The discovery of fragments of a fossilised humanoid skull with an ape-like jaw at Piltdown in Sussex, England between 1908 and 1912 was hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. Leading scientists, including Sir Arthur Keith, were all fooled. They thought they had found the missing link between apes and modern humans. They thought they had found concrete proof to support the theory of natural selection. They thought they had hard and tangible proof that humans were nothing special. Proof to silence creationists. Proof that humans are descended from apes.
In 1953 the Piltdown Man myth was bust by Joseph Weiner.
Joseph Weiner, Reader in Physical Anthropology at Oxford University, ably assisted by Dr Oakley, (see Weiner 1955) proved that the skull and jaw were simply a great science fraud. They proved that skull was of a modern human and had been treated to make it look older, as had the jaw bone, which was that of and orang-utan with the teeth filed-down into a human wear pattern. A canine tooth, believed to belong to the fossilised jaw, had been painted Vandyke Brown.
The telling question I want to ask is this:If Weiner discovered that one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made was in fact fraudulent does that not make Weiner himself one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time? In my opinion, it does.
Rather than afford him no more than a general embarrassed and relative 'silent treatment', surely we should celebrate Weiner far more than we do. I think we should be putting him centre stage and trumpeting his name from the rooftops. Because Weiner heroically put his reputation on the line by questioning the conclusions of eminent and lauded scientists of international repute such as Arthur Smith Woodward and Sir Arthur Keith, and in so doing he rescued science from all the other credulous experts who fell hook line and sinker for the activities of Charles Dawson - one of the World's greatest science charlatans.
Is it an embarrassment of silence that keeps Weiner's face off stamps and the back of banknotes? Why is he not classed as an immortal great discoverer? Why no statue?
We should treasure all our great detectives. Perhaps science fraud detection should become a scientific discipline in its own right?
Joseph Sidney Weiner (1915–1982) died aged 67 years from lung cancer on 13 June 1982 at his home, 20 Harbord Road, Oxford. Two prominent texts on the Piltdown fraud (Walsh 1996; Russell, 2003) both mention the untimely death and last resting place of the heinous Charles Dawson, and yet the author of nether book had a thing to say about the untimely death and last resting place of the true expert who solved the problem of Piltdown Man.
Can you name the man who caught Bonnie and Clyde without Googling it? I suspect that same Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome plays out again and again when it comes to notorious miscreants and those who detect them.
Russell, M. (2003) Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson & the World's Greatest Archaeological Hoax. Brimscombe Port, Tempus Publishing Ltd.
Walsh, J. E. (1996) Unravelling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and its Solutions. New York. Random House.
Weiner, J. S. (1955) The Piltdown Forgery. Oxford. Oxford University Press,
Piltdown contradicted Darwinian understandings, which is how it unraveled
Interesting headline in the graphic.
But it's important to remember that one of the things that, by 1953, made most scientists working on those issues suspect Piltdown was fraud was that it did not fit with other evidence of evolution of modern humans in several ways -- it was way out of place, the form didn't seem to fit into anyplace on the continuum of skulls of other hominids known by the 1950s, and the samples had been shut away from further study, among other things.
Piltdown was exposed because it contradicted Darwinian theory with the facts known to be accurate.
As I remember the books I read on this topic, you are right about that. However, those who examined the facts relating to the key suspects in the case - particularly Walsh and later Russell pretty much establish beyond all reasonable doubt (at least in my opinion and theirs) that Dawson was the sole culprit. That Dawson supplied Arthur Smith Woodward with all the physical evidence - or was present and personally "discovered" the "salted" faked skull fragments, tools and teeth etc. is quite important.
Although (as you rightly point out) the clues that led to the discovery of Dawson's great fraud did not come initially from any suspicions pointing his way, what we now know about the circumstances of the case should alert us to any similar cases where the self-proclaiming "discoverer hero" is a lay member of the public supplying a scientific associate with absolutely ALL the physical evidence of the "discovery". And it is from that cause alone that I find myself, unfortunately, pointing my own finger of suspicion at the author of "Naming Jack the Ripper". I really do mean it when I write that I hope I'm wrong about that book. Because, as you well know, I want to trumpet from the rooftops the power of 'big data' to make new discoveries and aid crime detection - including historical science fraud.
Weiner is surely a neglected science hero for identifying the fraud and receiving little celebratory status for what he did. But in my opinion Walsh did an outstanding job of standing upon his shoulders and amassing the evidence that pointed the finger firmly at Dawson and at Dawson alone. Walsh too should be celebrated for his contribution
I cannot help idly wondering if perhaps it was what Lyell wrote in 1863 in "The Geological Evidences" about modern workmen digging up and discarding ancient tools from a gravel pit that might have planted the idea for the Piltdown fraud in Dawson's mind. I don't suppose we will ever know, and its not particularly important - just curious.