Piltdown Man: The black sheep of the human phylogeny


In 1912 a man named Charles Dawson discovered a fossil in Sussex, England, which appeared as a missing link between Homo sapiens and other apes.  People have, since 1856 when the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered, been searching high and low for human missing links, and when the Piltdown Man was found it raised a great interest in the scientific community.

The five or so years following the discovery of the Piltdown Man there was already a great deal of controversy and skepticism among the scientists, but back then there were not many hominid fossils, and no way to date them (most of our dating methods today were not invented until later, such as carbon dating — in the 1940s).   

The Piltdown Man

Two decades after the Piltdown Man was found, however, scientists discovered many new hominid fossils (such as the Australopithecus), and the Piltdown Man simply did not fit in with the rest of the human phylogeny.    This brought scientists to seriously doubt the authenticity of the fossil.

In the 1940’s the flourine absorption tests became available to scientists, and the Piltdown Man was immediately put to the hot seat.  The Piltdown Man failed this test and in the 1950’s the fossil was finally rejected.

“I remember writing a paper on human evolution in 1944, and I simply left Piltdown out. You could make sense of human evolution if you didn’t try to put Piltdown into it.” – Sherwood Washburn, anthropologist

The lesson to be learnt here is that science is a self-correcting process, and one should always teach himself to “question everything”.  The Piltdown Man remains to be one of the most infamous evolutionary hoaxes of all time.  The hoaxers were a disgrace to science, and to human intelligence.

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