the bone hoax zone

If you read the right bible, Genesis 6:4 goes like this: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” Biblical literalism produces many quixotic beliefs; among them is this: giants once existed.

It requires a unique entrepreneurial spirit to argue with some Methodists about the historical veracity of a race of giant men, and be so annoyed about it that you decide to hustle them. Few men have the constitution or the vision to even attempt such an endeavor, but among them is a tobacconist named George Hull. In 1868, Hull hired a sculptor to craft a 10+ foot tall stone human, carved from a block of gypsum and equipped with a very prominent stone phallus. He then carted the stone man to his cousin’s farm in Cardiff and buried it. After waiting a full year—patience is an underrated component to a proper bamboozle—Hill hired some workers to dig a well. They found the Cardiff Giant in October 1869.

The stone humanoid was proof of those giants, and visitors showed up in droves. They paid first 25 cents, then 50 cents a person for the privilege of seeing the very obviously fake/carved specimen, billed as 10 feet 4 inches tall and just shy of 3000 pounds (and also as “Taller than Goliath that David slew,” which I’m not sure was ever quantified in the bible). The con had cost Hull $2600, which equates to about $50,000 in today’s currency. An economics researcher might call this a “natural experiment,” insofar as it demonstrated exactly, to a precise monetary amount, how annoying Hull found his bible-thumping neighbors. But it was a canny investment: the giant drew so many spectators that Hull sold the rights for $23,000, a return that vastly outpaced the Dow Jones Hoax Index over the same timespan.

the giant in situ

Drawn in by the siren song of a flim-flam he wasn’t part of, PT Barnum showed up. He attempted to buy the giant outright, but was rebuffed. So he did the next best thing: he created his own version from a plaster cast. To complete this act of forgery forgery, Barnum then advertised his own creation as the original giant. Then he got sued, initially resulting in a confusing claim from the judge that he would not find for the claimant unless the giant testified to its own authenticity, which sounds like one of those weird loopholes left over from the 13th century or something, but is actually straight from Hammurabi’s code, right after the thing about ox goring.

Eventually, Hull revealed his hoax, and the lawsuit was thrown out. The Cardiff Giant still resides at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown.

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1866: Miners digging more than 100 feet below the surface in central California uncovered a human skull, later known as the Calaveras Skull. The artifact eventually made its way to Josiah Whitney, California’s state geologist and not coincidentally proponent of a new theory that man, mastodon, and mammoths coexisted in North America. Whitney investigated the skull and declared it a remnant of the oldest anatomically modern human in North America, as well as ironclad proof his theory was right.

It wasn’t. Tired of the egghead Whitney constantly pestering them for bones, the miners pranked him with a planted skull: “All were delighted to have the joke on Whitney, who, being an Easterner of very reserved demeanor, was unpopular with the miners.”

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1917: Years after the Calaveras skull, “Nebraska Man,” the common parlance for Herpopithecus haroldcookii, was thought to be the first North American primate, the species typed based on a tooth dug up by a Nebraska farmer. Several years later, the tooth was determined to be from a peccary (more commonly known as a skunk pig or javelina).

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1997: The bones of a large, winged humanoid are uncovered in the hills outside Springfield. Religious hysteria ensues; citizens and pilgrims both convinced they’ve discovered the remains of an angel. It is later revealed to be a publicity stunt for the opening of the new Heavenly Hills mall.

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1912: Semi-professional antiquarian Charles Dawson reports on the discovery of skull, jaw, and tooth fragments in the Piltdown gravel pits near Sussex. A worker had dug them up in 1908, but discarded them because he thought they were fossilized coconut (not a joke). But he told Dawson about them, and Dawson went back to the pits and dug them up, then reconstructed the fragments: the skull of a modern human wedded to the jaws and teeth of a primitive ape. It was a major anthropological find: the long-sought “missing link” between ape and man and the first human, a 500,000 year old ancestor of modern man.

The “Piltdown Man” was a new species, Eoanthropus Dawsoni, or “Dawson’s dawn man.” It was also a fake: 500 year old skull fragments dyed brown to match the soil, paired with orangutan jaw bones and filed-down chimpanzee teeth. As a 1955 description of the hoax stated: “the Dawn Man of Piltdown has been effectively disposed of … for forty years a female ape’s jaw has masqueraded as one of our ancestors.”

Dawson, left, in the Piltdown gravel pits

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A quick recap: Cardiff Giant (fake, commercial scheme); Calaveras Skull (prank); angel skeleton (The Simpsons); Nebraska Man (apparently honest mistake). Then there is Piltdown Man, which I’d mentally filed away next to the Cardiff Giant as a Barnum-esque hoax. I have only now discovered the many ways in which I was wrong:

1. First, and most importantly, Piltdown Man was not verified fake until 1953. Four decades! I don’t know what the median shelf-life of a typical flim-flam is, but it must be far less than 40 years. The archaeoraptor, a purported “missing link” between birds and dinosaurs, was revealed as a faked hybrid fossil within weeks of its unveiling in 1999. Imagine it lasting forty years. Entire academic careers could have come and gone.

(Quick side note: dinosaurs evolved into birds, and the most likely way for a real-life Jurassic Park scenario is Jack Horner’s visionary/deranged plan to de-evolve chickens into dinosaurs through selective breeding).

There were warning signs. By 1913, at least one prominent researcher—and he wasn’t alone—publicly argued that Piltdown man was the bones of different animals, mistakenly or purposefully jammed together into a monstrous Dr. Moreau-eseque ape-human hybrid. By the late 1940s, the Piltdown bones were essentially ignored in archaeological circles, thought to be an anomaly, or the mistake of an ambitious amateur. But even while academics had moved on, in 1938 the Piltdown site was named a “National Nature Reserve” (later revoked).

reconstructed piltdown skull

2. The number of theories about the identity of the Piltdown hoaxer approaches JFK assassination levels. No fewer than 27 suspects have been put forward, none of whom are the Freemasons or LBJ. My favorite of the lot is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Unfortunately this claim has no real basis besides the vaguely circumstantial overlap in time between the Piltdown find and the publication of Doyle’s Lost World, which posits an entire missing link ecosystem. (Actually, wait a second! I just looked this up and Doyle was a freemason!)

The most likely suspect is the man for whom Eoanthropus dawsoni was named: Charles Dawson. Dawson was a semi-professional scientist/academic gadfly with no formal training but a 20+ year history of geological, anthropological, and archaeological finds that earned him fellowship in the Geological Society and the Society of Antiquaries London. At the time of his death in 1916, he had applied for fellowship in the Royal Society, with the Piltdown find his crowning achievement.

In decades of searching for the archaic, Dawson had found or reported on a diverse array of remarkable items. These included fossilized mammal and lizard teeth, a unique stone tool still with the wooden haft, Roman-era bricks found in England, a never-before-seen type of horseshoe, to—and I am not making this up—a mummified toad encased in a hollow nodule of flint. Many decades after his death, a full accounting of his finds revealed more than three dozen fakes and frauds. By the time he pulled off Piltdown—easily the most successful scientific humbug of the 20th century—he’d already been conjuring and constructing fake items, undetected, for more than two decades. Piltdown Man was the culmination of an entire and hugely prolific career in scientific artifice.

3. The techniques Dawson used to slip undetected through an entire career of antiquarian imposture are a roadmap for the aspiring bamboozler:

Slow play: Dawson typically did not publicly reveal objects until years after their supposed discovery. The glacial pace served a dual purpose: obscuring the item’s provenance, and piquing the curiosity of those who got sneak peeks. Despite being a world-shatteringly-important discovery, Dawson took more than 3 years to mention his Piltdown find to anyone. And how about the time he saw a sea serpent? Dawson once mentioned to a friend that he’d witnessed a sea serpent circling the boat while on a cruise. He said this casually, a year after the fact, almost an afterthought in a letter to a friend, which is an entirely reasonable way to behave if you see an 80-foot mythical monster. Apparently getting no rise out of his friend, he never brought it up again.

Giving them what they want: Finding something that completely changes the timeline of received history would be a memory to cherish forever; if you are Charles Dawson it is a Tuesday.

Back in 1891, Dawson’s first big find—where, you might say, he “made his bones” (I’m so sorry)—was the tooth of Plagiaulax dawsoni, supposedly the first Cretaceous-era mammal in Europe. It was a fake. He later found: a “transitional” boat (midpoint between old and new boat architectures, washed away before it could be preserved); a Roman-era cast-iron statue (from centuries before cast-iron existed, later dated to the 18th century); a horseshoe that appeared to be a transitional form between old slipper-style shoes and newer ones that are nailed to the hoof (a fake); a fourth-century BCE bronze Chinese vase (20 centuries too early to be found in Britain); bricks bearing a Roman insignia, purportedly from the last Roman building projects in England (six decades later, found to be “no older than the date they were found”).

Dawson’s most noteworthy ability was no in finding these fake objects. It was his ability to identify “just what material the various ‘experts in the field’ required in order to support their theories.” Piltdown Man extended this concept. Here, he was not just producing his usual “missing link” or “transitional” form, but also playing to nationalist and intellectual vanity. At the time, no primate fossils had yet been discovered in the UK, and here he was not just finding one but also providing evidence for a (wrong) theory popular in British anthropological circles: that large brains evolved before changes to jaws and teeth. And when skeptics questioned whether the jaw and skull fragments were indeed from the same creature, Dawson magically produced a second set of fossils of dubious provenance—thereby “settling” concerns over his original find.

>Finding cover: Dawson actually had two marks: the obvious one was the scientific community. But the second were his “academic dupes”: he would tantalize colleagues with vague allusions to important finds, until they checked scientific inhibitions and championed the find themselves. It is remarkable, in retrospect, how few of Dawson’s finds he himself actually reported on (fewer still in reputable journals; it’s also remarkable how many times he managed to get away with describing something he found without ever actually producing the invariably-accidentally-destroyed item. He had an uncanny ability for finding phantom objects.). Drawn into his web, academic bodyguards staked their own reputation on Dawson’s forgeries.

He plied his trade where the byzantine logics of academic credit met the soft underbelly of intellectual vanity. This all leads me inexorably to a new theory: at core, every flim-flam is an exploitation of confirmation bias. Dawson was providing people with the proof of something they desperately wanted to be true. They couldn’t help themselves.

4. Given the Piltdown hoax was not revealed until forty years after the fact, we might question: didn’t anyone notice? Those who did probably assumed “honest mistake” rather than “brazen forgery,” but Miles Russell, a Piltdown researcher, posits and provocative if likely untrue scenario: someone tried to out Dawson by associating him with bad, obvious fakes.

the “cricket bat” tool

Something I did not mention previously: besides skull and jaw fragments, Dawson also recovered an elephant femur shaped something like a cricket bat. He proclaimed it a bone tool. There were at least two problems with this claim: First, no similar tool had been found to that point (nor since). Second, crafting bone using flint tools is effectively impossible. So curious was the thigh-bone-cum-cricket-bat that “the French archaeologist Abbé Breuil … suggested that the bone has been gnawed by a giant beaver,” which moves me to wonder exactly how big prehistoric beavers could get. So Russell, the Piltdown researcher, is telling the following story: someone realized that Dawson was full of shit, and planted an obvious anachronistic forgery—an elephant femur shaped into a dang cricket bat—at the dig site. When it was uncovered, it would discredit Dawson altogether.

I suspect it’s more likely that Dawson simply took his charade one step too far to be credibly believed, but I am enchanted with the idea of one hoaxer trying to out another through the deployment of bad fakes. Meta-flim-flam.

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Dawson died in 1916, decades before he could be publicly shamed.

Bibliography and Further Readings

[1]: Miles Russell, Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed

[2]: Natural History Museum exhibit on Piltdown

[3]: De Groote et al., “New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created ‘Piltdown man’”

[4]: “Piltdown Man”, American Scientist, 1955.

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