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Lecture 4


Course Code
Gary Crawford

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Lessons from two hoaxes that had serious implications for the conduct of professional archaeologists
The Hoax at Piltdown
From 1912 to 1953, the Piltdown forgery was considered by most to be genuine
Popular appeal—seen as “missing link” tying us to chimpanzees, before caveman existed
o “bones probably those of direct ancestor of modern man, while cavemen died out”
Manchester Guardian (1912): “The Earliest Skull”
o “prehistoric skull believed to be the earliest evidence yet known of human life...skull
may be regarded as presented a hitherto unknown species of homn, for which a new
name is proposed
The Main Characters
Charles Dawson (amateur)
o Studied law, helped run a museum
o Amateur “scientist”
o “honorary collector” of The Natural History Museum (British Museum)
o Named 4 species after himself
o Had awesome luck (especially compared to his professional colleagues
Grafton Elliot Smith (Anatomist)
Arthur Smith Woodward (Paleontologist fish authority)
Arthur Keith (Anatomist, Biological Anthropologist)
Martin Hinton
Pierre Teihard de Chardin
***not clear who was behind the hoax
Dig site was very unprofessional—digging wasn’t organized, had amateurs leading, ed
Location Today
Known site where, in 1909, extinct mammal bones found (a gravel source for the locals, lots of
digging there recovered those bones; possible that all were planted there)
Woodward Smith Article
Woodward Smith published article on discovery to lend it credibility
“brain capacity of this skull was comparable only with that of some of the lowest existing
savages, while mandible must have been provided in front with teeth of the ape pattern”
o Meanwhile, Keith argued that the size of the skull made it relatively modern
Piece of skull was fragmenteasier to believe it is a prehistoric skull rather than modern one
Skull was relatively thick, but thickness is quite variable among individuals and populations
The Mandible
Joint connecting mandible to skull was broken offperpetrators of hoax used skull piece and
mandible piece from two different specimens

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Molars filed down to make it seem that prehistoric human had diet similar to that of modern
Canine tooth found as part of skullused to argue that these prehistoric creatures had sharp
teeth to fight other creatures
Reconstruction of Complete Piltdown Individual
Filled in portions meant to force scholars to see how the bones might fit together
Expert critics in 1913 started to doubt whether the two parts really were part of the same skull
Further Doubt
“it has been suspected by some that geologically they are not old at all; that they may even
represent a deliberate hoax, a negro or Australian skull and a broken ape-jaw, artificially
fossilized and “planted” in the gravel-bed, to fool the scientists. Against this suggestion tell the
whole circumstances of the discovery as above related” (W.K. Gregory 1914)
o Australian archaeologist that had caught on to the hoax
Mandible turned out to be from orangutan
What About Upright Posture?
Neanderthal-modern human comparisonssimilar but both upright
o Made it easy to make argument about prehistoric humans in hoax
Letter to editor published in “Nature” 1913 by Grafton Elliot Smith, hypothesized that brain
enlarged long before other human traits (e.g. bipedalism) appeared
o In this model, Neanderthal would not be ancestor of ours
Today we know that upright posture evolved early in humans...even though we didn’t know
how early in 1912
Bone “Cricket Bat
“early instrument” found near the dig site was really a broken cricket bat
One scholar suggested that Martin Hinton, the curator of Zoology at the British Museum was
behind the Piltdown hoax because of his reputation as a practical joker and a box of aged bones
found in his belongings after his death
Fluorine Absorption Dating
Technique provides a “relative” age: longer a bone is in the ground, the more fluorine it absorbs
The skull and mandible relatively modern and of different ages
Mammoth and other mammal bones at site were 10 times older than the human skull and
How Could This Hoax Have Fooled So Many and What Possessed the Hoaxer(s) to Do This?
Extreme nationalism: British Empire
o How could the home of the great “Empire” (according to the English at the time) not
have been the place where humanity began?
o Germans and French had surpassed Britain in archaeological discovery, British
population just wanted a win
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