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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Piltdown Man Hoax

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Reconstruction of the Piltdown Man by Prof. Keith (main) and Dr. Smith Woodward (inset) (Illustrated London New, 16 august 1913, p. 1)

Piltdown is a series of hamlets in East Sussex, England, wellknown for the Piltdown Man hoax in which Arthur Conan Doyle was named as the hoaxer in 1997 by American historian Richard Milner. This accusation has been refuted in 2016 by researchers from the Natural History Museum and the Liverpool John Moores University with genetic and morphological evidences suggesting a single forger: Charles Dawson. « New DNA evidence has shown that the tooth discovered in 1915 by Dawson came from the same jaw as the original skull and jawbone (1912), suggesting he had planted them both. The chances of Dawson stumbling across two hoax sites, two miles apart, are beyond credulity. » [1]



Chronology

  • 18 december 1912 : Amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson unveils fossil of Piltdown Man (aka the Dawn Man) to the Geological Society in London claiming it represents the missing link between humans and apes which lived 500,000 years ago : Eoanthropus Dawsoni.
  • 1915 : Charles Dawson claims to have found a molar from another Dawn Man specimen two miles away from the original site leading scientists to accept the discovery.
  • 1949 : Dr. Kenneth Oakley of the National History Museum tests the skull and jawbone of Piltdown Man and finds they are probably only 500 years old.
  • 1953 : Piltdown Man confirmed as a hoax.
  • 1978 : Suspicion falls on Martin Hinton, a Natural History Museum curator in 1912, when an old trunk is discovered showing he had experimented with staining fossils.
  • 1996 : Professor Brian Gardiner, of King's College London, said he is 100% certain that Hinton is the hoaxer.
  • 1997 : American historian Richard Milner claims Arthur Conan Doyle was responsible for the deception and that there is a cryptic message hidden in The Lost World in which he confesses his guilt.
  • 2016 : Sir Arthur Conan Doyle cleared of the hoax. [1]


Facts incriminating Conan Doyle

  • He lived at Crowborough, only 7 kms from Piltdown.
  • He played at the Piltdown Golf Club, very near from the gravel pit where Dawson found the skull.
  • He was an avid fossil collector.
  • After the discovery, he sent a congratulation letter to Charles Dawson and offered to drive him anywhere with his car. Some saw a possible accomplice.
  • Some read cryptic messages in his novel: The Lost World, like « If you are clever and know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph." — Professor Challenger »
  • He suffered the cruelty of the orthodox scientists about his faith in spiritualism. Some saw a possible motive.


Facts exonerating Conan Doyle

  • No evidence at all of his guilt!
  • It is unlikely that he would associate himself with Dawson who always treated him as a clueless amateur, and had dismissed his discovery of an Iguanodon footprint (14 february 1912). About The Lost World, Dawson wrote to Arthur Smith Woodward: « I hope someone has sorted out his fossils for him! » [2]
  • He was a public man and very busy and it is very unlikely that he would have had the time. In terms of motivation he would have got back at the scientists who mocked him for expressing a belief in spiritualism. » [3]
  • He admired several "orthodox" scientist like E. Ray Lankester, the former head of the Natural History section of the British Museum, which was hardly an obvious ally in such a venture, having taken a robust stance against spiritualism four decades earlier. The admiration these two men held for one another is clear. Lankester sent him a congratulation letter describing The Lost World as perfectly splendid. [4]
  • In 2016, the accusation has been refuted by researchers from the Natural History Museum and the Liverpool John Moores University with genetic and morphological evidences suggesting a single forger: Charles Dawson. « New DNA evidence has shown that the tooth discovered in 1915 by Dawson came from the same jaw as the original skull and jawbone (1912), suggesting he had planted them both. The chances of Dawson stumbling across two hoax sites, two miles apart, are beyond credulity. » [1]




Searching for the Piltdown Man
Postcard showing excavations at Piltdown with Charles Dawson picture (left) and Arthur Smith Woodward (right).



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created 'Piltdown man' (Royal Society, 10 august 2016)
  2. The Piltdown Papers, by Frank Spencer (Oxford University Press, 1990).
  3. Dr. Chris Stringer, anthropologist, Natural History Museum (The Telegraph, 10 august 2016).
  4. The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, by Andrew Lycett (Free Press, 2007).

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