Fifty years after one of the great fossil frauds was exposed, two academics believe they may have answered a question which has intrigued science: who faked Piltdown Man?
When the remains of an ancient man were found in a quarry in Sussex in 1911-12, scientists believed that they had found the "missing link" between humans and apes.
It was only in 1953 that dating evidence proved that Piltdown Man was not an ape-like human who lived more than 500,000 years ago. "He" had been made out of a medieval human skull and the jawbone of a modern ape.
In a public lecture to be given at the museum later this month, Professor Chris Stringer and Andy Currant will explain why they think the hoax of Piltdown Man was actually two frauds committed by two sets of people.
And they will name the man they believe was behind the original fraud - Charles Dawson, the solicitor and respected amateur geologist who found the skull and jawbone.
"We don't have the smoking gun, but we come close to reconstructing the sequence of events pretty well," Professor Stringer said. "Dawson found the first pieces and he was present when all the major finds were made at Piltdown. After he died, no more stuff turned up so for me Dawson was the prime suspect, although we don't know whether he did everything or whether he worked alone." Dawson presented his findings to the Geological Society in London in December 1912 with Arthur Smith Woodward, the keeper of geology at the Natural History Museum.
In Britain the scientific establishment backed the claims and Piltdown Man became a sensation.
In the same year that the fossil went on display at the Natural History Museum, a young priest called Teilhard de Chardin made another important find at Piltdown - a canine tooth that matched the original jawbone. The tooth fulfilled important predictions about the half-human, half-ape nature of the creature.
But then another highly unusual fossil was found. "It was a big piece of bone, it had obviously been well doctored, it was definitely deliberately stained and it had been chopped in a crude way," said Dr Currant. The artefact appeared to be a flat tool fashioned by Stone Age man from elephant bone. In fact, although it was a fossil, the cuts were made with a metal tool, Dr Currant said.
"Chris and I both believe that this was planted by somebody else. This was nothing to do with the original forgery. The only way of interpreting this is that this is somebody in the know saying, 'OK, we've rumbled you,'" he said.Reuse content