Home > Article > Piltdown Man: British archaeology’s greatest hoax | Robin McKie | Science | The Observer

Piltdown Man: British archaeology’s greatest hoax | Robin McKie | Science | The Observer

John Cooke's 1915 painting of the Piltdown men. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex FeaturesIn a few weeks, a group of British researchers will enter the labyrinthine store of London’s Natural History Museum and remove several dark-coloured pieces of primate skull and jawbone from a small metal cabinet. After a brief inspection, the team will wrap the items in protective foam and transport them to a number of laboratories across England. There the bones and teeth, which have rested in the museum for most of the last century, will be put through a sequence of highly sensitive tests using infra-red scanners, lasers and powerful spectroscopes to reveal each relic’s precise chemical make-up.

The aim of the study, which will take weeks to complete, is simple. It has been set up to solve a mystery that has baffled researchers for 100 years: the identities of the perpetrators of the world’s greatest scientific fraud, the Piltdown Hoax. Unearthed in a gravel pit at Piltdown in East Sussex and revealed to the outside world exactly a century ago, those shards of skull were part of a scientific scam that completely fooled leading palaeontologists. For decades they believed they were the remains of a million-year-old apeman, an individual who possessed a large brain but primitive jawbone and teeth.

The news of the Piltdown find, first released in late 1912, caused a sensation. The first Englishman had been uncovered and not only was he brainy, he was sporty. A sculpted elephant bone, found near the skull pieces and interpreted by scientists as being a ceremonial artefact, was jokingly claimed by many commentators to be an early cricket bat. The first Englishman with his own cricket bat – if nothing else it was one in the eye for French and German archaeologists whose discoveries of Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals and other early humans had been making headlines for several decades. Now England had a real fossil rival.

It was too good to be true. As decades passed, scientists in other countries uncovered more and more fossils of early apemen that differed markedly from Piltdown Man. “These had small skulls but relatively humanlike teeth – the opposite of Piltdown,” says Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, who is leading the new study. “But many British scientists did not take them seriously because of Piltdown. They dismissed these discoveries which we now know are genuine and important. It really damaged British science.”

via Piltdown Man: British archaeology’s greatest hoax | Robin McKie | Science | The Observer.

Strange Random Hoax Quote:

“I created hoaxes. I confronted and challenged the majority opinion. I attacked, humiliated, and criticized the voice of the corporate mainstream media.” – Joey Skaggs

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