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Piltdown Man

The jaw of the Piltdown skull turned out to be from an orangutan whose teeth were filed to match human wear patterns.

Reg Speller/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The minute Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, scientists began frantically searching for the "missing link." Some kind of fossil from a transitional creature in between a full ape and full man. Someone in the midst of evolving. In 1912, Englishman Charles Dawson claimed he'd found it -- eureka! -- in a gravel pit in a place called Piltdown [source: Bartlett].

Taking the fossils they'd found, Dawson and a colleague recreated a skull with a human-sized brain and apelike jaw. The skull was dubbed Piltdown Man. England merrily celebrated its new status as the birthplace of modern man. But some scientists cried foul. The skull didn't match other finds around the world, namely the famed Australopithecines fossil discovered in South Africa. Dawson then announced in 1915 that he'd found another fossil similar to Piltdown Man. With evidence of two Piltdowns, most people believed the hoax [source: Bartlett].

Piltdown Man's demise occurred in 1953, when British scientists, using new technology, dated his remains at 500 years old -- not the 1 million necessary to be the missing link. They also discovered his jaw was from an orangutan whose teeth were filed to match human wear patterns. All of the fossils had been stained to match each other. Piltdown Man wasn't just an erroneously identified find, it was a hoax [source: Bartlett].

We'll never know who perpetrated the hoax, as most of the folks involved were dead by the time the truth was revealed. One intriguing suspect is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books. Doyle lived near Piltdown, was a member of the same archaeological society as Dawson and was into spiritualism, which scientists mocked. Perhaps this was his way of getting back at them [source: Bartlett].

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