New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created 'Piltdown Man'

Isabelle De Groote*, Linus Girdland Flink, Rizwaan Abbas, Silvia M. Bello, Lucia Burgio, Laura Tabitha Buck, Christopher Dean, Alison Freyne, Thomas Higham, Chris G. Jones, Robert Kruszynski, Adrian Lister, Simon A. Parfitt, Matthew M. Skinner, Karolyn Shindler, Chris B. Stringer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
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In 1912, palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur antiquarian and solicitor Charles Dawson announced the discovery of a fossil that supposedly provided a link between apes and humans: Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson's dawn man). The publication generated huge interest from scientists and the general public. However, ‘Piltdown man's’ initial celebrity has long been overshadowed by its subsequent infamy as one of the most famous scientific frauds in history. Our re-evaluation of the Piltdown fossils using the latest scientific methods (DNA analyses, high-precision measurements, spectroscopy and virtual anthropology) shows that it is highly likely that a single orang-utan specimen and at least two human specimens were used to create the fake fossils. The modus operandi was found consistent throughout the assemblage (specimens are stained brown, loaded with gravel fragments and restored using filling materials), linking all specimens from the Piltdown I and Piltdown II sites to a single forger—Charles Dawson. Whether Dawson acted alone is uncertain, but his hunger for acclaim may have driven him to risk his reputation and misdirect the course of anthropology for decades. The Piltdown hoax stands as a cautionary tale to scientists not to be led by preconceived ideas, but to use scientific integrity and rigour in the face of novel discoveries.
Original languageEnglish
Article number160328
Number of pages14
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number10
Early online date1 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016

Bibliographical note

The research of S.M.B., L.T.B., A.F., S.A.P. and C.B.S. is supported by the Calleva Foundation and the Human Origins Research Fund of the Natural History Museum.

There are too many people to thank individually for their assistance and engaging discussions on the topic of Piltdown, but we express special thanks for the assistance provided by the librarians and archivists at the Natural History Museum, and especially to John Farrant for drawing our attention to Mrs Dawson's letter held in the British Library.


  • Eoanthropus
  • human evolution
  • geometric morphometrics
  • DNA


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