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.” If you’re a biblical literalist, this of course implies that giants once existed.

It requires a certain kind of entrepreneurial spirit to get into an argument with some Methodists about the past existence of a race of giants, and decide to hustle them. Few men have the constitution or the vision to attempt such a thing; among them is a tobacconist named George Hull. In 1868, Hull hired a sculptor to create a 10+foot tall stone human, carved from a giant block of gypsum and complete with a very prominent stone phallus. He then carted it to his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, New York, buried it, waited a full year—very patient was Hull—then hired some workers to dig a well. They found the Cardiff Giant in October 1869.

Hull had spent, supposedly, $2600 on the con, which equates to roughly $50,000 modern dollars; then as now, spite is a motivator equalled only by sex and money. Visitors paid first 25, then 50 cents to view the stone humanoid, which attracted enough interest that Hull sold the rights to the giant for $23,000, a return on investment that seriously overperformed the Dow Jones Hoax Index for that time.

the giant in situ

The giant continued to draw such crowds that PT Barnum tried to buy it, but was rebuffed. He then created his own version from a plaster cast, and exhibited it while suggesting his was the original. Barnum was sued, but the judge reportedly said that he would not find for the claimant unless the giant testified to its own authenticity. This sounds surprising at first but it’s straight from Hammurabi’s code, right after the thing about ox goring.

Hull revealed the charade, and the lawsuit was later thrown out of court. You can still see the Cardiff giant at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown.

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The “Calaveras Skull” was recovered by miners in central California in 1866, more than 100 feet below the earth’s surface. The skull eventually made its way to Josiah Whitney, the state geologist and recent proponent of a theory that man, mastodons, and mammoths had coexisted in North America. He claimed the skull as proof of his theory; it was, he said, the old anatomically modern human in North America.

It wasn’t. The miners, apparently sick of the egghead Whitney bothering them, had 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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“Nebraska Man,” the common parlance for Herpopithecus haroldcookii, was thought to be the first North American primate. The species’s type identification was based on a tooth recovered by a Nebraska farmer in 1917. Within a decade, the tooth was found to be from an extinct species of peccary (more commonly known as the skunk pig or javelina), which makes you think about all those times they identify remains based on dental records.

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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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A semi-professional antiquarian named Charles Dawson reported in 1912 on the his discovery of skull, jaw, and tooth fragments in the Piltdown gravel pits near Sussex. A worker digging in the gravel had found the pieces in 1908, but then discarded them, believing them to be … fossilized coconut (I didn’t make that up). Dawson went back to dig them up and reconstructed the fragments into something new: the skull of a modern human but the jaws and teeth of a more primitive ape. It was a major find: the “missing link” between ape and man: the first human, some 500,000 years old.

“Piltdown Man” was a new species, Eoanthropus Dawsoni, or “Dawson’s dawn-man.” It was also a fake: 500-year old human skull fragments dyed brown to match the soil, paired with orangutan jaw bones and filed-down chimpanzee teeth. A 1955 report 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 (literally an episode of The Simpsons); Nebraska Man (apparently honest mistake). Then there is the Piltdown Man, which I’d mentally filed away next to the Cardiff Giant as a Barnum-esque hoax. I have only recently discovered the many ways in which I was wrong:

1. Piltdown Man was not verified fake until 1953. Four decades! What do you suppose the median shelf-life of your typical flim-flam is? 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. Perhaps we are faster at revealing fakes; we do not seem less likely to fall for them in the first place.

(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).

Forty years overstates it a little. By 1913, at least one prominent researcher—and he wasn’t alone—argued publicly that the Piltdown man was actually bones of separate animals, mistakenly jammed together into a monstrous ape-human hybrid. By the late 1940s, the Piltdown bones were all but ignored in anthropological circles, assumed as mistaken or anomalous. On the other hand, in 1938 the Piltdown site was named a “National Nature Reserve” (later revoked), so even 25 years later the site and find still held that level of cultural cachet.

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 is essentially baseless, relying solely on the near-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 academic 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 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 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: You know what’s cool? Finding something that completely changes the timeline of received history.

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, dated to “no older than the date they were found”). He had an exemplary ability for identifying “just what material the various ‘experts in the field’ required in order to support their theories.”

Piltdown Man extended this principle. Here, he was not just producing his standard “missing link” or “transitional” form, but also playing to nationalist and intellectual vanity. 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.

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 rather like a cricket bat. Dawson called it a bone tool, though no similar tool had been found yet, or since. More importantly, crafting such a bone implement 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.  Russell’s claim here is that someone realized Dawson was full of shit, and planted an obvious anachronistic forgery—an elephant femur shaped into a dang cricket bat—at the dig site, hoping that it would, when discovered, discredit Dawson (the joke here is that shaping it into a cricket bat was meant to be a signal to cricket-mad Britainers; the anonymous Dawson-buster was quite the cheeky monkey).

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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