By Nicole Torres-Tamayo | January 11, 2024
In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur antiquarian and solicitor, along with Arthur Smith Woodward, the Curator of Geology at the Natural History Museum of London, proclaimed the discovery of the ‘missing link’ bridging the gap between apes and humans. They claimed to have found a fragment of a skull resembling that of a human in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown village in Sussex, England. Additionally, they uncovered mandible fragments that were posited to belong to the same individual. Smith Woodward reconstructed the skull fragments, and collectively, they theorized that the discovery provided evidence of a human ancestor from 500,000 years ago. They unveiled their findings at a Geological Society meeting in 1912 (1), which were generally accepted by the scientific community. The fossil was named “Piltdown man,” creating a new species: Eoanthropus dawsoni. Unfortunately, the story does not end here.
Hominin fossils are invaluable, scarce, and distinctive. They serve as the cornerstone for paleoanthropologists to infer the morphology and function of extinct human species. This means that every fossil found can redirect the course of palaeoanthropology, changing what is known about our origins. Additionally, fossil specimens are typically confined to institutions in the country of excavation, resulting in infrequent occurrences of their transportation. Due to their delicate nature, the curator of a paleoanthropological collection housing rare specimens of significant scientific value often encounters the dilemma of deciding whether to permit the re-examination of these specimens. In the end, the final decision to grant access to the collections mostly depends on the policies of each institution, although it is fair to say that positive relationships and good connections with museum curators, collection managers, and other staff members often play a significant role here.
Back to Dawson’s exciting discovery, it was not until 1950, around five years after Arthur Smith Woodward passed away, that advancements in dating technology reshaped the scientific understanding of the age of the fossil. Through fluorine tests, it was determined that the Piltdown remains were only 50,000 years old (2). This dismissed the possibility of Piltdown Man being the missing link between humans and apes, as, by that time, humans had already evolved into Homo sapiens. Following this revelation, further tests on the age of the Piltdown specimens indicated that the skull and jaw fragments originated from two different species—an orangutan and a human. Piltdown Man turned out to be a deliberate fake and one of the greatest scientific frauds of the 20th century (3).
One may wonder to which extent the consequences of this fraud, such as the misdirection of the course of Palaeoanthropology for 40 years and the waste of time and money invested in its investigation, could have been avoided if this fossil had been openly accessible to every researcher interested in studying it. Charles Dawson and his colleagues were very selective about who could examine the fossils. At that time, the original material was not on show and only senior professionals were granted access. This limited access likely prevented other experts from closely scrutinizing the remains, which might have led to an earlier exposure of the fraud. In the case of Piltdown man, anatomists were allowed to extensively examine casts of this fossil, but rarely the original remains, which were typically securely stored and revealed only to a chosen few. Louis Leakey himself reflects on his memories a visit to the British Museum of Natural History to examine the Piltdown fossils. Leakey recalls being shown, although denied handling, the original fossils. Instead, he was permitted to inspect high-quality casts, as the originals were promptly secured after a quick visual examination. Was this a standard practice for visiting scientists to assess the Piltdown specimens? And most importantly, were these controlled conditions considered “free access” to the remains?
In all fairness, the forgery of the Piltdown Man hoax was not only the result of a lack of open access to the fossil. It exhibits an exceptionally sophisticated deception (4) that made the hoax go unnoticed even for those, like Louis Leakey, who examined the original specimens. To prepare such an elaborate fraud, numerous factors must have played a role there, for example: the reputation and authority of those involved with the Piltdown discovery added credibility to the discovery and might have dissuaded others from questioning it too closely; the desire of a “British” missing link that perhaps led to less critical examination than might have otherwise been the case; and the lack of advances analytical techniques, as techniques like radiocarbon dating and other methods of determining the age of artefacts were not developed until later, and without these methods, it was difficult to accurately date the Piltdown remains. However, the lack of open access to the fossil and its study under such restricted conditions also contributed to perpetuating the hoax for four decades.
The Piltdown Man hoax serves as a cautionary tale that resonates with the principles of open science. In the early 20th century, the closed and secretive nature of the research surrounding the Piltdown Man allowed the deception to persist for decades. Open science, on the other hand, emphasizes transparency, collaboration, and the sharing of research methodologies and data. In the context of the Piltdown Man hoax, an open science framework could have facilitated a more rapid identification of discrepancies and inconsistencies in the findings. This is because open access to data and methodologies encourages collective scrutiny and verification, acting as a safeguard against potential misconduct. Thankfully, modern Palaeoanthropology is moving towards more transparency and open access, in stark contrast to past practices like the Piltdown Man hoax. Advances in technology have enabled the creation of digital 3D models of fossils that can be shared online, allowing wider access for research and education without risking damage to the original specimens. There is also a growing trend towards international collaboration and sharing of fossil specimens for study, which helps mitigate some of the issues related to restricted access. Moreover, many scientific journals now require that data, including details about fossils, be made available as a condition of publication. All these practices promote transparency and reproducibility in research.
Unfortunately, the Palaeoanthropology field does not consistently experience this advantage, and even 70 years after the exposure of the hoax, the reluctance of some paleoanthropologists to share data and grant access to fossil material keeps hindering scientific progress. This situation, however, is expected to be reverted when former fossil site managers and museum curators die out and new people who agree with open science principles take over. Colloquially paraphrasing Max Planck in his Scientific Autobiography (5), it is sad to confirm that the statement “Science progresses one funeral at a time” seems to still be true.
The Piltdown Man hoax highlighted the importance of rigorous scrutiny and scepticism in scientific discoveries, emphasizing the need for thorough verification in the pursuit of understanding human evolutionary history. By learning from the Piltdown Man episode, we, proponents of open science, advocate for increased transparency, reproducibility, data sharing, and collaborative efforts in research. This approach aims to uphold the integrity of scientific inquiry and prevent the propagation of misinformation, fostering a more reliable and accountable scientific community.
Dawson, C., & Woodward, A. S. (1913). On the discovery of a Palaeolithic human skull and mandible in a flint-bearing gravel overlying the Wealden (Hastings Beds) at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex). Quarterly journal of the geological society, 69(1-4), 117-123.
Oakley, K. P., & Hoskins, C. R. (1950). New evidence on the antiquity of Piltdown man. Nature, 165, 379-382.
Weiner, J. S., Oakley, K. P., & Le Gros Clark, W.E. (1953). The solution of the Piltdown problem. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology, 2 (3), 139-146.
Donovan, S. K. (2016). The triumph of the Dawsonian method. Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, 127(1), 101-106.
Planck, M. (2014). Scientific autobiography: And other papers. Open Road Media.
I would like to thank Prof. Christopher Dean (Natural History Museum of London), Dr. Todd C. Rae (University of Sussex), and all the pro-open science early career researchers that I came across at different conferences and museums for the conversations that inspired the content of this blog post.
Dr. Nicole Torres-Tamayo can be found at: