On the 18th of December 1912 the story broke in several national newspapers of the discovery of ‘the Earliest Englishman’ by an amateur archaeologist named William Dawson in a gravel pit in Piltdown, Sussex. The leading anthropologists of the day and experts from the British Museum were quick to declare the find authentic and the species was given the name Eoanthropus dawsonii, ‘Dawson’s Dawn Man’. The reconstruction of Piltdown Man’s skull was placed alongside that of other early human species and was at the time cited as the missing link between humans and apes that proved Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Although most at the time agreed with the findings there were a few detractors notably Marcellin Boule and Gerrit Smith Miller, who identified the lower jaw as belonging to an ape, and Franz Weidenreich who identified the skull as being that of a modern human and the jawbone being that of an orang-utan. Weidenreich was completely correct in his analysis, but the British scientific establishment were not about to accept his word for it, especially when the discovery of an early hominid on British soil gave them such a patriotic glow and the specimen supported Sir Arthur Keith’s evolutionary theory, that large brains came first in evolution, something which the discovery of australopithecines in Africa did not. Dawson made it even easier for the scientists to accept the hoax as ‘the real deal’ by discovering another specimen just down the road from where he had found the first (what luck!).
The scientists didn’t question the ‘prehistoric’ bone cricket bat found with the specimen (surely the fact that Piltdown man played a sort of proto-cricket was more proof of his English credentials) or Dawson’s other ‘discoveries’ including fake Chinese bronze vases and ‘Roman’ statues. Faked items and accounts of Dawson’s that will be of interest to cryptozoologists include that of a sea serpent in the English Channel, a toad entombed in a flint found in Brighton and a ‘missing link’ between mammals and reptiles that had been constructed as a biological cut and shut similar to Piltdown Man. Over time Piltdown man fell out of favour because it just didn’t make sense when viewed in connection with other hominid finds and it was conclusively proved to be a hoax once and for all in 1953 by the British Museum’s Kenneth Oakly who used his new technique of radioactive fluorine dating to prove the skull fragments were thousands of years older than the jaw fragments.
Whether Dawson, or indeed Wetherell for that matter, intended for their hoaxes to grow to the level they did is unknown, but they both went to their graves without revealing their duplicity to the public. If one views them as eccentric pranksters then you can perhaps imagine their dismay when their jokes became regarded as fact and them being too embarrassed to come clean because of the possible fall out gradually digging themselves deeper and deeper into their holes, if one is not as charitable they can be viewed as malicious idiots who set the course of investigation and scientific understanding back by decades and resulted in otherwise brilliant scientists wasting their careers on smoke and mirrors.