In 1912 Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist from Lewes, dug up a skeleton which he claimed was the missing link between apes and humans. It caused a sensation, prompting headlines around the world, after he “found” a skull in gravel pits at Barkham Manor in the East Sussex village of Piltdown. It apparently proved that Darwin’s theory of evolution was correct.
Dawson was not the only archaeologist desperate to find remains of primitive man in Britain. We still considered ourselves the world’s leading power, used to being at the centre of civilisation. As digs in far-flung outposts such as Egypt fired the British imagination, there was a huge desire for a major discovery here. So perhaps when evidence emerged, even world-renowned scientists turned out to be as gullible as children watching a seaside magic trick. But boy, what a trick it proved to be.
When almost half a century later Piltdown Man was revealed to be a fake, enough suspects to fill a decent-sized gravel pit were lined up as the culprit. These included a dusty old academic called Martin Hinton, a curator at the Natural History Museum, when an old trunk revealed that he had experimented with staining fossils, which could give them an appearance of antiquity. In 1996 an academic from King’s College London declared himself “100 per cent certain” that Hinton was creator of Piltdown Man. And most sensationally of all, a year later an American historian pointed the finger at the great Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle was a public man and very busy, it is very unlikely he would have had the time
Now after an exhaustive – and, they claim, definitive – study, scientists say the man who actually found the remains is said to be guilty beyond all reasonable doubt of having created them.
As for Conan Doyle, the world’s most famous crime writer had motive and opportunity. Many believe he came up with the fiendish hoax to revenge scientists who poked fun at his spiritual beliefs as he grew obsessed by séances.
Conan Doyle lived nearby at Windlesham Manor, Crowborough, played golf at Piltdown and was an avid fossil collector. He wrote about how easy it would be to create a fossil hoax in his novel The Lost World, which American historian Richard Milner claimed contained a cryptic confession hidden in the text. On one occasion Conan Doyle even gave Dawson a lift to the dig.
But now, scientists say, all evidence points accusingly at Dawson. He not only had the skeletons in his gravel but, it seems, in his, well, cupboard.
Dawson worked on the dig with hugely respected keeper of geology at London’s Natural History Museum Arthur Smith Woodward, and the pair presented their amazing discovery at a packed meeting of the Geological Society on December 18, 1912. The same day the remains were named Eoanthropus dawsoni after Dawson, who despite – or perhaps because – he was by trade a fairly humble lawyer from Lewes, was desperate to be taken seriously as an archaeologist.
While some scientists were sceptical, few were actually given access to the skull and bone fragments, and most were taken in.
New analysis of the remains shows that bones and teeth used to create the specimens appear to have come from an orangutan and two human skeletons, probably from medieval times.
Scans reveal dental putty was used to join bones from the orangutan to the human skull. Putty was also used to “glue” gravel from the pits to the skeleton to make it look more authentic.
Dawson made two discoveries two miles apart which scientists say is too much of a coincidence.
When you look at the fossil evidence you can only associate Dawson with all the finds
Tests conducted in 1949 by the Natural History Museum revealed that the skull was far too “young”, probably about 500 years old. These findings were confirmed in 1953.
Dr Chris Stringer, an anthropologist from the Natural History Museum, says: “Conan Doyle was a public man and very busy, it is very unlikely he would have had the time. In terms of motivation he would have got back at the scientists who mocked him for expressing a belief in spiritualism.
“So there are some coincidences, but I think they are just coincidences. When you look at the fossil evidence you can only associate Dawson with all the finds.
“And Dawson was known to be personally ambitious. He wanted professional recognition. He wanted to be a member of the Royal Society and he was after an MBE. He wanted people to stop seeing him as an amateur.”
Dr Isabelle De Groote, an expert in human evolution at Liverpool John Moores University who was the leading shovel in this dig for truth, says: “Although multiple individuals have been accused of producing the fake fossils, our analyses to understand the modus operandi show consistency between all the different specimens and on both sites.
“It is clear from our analysis this work was likely all carried out by one forger – Charles Dawson.”
Some have suggested that Smith Woodward was in on the hoax, but Stringer strongly doubts this: “It really affected Smith Woodward’s career. He was a great expert in fossil fishes but Piltdown Man is now what he is known for.” Though some might say he was surely gullible.
Further study is now due on the human remains of Piltdown Man, as well as a strange wooden object that looks rather like a cricket bat found at the site. Given the discovery of putty, no-one would be terribly surprised if it turns out to be an actual cricket bat.
The new research is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
As for Dawson, he was born in Preston, but moved to Hastings as a child. He trained as a lawyer but shared his father’s fascination for fossil foraging. He became a big player in the St Leonards Museum Association, and was put in charge of acquisitions. He soon gained a reputation for having a knack for amazing discoveries, and the Sussex Daily News branded him “The Wizard of Sussex”.
In 1893 he burrowed into a flint mine full of prehistoric, Roman and mediaeval artefacts at Lavant, near Chichester, and explored a pair of tunnels beneath Hastings Castle. Around this time, he presented the British Museum with a Roman statuette from Beauport Park, made of cast iron, which would have been extraordinary for the time. Other discoveries followed, including a Neolithic stone axe and a well-preserved ancient timber boat.
He later supposedly found evidence for the final phases of Roman occupation at Sussex’s Pevensey Castle. He also discovered a large supply of natural gas at Heathfield, in East Sussex, and reported a sea-serpent in the Channel. It has even been claimed he experimented with phosphorescent bullets as a deterrent to the much feared German Zeppelin raids on London.
As well as Piltdown Man, he was credited with discovering three new types of dinosaur, one later named Iguanodon dawsoni; and a new form of fossil plant, Salaginella dawsoni. The British Museum rewarded him with the recognition he so craved, declaring him an “Honorary Collector”. He was also made a Fellow of the Geological Society.
In 2003 Dr Miles Russell, of Bournemouth University, investigated Dawson’s antiquarian collection and found 38 specimens were fakes. Russell concluded that Dawson’s whole career was “built upon deceit, sleight of hand, fraud and deception, the ultimate gain being international recognition.” He died early of septicaemia in 1916, plaudits still ringing in his ears. Alas for him, his skeletons are now well and truly out of the closet.