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April 24, 2014
History has presented us with some major discoveries of early hominids: Australopithecus africanus in 1924, "Lucy" in 1974, and Paranthropus boisei, found by Louis and Mary Leakey, in 1935.
However, in the canons of paleoanthropological discoveries, from the major ones right down to he C-listers, you'll never see "Eoanthropus dawsoni ", otherwise known as "Piltdown Man." The reason being that Piltdown Man is to Paleoanthropology what Nessie is to Paleontology.
A big fat fake, in other words.
The story begins in Edwardian England. Charles Dawson (pictured above) was an English solicitor and amateur antiquarian. An accomplished amateur, he'd made a number of semi-significant finds.
But it was what he produced in 1908 that would be his magnum opus. That year he was given some bone fragments by farmhands working on a farm in Piltdown, UK. Thinking it might be significant, he enlisted his long time friend and eminent anatomist, Sir Arthur Smith-Woodward to help him excavate the site. They did so and found more bits and pieces, including teeth, a jawbone and pieces of flint. Together they recreated the skull and named it "Piltdown Man". Shortly afterwards they proudly presented it to the world as definitive proof of the "missing link"--the hominid holy grail that provides the segue between apes and humans.
Over the years, there were many skeptics who thought that Piltdown Man was nothing more than a franken-skull, made of orangutan and human bones. Nonetheless, nobody could prove it--until 1953, when it was revealed by way of at-the-time-leading-edge technology that the jawbone was modern, the teeth had been filed, and some of the bones had been stained brown.
By then Dawson and Smith-Woodward were long dead. A third member of the team, Sir Arthur Keith, was questioned about it, but claimed to have no knowledge of any forgery. Investigators eventually placed the previous "finds" of Charles Dawson under the microscope, in more ways than one. A number of discoveries proved to be bogus, including a so-called Roman-era statuette (it was a modern tourist souvenir). With all that hoaxing and skullduggery, how did he ever find time to be a solicitor?
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