Dawson's Dawn Man
Dawson's Dawn Man: The Hoax at Piltdown
In his Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries; Science and Pseudo-Science 1990
 The Piltdown Man fossil is a literal skeleton in the closet of prehistoric archaeology and human paleontology. This single specimen seemed to turn our understanding of human evolution on its head and certainly did turn the heads of not just a few of the world's most talented scientists. The story of Piltdown has been presented in detail by Ronald Millar in his 1972 book The Piltdown Men, by J. S. Weiner in his 1955 work The Piltdown Forgery, and most recently in 1986 by Charles Blinderman in The Piltdown Inquest. The story is useful in its telling if only to show that even scientific observers can make mistakes. This is particularly the case when trained scientists are faced with that which they are not trained to detect-intellectual criminal-ity. But let us begin before the beginning, before the discovery of the Piltdown fossil.
The Evolutionary Context
We need to turn the clock back to Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The concept of evolution-the notion that all animal and plant forms seen in the modern world} had descended or evolved from earlier, ancestral forms-had been debated by scientists for quite some time (Greene 1959). It was not until Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, however, that a viable mechanism for evolution was proposed and supported with an enormous body of data. Darwin had meticulously studied his subject, collecting evidence from all over the world for more than thirty years in support of his evolutionary mechanism called  natural selection. Darwin's arguments were so well reasoned that most scientists soon became convinced of the explanatory power of his theory. Darwin went on to apply his general theory to humanity in The Descent of Man, published in 1871. This book was also enormously successful, and more thinkers came to accept the notion of human evolution.
Around the same time that Darwin was theorizing about the biological origin of humanity, discoveries were being made in Europe and Asia that seemed to support the concept of human evolution from ancestral forms. In 1856, workmen building a roadway in the Neander Valley of Germany came across some remarkable bones. The head was large but oddly shaped (Figure 4.1). The cranium (the skull minus the mandible or jaw) was much flatter than a modern human's, the bones heavier. The face jutted out, the forehead sloped back, and massive bone ridges appeared just above the eye sockets. Around the same time, other skeletons were found in Belgium and Spain that looked very similar. The postcranial bones (all the bones below the skull) of these fossils were quite similar to those of modern humans.
There was some initial confusion about how to label these specimens. Some scientists concluded that they simply represented pathological freaks. Rudolf Virchow, the world's preeminent anatomist, explained the curious bony ridges above the eyes as the result of blows to the foreheads of the creatures (Kennedy 1975). Eventually, however, scientists realized that these creatures, then and now called Neandertals after their most famous find-spot, represented a primitive and ancient form of humanity.
The growing acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution and the discovery of primitive-looking, though humanlike, fossils combined to radically shift people's opinions about human origins. In fact, the initial abhorrence many felt concerning the entire notion of human evolution from lower, more primitive forms was remarkably changed in just a few decades (Greene 1959). By the turn of the twentieth century, not only were many people comfortable with the general concept of human evolution, but there actually was also a feeling of national pride concerning the discovery of a human ancestor within one's borders.
The Germans could point to their Neandertal skeletons and claim that the first primitive human being was a German. The French could counter that their own Cro-Magnon-ancient, though not as old as the German Neandertals-was a more humanlike and advanced ancestor; therefore, the first true human was a Frenchman. Fossils had also been found in Belgium and Spain, so Belgians and Spaniards could claim for themselves a place within the story of human origin and development. Even so small a nation as Holland could lay claim to a place in human evolutionary history since a Dutchman, Eugene Dubois, in 1891 had discovered the fossilized remains of a primitive human ancestor in Java, a Dutch-owned colony in the western Pacific.
 However, one great European nation did not and could not participate
fully in the debate over the ultimate origins of humanity. That nation was
England. Very simply, by the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth
century, no fossils of human evolutionary significance had been located
in England. This lack of fossils led French scientists to label English
human paleontology mere "pebble-collecting" (Blinderman 1986).