Posse im Pleistozän

Der Spiegel 23/1996

The Pleistocene Farce

Translated by Professor Walter Schatzberg


Natural History Museum

Bone Fabricator Hinton (M.): Evening Bag of Tricks

The greatest swindle in the history of science has been explained. A student faked the "Piltdown man."

The British Empire ruled the seven seas. It had invented the steam engine and humor and was the source of capital for the entire world. No other nation was a match for Victorian England.

Only the ancestry of the island people gave cause for concern. In 1856 the Neanderthal Man had been found; in 1907 new bones came to light in Heidelberg. They feared that the first man might have been a German.

The nation was relieved when this problem was solved. In the year 1908 the lawyer and amateur archeologist Charles Dawson discovered in a gravel pit near Piltdown skull fragments, teeth, and a lower jaw. With excitement he turned them over to the Museum of Natural History in London.

Scholars were amazed. The bones, which were dark brown and earthy in form, had to be at least 200,000 years old. By contrast the Neanderthal Man (age: about 60,000 years) was a youngster.

The Piltdown find was a world sensation. 500 scientific publications dealt with Eoanthropus dawsoni. Already in the Pleistocene – so it seemed – the "earliest Englishman" (the title of a book) had been hammering in the region around Sussex with flintstones.

Not until 1953 did the dream about Adam on the other side of the Canal explode. A modern dating technique placed the Piltdown man into modern times. The lower jaw of the alleged Ur-Briton came from an orangutan. An obvious fake; but who was responsible?

Dozens of people were suspected, including the Sherlock Holmes author, Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived only 15 kilometers from the discovery site and who had owned a collection of bones. Nevertheless, the true perpetrator remained undiscovered. 88 years after the most famous scientific fraud, a London paleontologist, Brian Gardiner, has finally exposed the culprit. The originator of the farce about the skull was Martin Hinton, a "brilliant student" (Washington Post) with black hair and a Jerry-Lewis-face.

Paleontologist Gardiner


The main piece of evidence according to Gardiner is the chest from Hinton's estate which was discovered in the attic of a London museum. As Gardiner informed the scientific Linnean Society in London shortly before Whitsun holiday, the wooden chest contained unusual brown bones and teeth. Chemical analysis revealed that they were dyed with iron manganese oxide. The Piltdown skull was treated precisely with this method.

With the help of his staining technique student Hinton was able to confuse the entire scholarly establishment. First he buried the fake skull fragments. Then he unobtrusively led the amateur Dawson to the find.

The young 25 year old culprit, known for his mischievous temperament enjoyed the game. During the day he worked as a technical assistant at the museum and in the evenings, so it seems, he buried more and more bone material.

For three years the experts of the Museum of Natural History dug around in the gravel pit south of London. A physician helped put the bone fragments together.

In the year 1914 Hinton carried his game even further. Or, did he want to expose it through thorough exaggeration? This time he buried an elephant bone that had the form of a cricket racket. The researchers swallowed that as well and interpreted the find as an original relic of the British sports spirit.

Hinton himself – he later worked as the curator for Zoology and died in 1961 – remained incognito until the very end and took his secret to the grave. But apparently the culprit did not want to avoid a confession altogether. Shortly before his death he wrote to a colleague about how as a student he had yearned to find in the hills of Sussex the missing link between man and monkey that Charles Darwin had taught.

Above all, the old gentleman added, the community of paleontologists had apparently not been able to resist the temptation of inventing the discovery of the ape-man.


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