The Missing Link Discovered

A discovery in 1912 sent a wave of excitement through the scientific community. Fragments of a skull and a jawbone were found in a gravel pit in Piltdown, England. When assembled, these fragments formed a complete skull of a man living perhaps half a million years ago. The cranium was that of a man and the jawbone of an ape. Teeth were also found in the same vicinity completing the evidence of a human being that was in the process of evolution from ape to the modern man.

This was the missing link that the scientists were looking for in the evolution of man from ape according to the Darwin’s Evolution theory. Now here was the proof positive that man had started as an ape and over time had developed into the modern man.

Charles Dawson, a doctor and an amateur paleoanthropologist, discovered these fragments. According to Dawson, these skull fragments were given to him by a workman at the Piltdown gravel pit. Then Dawson visited the site himself and found the jawbone and teeth. This prehistoric man is popularly known as the Piltdown Man after the site of its discovery while it was given the Latin name EoaThe Piltdown Man(91836)Credit: By J. Arthur Thomson, The Outline of Science, 1922 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commonsnthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man", after the collector Charles Dawson).

The scientists are a skeptic lot. They didn’t accept the discovery readily, raising many questions and doubts. It was argued that the skull and jawbone didn’t belong to one another and were found by a rare chance from one place.

Then Dawson found yet another set of skull and jawbone from near his first find. This silenced the critics. The second find couldn’t be written off as a mere chance as it was a mathematical impossibility for a human skull and an ape jawbone to be found in two places near each other.

The Triumph of the Piltdown Man

With all doubts removed about its authenticity, the victory of the Piltdown Man was complete. It was hailed as a monumental discovery and first of its kind from Britain as most such previous finds were from other European countries.

The British Museum exhibited the Piltdown Man with pride as it symbolized the most ancient Briton. Scholars wrote hundreds of learned essays, articles and doctoral theses on the subject. It also got into the text books of schools and universities. A monumet to the Piltdown Man was also raised at the site of its discovery.

Now the evolutionists were happy. They could say with confidence that evolution of mankind was a reality and not a myth as made out by the creationists who said that the theory of evolution was all wrong and the earth and its creatures were created by God as narrated in the scriptures.

The Fall From Grace

The Piltdown Man reigned supreme for forty years uncontested and unchallenged. Then came Kenneth Oakley who spoiled the party.  Oakley was with the British Museum's Paleontology Department and in 1949 he decided to test the age of the Piltdown Man with a newly-developed test called fluorine testing.

Oakley was surprised by the results he got. He found that there was no fluorine in the jawbone which meant that it was from an ape which had died comparatively recently. The skull on the other hand had a little amount of fluorine meaning that the skull belonged to a human who had died only a few hundred years ago. Tests also revealed that the teeth of the Piltdown Man belonged to an orangutan. To make the teeth fit with the jawbone they had been filed artificially.

Further investigation of the exhibit disclosed that it had been treated with potassium dichromate to give it an aged look. Tests and investigations by a team of scientists continued till 1953 when the Piltdown Man was finally declared to be a hoax.

Setback To Science

If the discovery of the Piltdown Man had surprised the scientists in 1912, the revelation that it was a forgery 40 years later surprised them even more. They wondered how this hoax remained undiscovered so long.

Sir Wilfred Le Gros Clark, who was in the team that uncovered the forgery, wondered:"The evidences of artificial abrasion immediately sprang to the eye. Indeed so obvious did they seem it may well be asked-how was it that they had escaped notice before?"

Now it began to be asked who was behind this hoax. Many names are cited but no conclusive proof has been found yet.

But whoever was responsible for this forgery certainly did a disservice to the cause of pure science. Now it could be argued that scientists would do anything to prove their points and that we cannot implicitly trust them. Moreover they are not as intelligent as we make out them to be as they could not spot a forgery for so long.

A setback to science, the Piltdown Man hoax has proved to be a godsend to those opposed to the evolution theory who still cite the incident to support their views.


I am indebted to my friend noted Indian archaeologist, scholar and writer Y M Chitalwala for his help in writing this article.