Charles Dawson’s motivation for have created this hoax may have been to reconcile early 20th Century anthropology with Creationism, but was the Piltdown Man a scientific or religious hoax?
By: Ringo Bones
Contrary to popular belief, Charles Dawson was neither a formally trained paleoanthropologist nor a trained archaeologist. Dawson, a British lawyer and antiquarian, claimed to have dug up from a gravel pit on Piltdown Common in the south of England portions of a skull and jawbone back in 1912. Probable reasons for Charles Dawson’s motivation for initiating the Piltdown Man Hoax was primarily due to the intensive search conducted by early investigators attempts to reconcile Darwin’s theory of the descent of man with the Victorian era doctrine of a “Chain of Being” leading back to the time of “Biblical Creation” – i.e. Archbishop James Ussher’s 9 a.m. 23rd of October, 4004 B.C. Creation date. If man had indeed evolved – the reasoning ran – then somewhere in humanity’s past there must exist an original creature, a “missing link” if you will, between us and the lowly apes. An idea that’s unfortunately rife for wild surmises.
After Dawson and team washed the gravel of their dig site in the Piltdown pit, the remains were found in what can only be described by today’s archaeological standards as dubious geological circumstances when he concluded – and managed to convince the archaeologists, physical anthropologists and paleoanthropologists of the time - that the finds were over 500,000 years old. Dawson’s famous 1912 find of a cranium that resembles that of a modern human and the supposed lower jaw that came with it that was fully ape-like managed to launch an argument that lasted 40 years. Popularly known at the time as “Piltdown Man” after the English hamlet where it was found, the fossil was accepted as genuine by almost every archaeologists, paleoanthropologists and physical anthropologists at the time and was even scientifically named as “Eoanthropus dawsoni” or Dawson’s “dawn man”.
Because of his “gentleman” status, virtually nobody questioned Dawson’s archaeological finds and even got him widely acclaimed – especially after the case for Piltdown Man was further strengthened in 1915 when he came up with another find, some pieces of skull and a molar. As the years passed, Dawson’s fossils became increasingly difficult to reconcile with other unquestioningly authentic finds. Java Man and scores of African “dawn men” that have more ape-like skulls and more modern man-like jaws mad the Piltdown Man seem like an evolutionary paradox from a paleoanthropological perspective.
It wasn’t until the early 1950s that three British scientists finally determined to settle the Piltdown Man question once and for all. Post WW II dating methods can already determine a fossil’s age with accuracy. Kenneth P. Oakley applied the chemical tests while J.S. Weiner and W.E. Le Gros Clark subjected the Piltdown Man fossils to exhaustive anatomical analysis. By 1953, it was proven without a shadow of a doubt that the skull of the Piltdown Man was that of a modern human and his supposed jaw was that of an ape – an orangutan in fact – filed down to disguise them. Charles Dawson was long since dead when his elaborate hoax was uncovered and so could not be called upon to explain his intentions. Modern dating methods – especially radioisotope dating methods – make it very hard for scientific hoaxes like Piltdown Man to pass as genuine this day and age. But are hoaxes such as these really as harmless as they seem to be?
During the eight-year reign of former US president George W. Bush, America had experienced a flirtation with “Creationism” that manage to empower every white supremacist group in US soil hitherto unknown since the days of famed unabashed conservative named Ronald Reagan. The Jena-6 incident only highlights the increasing racial tension in America that had grown stronger ever since President Bush granted carte blanche to every Creationism supporters and educators. Piltdown Man has since been proven a hoax from a scientific concept, but the ideas that gave it life – the racially charged Biblical concepts of the Mark of Cain and the Children of Ham – only gives extremist groups in America more political leverage and could make racism seem reasonable due to its religious and political precedents.