On this day - November 21st

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piltdown man

The Piltdown man hoax

In 1912, Charles Dawson claimed that he had discovered the "missing link" between ape and man. In February 1912, Dawson contacted Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum, stating he had found a section of a human-like skull in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown, East Sussex. That summer, Dawson and Smith Woodward purportedly discovered more bones and artifacts at the site, which they connected to the same individual. These finds included a jawbone, more skull fragments, a set of teeth, and primitive tools.

Smith Woodward reconstructed the skull fragments and hypothesised that they belonged to a human ancestor from 500,000 years ago. The discovery was announced at a Geological Society meeting and was given the Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man").

On November 21st 1953, Time magazine published evidence proving that the Piltdown Man was a forgery and demonstrating that the fossil was a composite of three distinct species. It consisted of a human skull of medieval age, the 500-year-old lower jaw of an orangutan and chimpanzee fossil teeth. Someone had created the appearance of age by staining the bones with an iron solution and chromic acid. Microscopic examination revealed file-marks on the teeth, and it was deduced from this that someone had modified the teeth to a shape more suited to a human diet.

The Piltdown Man hoax succeeded so well because, at the time of its discovery, the scientific establishment believed that the large modern brain preceded the modern omnivorous diet, and the forgery provided exactly that evidence. It has also been thought that nationalism and cultural prejudice played a role in the less-than-critical acceptance of the fossil as genuine by some British scientists. It satisfied European expectations that the earliest humans would be found in Eurasia, and the British, it has been claimed, also wanted a first Briton to set against fossil hominids found elsewhere in Europe.

Text and photo from Wikipedia, here)

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