Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Piltdown Man

The Piltdown man was a remarkable discovery recognized in the old-fashioned village of Piltdown, England in the early 1900’s.  Scientists were awestruck by the peculiar missing link between humans and apes that arose and was founded by Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist.  Charles Dawson publicized some magnificent discoveries in regards to developing “academic credibility”.  In 1912 Dawson spread his findings of coming across a peculiar human skull that would compete with the German’s “ape man”.  This brought the attention of Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, a noted geologist, who later accompanied Dawson and a group of laborers to an endless summer of digging.  On December 18th, 1912 the public awaited eagerly for the “first glimpse of mankind’s earliest ancestor”!  Dawson was pleased to announce to the public about his findings and that “of all the places in the world where mankind could be born, he had chosen England”.  For 40 years this striking discovery helped scientists and sky rocketed to being the “reigned supreme”.  In 1953, the news broke out, “Piltdown Man was a fake”!  Scientists had been fooled, the British embarrassed, and the scientific world was in chaos.
            Many human faults came into play in this scenario.  For 40 years, scientists had been tricked and deceived by this “fake missing link”.  It took a scientist named Kenneth Oakley to perform a chemical test to date the fossils.  The results were preposterous and to the scientists’ dismay the fossils were a fraud.  The Piltdown man had filed down teeth, a stained skull, and was actually just an old ape’s jaw.  How could anyone forge and plant this mastermind hoax?  Pointed fingers were quick to locate Charles Dawson for this horrible act because he was the one who found all the fossils.  Charles Dawson wanted publicity; he wanted Britain to be known as the home place to the missing link.  Other countries like Germany, France, and Spain had already made some remarkable fossil discoveries, while Britain had none.  Although, Dawson could have been at fault, another scientist took the stage.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a theatrical kind of character, was keen on hunting for fossils.  Many scientists tried to make a fool out of Doyle, so it seems to be only fair if Doyle made a fool out of them.  Doyle had been living 7 miles away from Piltdown and was quick to pick up Dawson in his motored car whenever Dawson needed a ride.  Could Doyle have been the mastermind behind this famous act?  Whoever it was, this stunt that was performed, negatively affected the scientific process.  Nobody could trust science anymore.  What was real?  What was fake?  Did scientists lie about everything to the public?  It definitely impacted the scientific world in the wrong way.
             Whoever took act in this forgery, they took skill and knew what paleontological and anatomical tests the specimen would be given.  Scientists used a fluorine test in order to test the age of the fossils.  When they performed these tests the results came back that the bones were only about 100 years old.  The teeth in the jawbone had been filed down and one tooth, had been rushed to be made, that you could tell it had been painted.  Scientist finally put out the correct results, that in fact these bones actually belonged to a female orangutan and were not apart of the missing link.
I do not think it would be possible to remove the “human” factor from science.  Perhaps it would remove some errors, but one always learns from the wrongful acts that they perform in the past.  Humans always strive and compete to be the best.  Competition is exceptional when it comes to science.  Aiming to finding the “missing link”, cure for cancer, or just the best peanut butter jelly sandwich; humans must always be a factor.  I believe history helps reduce having errors like this happen again.  Humans are quick to learn and we build our knowledge off of mistakes in the past.  I believe this is a good example of science correcting itself.
Life Lesson of the Day:  Humans by nature have an inherent desire to soar above the rest, even if it means to cheat.  “Tis my opinion every man cheats in his own way, and he is only honest who is not discovered”-English Playwright.


  1. Sage, I agree with your point that if by removing the "human" factor it would remove some errors but humans learn from error that have been performed in the past. I think it could be possible to remove the human factor however, but not wise because of the idea that many peoples jobs in the science field would be jeapordized and the fact that humans are learners and can build knowledge and correct errors themselves.

  2. Great quote at the end and good job pulling the political factors into the analysis. I've never hear the Doyle scenario before, however. Where did you source that?

    Some factual issues: The skull was actually human. It was difficult to date because of the affects of the forgery but estimated to be between 50 kya to 500 kya in age. The jaw was a 100 year old orangutan jaw.

  3. i didn't use any sources besides the two videos:)

  4. LOL! Didn't catch that. Doyle would have loved the intrigue. Surprised it didn't get worked into one of his stories.