It's a detective story with a century-old crime: The forgery of a supposed "missing link" in human evolution that went undetected for decades.
Now, researchers are set on identifying the long-dead culprits responsible for the famous Piltdown Man hoax — involving forged bones said to belong to an early human — and teasing out their motives.
Writing in this week's issue of the journal Nature
, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, explains why he and his colleagues are still investigating a mystery that began 100 years ago.
"Personally, I am intrigued by the question of whether the hoax was driven by scientific ambition or by more jocular or vindictive motives," Stringer wrote. He and his colleagues plan to test the forged bones from the Piltdown case with modern methods, aiming to find out who most likely made them and why.
In December 1912, British paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson announced to the world that they'd found an amazing early human fossil in Piltdown, England. The curious specimen had a humanlike skull with an apelike jaw. Given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni, it was more commonly called Piltdown Man.
Dawson and Woodward also reported that alongside Piltdown Man were a number of other stunning finds: stone tools, fossilized mammals and even an elephant bone. In 1916, Dawson claimed to have found more remains at a second site nearby.