After exploring an old trunk filled with not-so-old bones, a British paleontologist apparently has identified the perpetrator of one of the greatest frauds in science: Piltdown Man, an anthropological find hailed early this century as a “missing link” in human evolution.
The hoax was exposed in the 1950s, but the culprit has remained a matter of speculation.
According to Brian Gardiner, a professor at Kings College here, he was Martin A.C. Hinton, a brilliant young curator at London’s Natural History Museum 80 years ago, when Piltdown Man made his debut. Disgruntled in a pay dispute, Hinton set out to trick his boss, and succeeded, by chemically treating relatively young fossils to make them look old.
The primary evidence: Hinton’s trunk, discovered in a museum loft, which contained bone samples treated with a recipe identical to that used on the Piltdown remains. The corroboration: human teeth found among the deceased scientist’s personal effects, treated in the same way.
Gardiner’s findings are described in Thursday’s issue of Nature, the respected British weekly science journal. Gardiner said in an interview that they are the culmination of decades of research, fired by a personal conviction that the wrong people have been blamed for the Piltdown hoax. Gardiner said he is now confident he has found the right person.
The saga of Piltdown Man began when a lawyer and amateur geologist, Charles Dawson, walked into the office of Arthur Smith Woodward, head of the geology department of the British Museum, and dumped on a table five bone fragments taken from a shallow pit at Piltdown in Sussex, England, suggesting they were those of a prehistoric ancestor of man.
Woodward visited the site and found further fossils as well as an ape-like jaw, complete with teeth. Woodward, an expert on fish rather than people or apes, reconstructed the pieces into a skull with the jaws and teeth of an ape but signs of a large brain, closer to that of man’s. Nothing like it had ever been seen: It was an ape-man, the “dawn man,” Eoanthropus, the missing link in the Darwinian chain. In 1912, he announced the exciting and important discovery to the Geological Society here.
There were skeptics at the time, and more later, but Piltdown Man was nonetheless enshrined, albeit shakily, in the pantheon of prehistory. As late as 1950, Dawson was honored with a memorial near the spot where Piltdown Man was discovered. All men of science, said the distinguished scientist presiding, take “off their hats” to Dawson.
Two years later, chemical analyses by Kenneth P. Oakley of the Natural History Museum revealed that the skull was from a modern human; the jaw was from an orangutan, and the teeth had been filed. The young bones were made to look primitive by staining them with iron and manganese.
Woodward and Dawson, both of whom were dead by then, have absorbed most of the blame. Others have suggested that Hinton knew Piltdown Man was a fraud and remained silent, but Gardiner believes the genius Hinton duped both men.
Gardiner said he had suspected Hinton for some years for a variety of reasons, principally because at the time of the hoax “he was the only person who could have known how” to do this.
In the mid-1970s, during maintenance work on the museum, workers discovered Hinton’s trunk and passed it along to Andrew Currant, a researcher there. In the late 1980s, Currant mentioned it to Gardiner, who had been thinking about Piltdown and Hinton for years and was enraged, he said in an interview, that some writers had attributed the fraud to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher-paleontologist who was deeply interested in the discovery and at one point visited the site.
Analyzing the contents of the trunk - various bones, fossils and teeth - he found they had been stained with the same chemicals in exactly the same proportions as the mixture used on the Piltdown remains.
He knew that Hinton was “a scavenger. He never threw anything away.” He got permission from the executor of Hinton’s estate to examine “four little tubes with human stained teeth in them….I was able to show that the stains in the teeth and the stains in the trunk were the same as those at Piltdown,” he said.
Hinton had done some staining work for Dawson prior to the Piltdown discovery, according to the Nature article, establishing a connection between the two. In addition, he was an expert on the geology of the area of Sussex where Piltdown Man was found, and had to know that it was free of fossils that might date the area and foil any fraud.
Hinton stained the fakes, Gardiner theorized, planted them and led Dawson to them.
The motive: Hinton had contracted to do some work for Woodward and asked for payment as it progressed. Woodward refused, saying he would pay him when it was done.
Hinton “said he was…penniless,” Gardiner said, and “would need two pounds 10 (shillings)” per week to keep himself alive. Woodward grew “incensed,” and Hinton “left the department never to return,” Gardiner said. Hinton spent most of the rest of his career at the museum’s zoology department and died in 1961.
By Gardiner’s account, Hinton was a practical joker who was determined to get even by conning Woodward, which he did.