18 December 1912: Piltdown Man claimed as evolution’s ‘missing link’

One of the world’s greatest scientific hoaxes took place today in 1912, with the presentation of human evolution’s missing link – Piltdown Man – to the Geological Society in London.

Since the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, scientists had been desperate to find the “missing link” that would prove that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor. Then, in 1912, someone claimed to have found it in a gravel pit in Sussex.

Charles Dawson, a local solicitor and amateur fossil hunter, wrote to Arthur Smith Woodward at the Natural History Museum saying he had found pieces of a "human-like" skull. Smith Woodward rushed south, and joined the hunt. Soon, Dawson uncovered fragments of a jawbone. Smith Woodward used all the pieces to come up with a reconstruction of the skull , which combined an ape-like skull and jaw with teeth that looked decidedly human.

And so, on 18 December, Smith Woodward announced the discovery to a meeting of the Geological Society. He claimed eoanthropus dawsoni as he dubbed it was a 500,000 year-old predecessor of modern humans. The announcement caused a sensation. But as time went on, more human fossils were found in other areas of the world, and none were quite like the Piltdown find. Scientists began to doubt their authenticity.

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In the late 1940s tests were performed on the teeth; they were found to be no more than 50,000 years old. Then, the skull and jaw were investigated more thoroughly, and found to come from two different animals one a human, and the other an orang utan. They also determined that the finds had been artificially aged.

In 1953, Piltdown Man was officially declared a fake – a fake that had fooled scientists for 40 years. Nobody quite knows who did it or why. There are a few people in the frame, but the fact that no further evidence of the finds came after Charles Dawson's death in 1916 casts him firmly in the role of prime suspect. That, and his long record of scientific hoaxes.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. 

As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.