Some would call it the greatest hoax of the twentieth century.
That a group of men so intimately connected with the field of paleo-anthropology might be so easily duped, because of the mixing of human and chimpanzee bone fragments, was perhaps the most shocking aspect to the scientific world. And yet, it would be close to four decades before the complete consensus on what had been dubbed the “Piltdown Man” would determine that there had been, in truth, no new discovery of an unknown primate from our ancient past, and instead merely a hoax for which the key players involved spanned from the amateur rock hound and curiosity seeker, to controversial members of the cloth.
The debacle began innocently enough in December of 1912, when Arthur Smith Woodward, at the time serving as keeper of the British Museum’s geological department, had been presented with several curious skull fragments; each had allegedly had been discovered by workmen at the nearby Piltdown gravel pit. Woodward had received the curious fragments from Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist and co-founder of the Hastings and Saint Leonards Museum Association, who had previously been dubbed “The Wizard of Sussex” for his uncanny success with discovering such rare and ancient artifacts.
Rise of an Early Fortean
Though a few of his discoveries were indeed considerable, Dawson’s reputation was hardly beyond reproach among many in the scientific community; fitting what one might call an early Fortean of sorts, Dawson had also been one of the first to claim discovery of a toad trapped within a flint nodule (it was petrified, unlike many instances where the discovery of live toads recovered from such stones would ensue in later years). Additionally, Dawson would draw curious attention for his studies of sea serpent reports stemming from the English Channel, as well as claims that he had discovered what he believed to be a nascent relative to the human species.