at the time Sir Arthur Keith unveiled a memorial to Dawson near the site of the fin, including in his speech the words: "So long as man is interested in his long past history...the name of Charles Dawson is certain of remembrance." And he was quite right.
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