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The Ancestor Who Never Was
Between 1908 and 1912, parts of a skull and of a jawbone were found in a gravel pit at Piltdown in Sussex, England, by amateur paleontologist Charles Dawson. Some scientists believed the remains came from a form of human being who lived 250,000 years ago. Others disagreed. Nevertheless, "Piltdown Man" became famous as a "missing link" between the physically modern human beings and the apes because it had a large cranial vault ("brain cavity") and an ape-like jaw. To scientists of the day this arrangement made perfect sense, since it was generally assumed that man had developed his large brain first and human-like facial features second.
After years of controversy, scientists used newly developed chemical tests on the remains and found that the jaw actually came from a modern ape and that the human skull was much younger than the gravel in which it had been found. In 1955, radiocarbon tests dated the skull at A.D. 1230. Apparently, a prankster had buried an orang-utan's jaw and a skull from a medical cemetery. The jaw had been stained to make it look old and the teeth filed to make them look human. Who perpetrated the hoax, and why, has never been conclusively determined.
This page was last updated on 02/20/2017.