The Piltdown Hoax: Who done it?

Linnean Society of London 1996

Brian Gardiner and Andy Currant




There are three sites on or near Piltdown Common, Sussex, where Charles Dawson is said to have collected fossil and archaeological remains in the years 1908-1915. Piltdown I is the name given to the site of the gravel pit a few yards from the main drive in the grounds of Barkham Manor, 80m north west of the house. Dawson was Court Baron of the Manor of Barkham and as such visited the manor house (owned by George M. Maryon-Wilson) on business from time to time. The unusual brown, iron-stained flints on the drive, aroused his curiosity as a likely pointer to the source of early Pleistocene fossils. Subsequently he and Smith Woodward carried out systematic excavations in the nearby gravel pit in 1912, 13, and 14.

Piltdown 11 refers to a field probably at Sheffield Park, two miles to the north west of the first sight – where Dawson claims to have found (1915) an isolated molar and two pieces of skull in the heaps of rubble and pebbles raked off the surface of the field.

The third site is at Barcombe Mills, four miles south west of Piltdown, where several cranial fragments from two or possibly three skulls, plus a molar tooth of Homo sapiens were allegedly found. They were in Dawson's possession on his death and had a label: Barcombe Mills. These were similarly stained to the material from Piltdown I & 11.






Top: Piltdown in relation to London and Brighton.

Above: Sites of the Barkham finds.

Right: Map of Sheffield Park showing location of second find.

Far Right: Woodward’s comments on the side of the map.



The discovery of Java Man and then the fossil human jaw in the interglacial sands at Mauer near Heidelburg fuelled the debate as to the antiquity of man in Europe and the classification of his implements. Although Heidelburg Man had a human dentition the jaw itself was massive and somewhat ape-like.

The lghtham Circle (leader Benjamin Harrison) believed that eoliths (flints whose natural shape was judged to have been slightly altered to make them more useful as tools), were the earliest implements attributable to man. These so-called eoliths were to be found in the Red Crag and in the Plateau gravel's across southern England. These Red Crag implements were generally considered to be preglacial (viz late Pliocene), whereas those from the Plateau gravel's were perhaps equivalent to the High Terrace stage and are therefore postglacial (viz lower Pleistocene).

Thus there was a real need to find the human evidence – if these eoliths were artefacts, and at the same time substantiate the decent of man from the apes (a Darwinian prediction).





Above left: Samples of eoliths found at Piltdown. Below left: The Heidelberg jaw (thick line), an aborigine jaw (thin line) and the jaw of a chimpanzee (broken line) for relative scale.

This band of gravel 0.5m in thickness and less than 40 x 80m in area had yielded two completely separate faunal assemblages:




Sometime before the autumn of 1911 Dawson was handed a small portion of an unusually thick human parietal bone by a farm labourer who was digging gravel at Piltdown for repairs to the neighbouring road. Dawson subsequently returned to this small excavation and found a piece of the left frontal, which he took to Dr. Arthur Smith Woodward at the Natural History Museum. Woodward was so impressed by the discovery that with the help of a labourer, he and Dawson started a systematic search of the Piltdown gravel pit and the neighbouring spoil heaps.










Top right: Woodward’s reconstruction of the Piltdown skull.

Above: Dawson and Woodward working at the Piltdown site.


Not only did they find a further ten fragments of this unusually thick human skull, but in the summer of 1912, they found the famous ape-like mandible and the following summer Teilhard de Chardin found the lower, ape-like canine.

They also found associated with these human remains, seventeen fossil mammal bones and teeth, numerous eoliths, four palaeolithic hand axes and finally in 1914, the worked bone implement (known as the cricket bat ).






Above: The’Piltdown gang’ Centre Arthur Keith, to his left (seated) Pycraft

and Lancasater, to his right Underwood. Behind (left to right) Barlow, Smith

Dawson and Woodward. Painting in the Geological Society by John Cooke.

This band of gravel 0.5m in thickness and less than 40 x 80m in area has yielded two completely separate faunal assemblanges:

i) A late Pliocene/early Pleistocene fauna with such forms as Mastodon, Stegodon, Rhinoceros, interspersed with post glacial eoliths and Eoanthropus.

ii) A later fauna comprising Hippopotamus, red dear, horse and beaver together with palaeolithic (Chellean) implements.

Dawson and Woodward did not differentiate the faunas but considered them one assemblage!

[5] Dawson claims to have found remains of a second Piltdown man at Sheffield Park in 1917. The remains comprise a right frontal bone and molar tooth (both of which appear to belong to the skull from Piltdown I), a bit of occipital bone and a Rhinoceros molar.

Dawson also had in his possession when he died, several cranial fragments of a normal-thickness Homo sapiens skull and molar tooth, said to come from Barcombe Mills. These fragments are similarly stained to Piltdown I & II.


A trunk with the initials of Martin A. C. Hinton came to light in the 1970s, when the loft space in the south west tower of the Natural History Museum was being cleared.

The trunk contained not only correspondence to Hinton but also hundreds of dried up rodent dissections. At the bottom of the trunk lay a hidden treasure: a collection of ten stained and carved pieces of Hippopotamus and elephant teeth and other assorted bones, identical in colour to the Piltdown remains.



Left: A tooth and bones found in Martin Hinton’s trunk.

[6] All the bones in the trunk had been stained in a similar manner – none had been decalcified. They were stained predominantly with iron, while two of the bones had been whittled in a similar manner to the worked bone implement (the last find at Piltdown I).

Almost all the finds from Piltdown I, II, and Barcombe Mills had been decalcified (and iron stained), apart from the mandible, the Piltdown II and the Barcombe Mills molars, the Mastodon molars, Elephus molars, Castor molar, Caprine molar, and the deer antler, metatarsal and tibia. Of these the only stain apart from iron that was detected was a small quantity of chromium in the Elephus molars, the deer metatarsal and the ape mandible! A small amount of chromium was also present in one of the elephant tusks from the trunk.

The presumed reason for this method of staining is that decalcification (by acid etching or whatever means), prior to or during the staining process would etch the enamel of the teeth - and expose the fraud.


Hinton was a hoarder; his executor found eight human teeth among his effects, that had been stained in various ways with iron, chromium and manganese.

Below: The eight human teeth from Hinton’s executor.





[7] One had been decalcified, the root only stained and then coated with a black intractable paint (manganese dioxide) - much as had the isolated canine from Piltdown I been painted. Another had been decalcified and both cap and root stained with a mixture of iron, chromium and a little manganese.

All of the skulls from Piltdown I, II, and Barcombe Mills with the exception of the mandible had been decalcified and stained with a mixture of predominantly iron and chromium.

The Hippopotamus molar, premolar, the Equus molar and Castor incisor all had their dentine roots decalcified, and stained, whereas their enamel caps were merely iron stained.

Thus the forger was using two methods for staining his material – one using decalcification (a process which involves conversion of apatite into gypsum) and the other without. The material in the trunk demonstrates one method, the teeth obtained from his executors the other.


Martin Hinton was a Lamarckian (who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics) – to provide a Darwinian such as Smith Woodward with a phoney missing link would have been a brilliant joke. Moreover he had a grudge against the unsmiling, pompous Keeper of Geology as a consequence of an argument in 1910 about money and Hinton's ability to produce a Catalogue of Fossil Rodents. Finally Hinton's antipathy to Smith Woodward was well known – as was his interest in hoaxes.






Above: Martin A. C. Hinton

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