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The Mystery of Piltdown Man

by Knud Adams, Artistic Intern

Is it possible that Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist, discovered one of the most important finds of the 20th century? That's what he claimed to the Geological Society of London in 1912, and Arthur Smith Woodward, an expert from the British Museum, backed his story. Together they presented the Piltdown Man, an ancient skull that seemingly proved that humans evolved from apes. Dawson began excavating the Piltdown quarry four years earlier, after workmen found mysterious bone fragments amongst the gravel. Dawson enlisted the help of Smith Woodward and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who, like Dawson and Piltdown Man, loom large in Eric Simonson's play Fake. Together they unearthed a most unusual skull, with a brain two-thirds the size of a modern man's and a chimpanzee-like jaw. Equally exciting, Piltdown Man was found on English soil, suggesting that the first humans were British! Almost immediately following Dawson's presentation, the Piltdown Man fell under attack. Prominent French and American scientists were skeptical of the reconstruction; they argued that the skull and jaw might have come from separate species. However, these critics couldn’t explain the fact that the pieces were discovered within feet of each other or the identical coloration of the samples. Accusations of a mistaken reconstruction were silenced when the Piltdown site provided additional skull fragments and teeth that supported Dawson's theory. While an accidental mix-up proved unlikely, some believed the Piltdown Man to be a deliberate hoax. Who would perpetrate such a fraud? The list of suspects included Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, as well as the notorious trickster William Horace de Vere Cole, the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the evolutionist Sir Arthur Keith. Or perhaps this was a national conspiracy? Was the first Briton falsified in order to surpass French and German finds? How was such a convincing specimen created? What about the human-like molars in a chimpanzee-sized jaw or the authentic aging effects? These questions lingered for decades. Finally, in 1953, new methods of chemical dating allowed scientists to accurately assess the validity of the bones, and the true nature of Piltdown Man was revealed.