Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Piltdown Hoax

The Piltdown Hoax began in the early 1900s in East Sussex, England. Piltdown fossils, which included a portion of the skull, jawbone, some teeth were found in 1912 by Charles Dawson. This is known as the "Piltdown Man" and was believed by many to be the "earliest Englishmen" which leads to be the missing link between apes and human. Dawson got the help of Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, an English geologist, and a French paleontologist, and together they set out to Piltdown to search for more fossils. Within a year of working together, they discovered a canine tooth. They believed that their findings were a match to the skull and jawbone and that with the human like skill and apelike jawbone, they set to believe that they had discovered the common ancestor of apes and humans. Many years later, in 1953, the jawbone was found to be part of a modern ape, orangutan to be exact, as for the skull, the cap of it was thought to be a genuine fossil. This was the first time ever that a discovery of an ancestor or humans and apes have taken place. This was one of the oldest human fossils found in England. 

Scientists are human, therefore they are capable of making mistakes. However, they could possibly use the theories or have certain ideas that would benefit their findings or even benefit their career. Another human fault that I see being played in the scenario is excitement. Due to the excitement of the discoveries, scientist might of faked some of the findings or observations to match up their discoveries or even let the excitement make rational choices. These were the first discoveries and their findings predicted being the oldest ancestor skulls, with this excitement, the scientist might have lacked their observations and protocols. You can see the faults because the lack of experiments on the fossils; they didn't question why specific parts of the skull were apelike, followed by the jawbone and teeth, on how they were human like. 

The hoax was discovered back when scientist used a fluorine test to date the fossils in 1949. They continued to study the fossils to try and understand their meaning to science. With the measurements of the fluorine content of the fossils, they discovered that they were actually old. In 1953, there was a full investigation which led to the study of fabrication; and what they found was that the staining that were found on the burns was material that had previously been cut while being a fossil.  The jaw was found to be an orangutan while the teeth were of a chimps; which was also part of a suspicious activity because they looked like human teeth.

I don't think it is possible to remove the human factor from science to reduce the chance of error. Humans are bound to make mistakes, and many people believe that mistakes shouldn't happen or occur, however, many fail to realize that mistakes is what pushes us to think and try harder. It wouldn't make sense having something non human take part in scientific experiments, that alone is always open to making mistakes. Humans are more open to discovering new things and different theories because their findings are things that can help not only other humans, but themselves as well. Science consists of conducting research and findings and testing their evidence. Therefore, I believe that human factor should not be removed from science. 

The lesson that I took from this historical event is not always taking things at face value. There will always be people with different opinions, positive or negative, but you have to learn how to deal with it, regardless if you agree or not. Bias is something that is very big and despite their reasons for it, they will always have a motive for their thinking and believing. This leads to the scientific community, scientists must come to a positive conclusions which leads to why scientific theories must be falsifiable. The Piltdown Hoax has taught us that we cannot trust other's works, if they don't have the capacity to provide whether their observations are true or false. 


  1. Great explanation of the Piltdown hoax, one thing i did not consider in my explanation as a human fault was excitement. I completely agree with you, putting myself in Dawson's shoes i too would be excited as a reaction to other people excitements due to the newly discovered fossils.

  2. You touched on something that I didn't take into consideration and that was the feeling of excitement. I believe that there was this need to compete with other countries in the area of fossil finds. Your idea of excitement and the need to compete certainly could have played a role in accepting Piltdown man on face value with little research. I agree with you that we cannot trust someone's works particularly when that individual does not have the capacity to provide whether their observations are true or false, no matter how much we want to believe it to be true.

  3. Hello Cindy, great post on the Piltdown hoax and what human elements you thought came into these accusations. You decided to go with excitement, something I did not consider. I looked at it from a more negative aspect of Dawson inertially wanting to make false claims. From the excitement point of view you noted that competition could have played a role because there was a definite need to compete in the scientific community during this time. Also like you, I do believe that it is impossible to remove human error from science. Too many factors play into the human element that cannot afford to be taken out of the process.

  4. Really awesome post! I enjoyed reading about your thoughts on how human factor shouldn't be taken out of science. I mean, it would make any sense since our curiosity and drive are the reasons that science is pushed forward in its evolution. Without the human drive behind scientific studies, their would be no reason to even discover anything! Great post!

  5. For the most part, good synopsis. The main criticism would be regarding your statements about the significance of Piltdown. What contributions would Piltdown have made to science, had it been valid?

    You offered the following as significance:

    ""Piltdown Man" and was believed by many to be the "earliest Englishmen" which leads to be the missing link between apes and human."

    Yes, to the claim of being the "earliest Englishman" but no on the missing link, and indeed students were warned in the guidelines that this term was invalid and shouldn't be used in your post. Did you get a chance to review the background information on this term?

    You also said:

    "This was the first time ever that a discovery of an ancestor or humans and apes have taken place."

    If you are suggesting this was the first hominid discovered, that is false, as other countries had already found hominid fossils. If you are indeed suggesting that Piltdown was a common ancestor of humans and other apes, this is also false. Piltdown was just a twig on the hominid family tree. The common ancestor would be much, much older, going back 6-10 millions years ago.

    So the question remains as to what the actual significance was of Piltdown. What would it have taught us about human evolution? Well, the large cranium of Piltdown, paired with the more "primitive" jaw and dentition, suggested that the large brain evolved earlier than previously thought, earlier than hominid dentition and possibly bipedalism. We now know this is false, but this was a popular theory at that time and was supported by Arthur Keith, another Piltdown scientist. Had Piltdown been valid, this is what it would have contributed to science, the support of this particular theory.

    Okay on your discussion of faults, though I would disagree that "excitement" is a fault. Ambition(which you seem to be suggesting initially) and perhaps greed are more likely to cause people to make bad choices in the face of excitement over a new and important find. But I do see your point from the perspective of the scientific community in general, with regard to the "excitement" argument, though again lets narrow this down to an actual fault. Remember that this was supposedly the first hominid found in England. Would you like to be the scientist that falsified that English claim to fame? It may have been national pride that encouraged scientists to not analyze Piltdown as much as necessary.

    Great job explaining the process that uncovered the hoax. But why were scientists still studying this find some 40 years after it was uncovered? What aspect of science does that represent?

    "Humans are more open to discovering new things and different theories because their findings are things that can help not only other humans, but themselves as well. "

    Okay, I do see your point, but while I agree that humans have the motivation to study the world around them, don't we bring more positive traits to science than that? How about curiosity, ingenuity and innovation? Could we even do science without these factors?

    Good life lesson.

  6. I think you had a great synopsis! You mentioned that you do not feel that there is any way to remove human error, but what about decreasing it? I wrote in my blog about how there may be a way to decrease human error by working with more people and having your research accredited by prestigious institutions, however now that I think about it, Woodward was working with Dawson and researchers today feel that he most likely did not know that Dawson had duped him. I wonder if there is a way to at least minimize the human factor.