The Piltdown Plot

Charles Blinderman, Professor of English, Adjunct Professor Biology

and David Joyce, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science


From about 1910 on, they found the weirdest fossils in an innocent Sussex, England, gravel pit – including fossilized bits of hippopotamus and elephant teeth, a skull that was fully human accompanied by a jaw and a canine tooth that seemed to have belonged to a chimpanzee. The skull and jaw were put together as though the contraption were the remains of an individual ape-man whom they – an amateur named Charles Dawson and a professional paleontologist named Arthur Smith Woodward – named Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson’s Dawn Man), popularly nicknamed from the gravel pit site, Piltdown Man.

They also found products made by the big-brained Piltdown Man: flint tools and part of an elephant thigh-bone that had been shaped into a cricket-bat.

For forty years, this very sapient Piltdown Man inhabited a branch of the tree of human evolution, featured in professional articles and books, in newspaper reports, and even in biology textbooks read by high school students. There was during these four decades from 1910 to 1950, some opposition from mischievous scientific critics who claimed that the skull was human but the jaw that of an ape, so the contraption called Piltdown Man had never existed. It was a Big Mistake.

The 1950s set up Piltdown Man as a target – almost all, maybe all, of the fossils had been planted in the pit, several of them fabricated by someone who planned and executed the greatest hoax in the history of science. The scientific detectives, among them Joseph Weiner and Kenneth Oakley, demolished Piltdown Man with technical missiles – the skull belonged to an English lady, the jaw to an Asian orang-utan. Everything was fake.

The question remained: who did it? More than a dozen suspects were named, the only one famous enough to be recognized by most readers being Arthur Conan Doyle. As we approach the 100th year anniversary of Piltdown Man, there is still no certainty on just who created the greatest hoax in the history of science.

This program offers a cornucopia of sources commenting on, developing and demolishing Piltdown Man. This guide suggests an approach to using this cd-rom. All the items are listed here, many annotated, organized in a way that will make the presentation understandable to its audience,

such as undergraduate students.



Thanks to the wonderful Piltdowners who helped in personal conversation and correspondence - J S Weiner, Kenneth Oakley, Sherwood Washburn, Ian Langham, George Gaylord Simpson,

Stephen Jay Gould, and Eric Freeman.

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