Piltdown Man Hoaxer: Missing Link Is Found

Sarah Lyall

New York Times May 25, 1996

LONDON, May 24–It was one of the great hoaxes of the 20th century, bigger than the famous photograph of the Loch Ness Monster, the Hitler diaries and the mysterious crop circles that appeared in farmers' fields, evoking thoughts of energy fields, aliens and sprites. But when the Piltdown man, a pile of bones found in Sussex and hailed In 1912 as the "missing link" in the evolutionary chain, was discovered in 1953 to be an elaborate ruse, another beguiling mystery remained. Whose ruse was it?

Over the years, a good number of candidates have been proposed: Charles Dawson, the lawyer and eager amateur scientist who discovered the Piltdown bones in the first place; the novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived nearby and was known to have visited the site; and even the distinguished Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the prime suspect of the scientist Stephen Jay Gould.

But now Prof. Brian Gardiner, a paleontologist at King's College in London, says he has finally found solid evidence that the culprit was one Martin A. C. Hinton, a now long-dead paleontological prodigy whose specialty was rodent bones and who was an expert in Sussex geology.

According to the theory, Hinton planted a number of specially stained human and orangutan remains in a gravel pit in Piltdown to discredit his boss, Arthur Smith Woodward, who ran the paleontology department at the Natural History Museum in London.

In Professor Gardiner's view, Hinton was incensed at Smith Woodward's refusal to pay his wages weekly Instead of in one lump sum when the work was completed. Hinton, known for his not-always-funny practical jokes, then planted the bones In Piltdown because he knew that Dawson, who liked to collect dinosaur bones and fossils, would find them there and take them to Smith Woodward, his connection in the scientific community. Then, the plan went, Smith Woodward would be fooled into vouching for their authenticity.

The hapless Smith Woodward did indeed hail the Piltdown man as an electrifying find, and died In 1948 with his belief in the discovery intact. But a mere five years later, chemical testing performed on the Piltdown bones by Kenneth P. Oakley proved that they weren't old at all: Instead, he concluded, they were the skull of a recently dead human and the jaw of a recently dead orangutan, both cleverly treated to give the appearance of antiquity.

Professor Gardiner, whose theory is outlined in the May 23 issue of Nature magazine, is sure he has found his man, he said in an interview, because a trunk belonging to Hinton, unearthed by workmen in the abandoned southwest tower of the Natural History Museum in the mid-1970's, contained irrefutable physical evidence.

Along with hundreds of vials of rodent remains from dissections, the trunk contained hippopotamus fossils, elephant teeth and assorted bones that looked like those from the Piltdown collection, and were stained, tests proved, with the same mix of chemicals used on the Piltdown bones. It appeared, in fact, as if the bones in the trunk had been trial runs for the final hoax.

Paleontologists are still weighing Professor Gardiner's new theory, which David Dickson, the news editor at Nature magazine, said was "the first clear evidence that can be used to point the finger of suspicion at any one person."

At the Natural History Museum, Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist, said he found Professor Gardiner's hypothesis "very convincing." But, he said, he was still unwilling to rule out the possibility that Dawson, the finder of the bones, had been involved in the hoax as well.

When it was uncovered, Piltdown man was hailed as an exciting evolutionary discovery, and also embraced as a coup for Britain. Here, British scientists felt, was the "first Englishman" – a man who happened to be buried on top of an elephant femur carved to look like a precursor to a cricket bat. According to Professor Gardiner, the bat was put there as a final insult.

"These two stupid men, Dawson and Smith Woodward, really believed that the elephant bone went with the man that was two feet above in the gravel bed, Professor Gardiner said, "In a way, the last piece of evidence was to show what fools they were."



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