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Planet Earth

The Piltdown Perp

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When Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur geologist, announced that he had found what appeared to be the partly apelike skull of an ancient human in a gravel bed on Piltdown Common, near Lewes, England, in 1912, it was touted as a long-sought evolutionary missing link between apes and humans. But in 1953, chemical analyses of the remains showed that the scientific establishment had been duped for four decades. The cranium belonged to a modern human and the jaw to an orangutan, both skillfully stained and altered to look old (a model is shown at right). Since then, nearly everyone even remotely connected with Piltdown has been implicated in the hoax. But last May, paleontologist Brian Gardiner of King’s College, London, and his colleague Andrew Currant revealed the true identity of the perpetrator. Based on the first solid evidence, Gardiner and Currant conclude it was Martin A. C. Hinton (right), keeper of zoology at the British Museum from 1936 to 1945.

In 1975 workmen found a steamer trunk bearing the initials M.A.C.H. in a loft at the museum. But its contents were not thoroughly examined until Currant mentioned to Gardiner, ten years later, that the trunk contained a box of bones. Gardiner’s analysis showed that the bones had been treated in the same manner as the Piltdown remains--dipped in acid, then stained with manganese and iron oxide. He was looking at Hinton’s practice set.

For the last ten years, Gardiner and Currant have been building their case, examining the correspondence of every man involved in Piltdown. Hinton’s motivation, they say, was to embarrass Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of paleontology at the British Museum. Hinton was a museum volunteer at the time of the fraud and had apparently annoyed Woodward by requesting a salary. Woodward told him to get lost, says Gardiner. And away went Hinton and concocted the hoax. I don’t think he meant it to go as far as it did.

But it did go far; Woodward and others failed to detect a note of whimsy in the Piltdown fossils, which included an elephant femur carved to resemble a cricket bat. At that time in England, says Gardiner, we were hoping to find the earliest man. We didn’t want the goddamn French or Germans to have it, we wanted it. People wanted to believe it. And once Hinton became a respected scholar, he could not confess, although his entry in Britain’s Who’s Who lists hoaxes as one of his interests.

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