In 1912, fossils named ‘Piltdown Man’ were discovered in East Sussex by the amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson (1864-1916). The human-shaped skull and ape-like jaw were identified as Eoanthopus dawson meaning ‘dawn man’; a humanoid ancestor rather than a member of the homo genus. This finding supported the theories of anthropologists who hypothesised that there had been human-like beings in Britain similar to the Neanderthals discovered in Germany. This discovery became the foundation for the emerging study of prehistoric human evolution and reshaped the discipline of evolutionary science.
Although the mechanism of the jaw worked differently to the skull, Arthur Smith Woodward, the keeper of the British Museum’s palaeontology department and leading researcher of this discovery, declared that the molar teeth were ‘distinctively human’ as they appeared to have been smoothed to a flatness characteristic of modern Homo sapiens but not apes. The emphasis on Piltdown Man’s human-like qualities reinforced his relationship to modern Homo sapiens. In 1912, the Guardian described these fossils as the earliest trace of mankind that has yet been found in England’; however, it ‘belongs to a much lower and more primitive type of mankind even than [the Neanderthal]’. Instead of celebrating the shared genetics between humans and other primates, this find instead marked the evolution of Homo sapiens as superior to other animals.
It was not until 1953 that the Eoanthropus fossils were declared fake. Dawson had fraudulently combined a modern human skull with an orangutan’s jaw, which he had darkened to artificially convey age. Now at least 38 archaeological and palaeontological forgeries have been attributed to him.
Beliefs are world-building. It is now estimated that Dawson’s hoax has set research back 20 years, however we should not view the pursuit of knowledge as a linear progression towards a universal, singular Truth. Instead, this misleading discovery illuminates the intimate relationship between scientific knowledge and cultural ideas.