The (so-called) “Missing Link” in Human Evolution!

Piltdown Skull

The Piltdown Man skull, partially original (dark) and partially theoretical (beige).

The “missing link” in human evolution? Well, that’s what English archaeologists believed for many years had been discovered when a skull with both human and ape characteristics was revealed by an amateur archaeologist, Charles Dawson. Unfortunately, for decades this hoax would confuse scientists’ insight into the course of human evolution.

In 1912, Dawson announced that he had pieced together parts of a skull found near Piltdown village; while it had an ape-like jaw and teeth, the brain cavity of the skull was large, similar in size to that of a modern human. This seemed to fit perfectly with the idea of humankind’s intelligence pushing forward its evolution. In addition to the skull, the Piltdown site produced animal bones and primitive tools (as well as an artifact that looked suspiciously like a cricket bat), adding to its apparent validity. Many years after Dawson’s death however, scientists working at the Natural History Museum in London proved that the skull was faked; not only were the bones more recent than initially believe, but while the skull fragments were human, the jaw bone had probably belonged to an orangutan. These scientists also found scrape marks on the teeth, suggesting that someone had filed the teeth to give them a more human appearance.

Piltdown Teeth

Piltdown Man’s Jaw and Teeth

The trust in this hoax created a false understanding of human evolution, demonstrating the danger of fraudulent archaeology. British scientists may have been particularly accepting of the new discovery, since they had not yet found any significant prehistoric human remains, unlike their European counterparts; not only that, the new discovery seemed the closest link to modern man yet. Their belief was strong enough that when a scientist in Africa discovered a radically different early human skull, some scientists failed to acknowledge that true step on humankind’s evolutionary path. Until the skull was proved a fake in 1949, this hoax represented one of the biggest anomalies of the evolutionary sequence, hindering scientists trying to comprehend humankind’s past.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of this entire story is that the true perpetrator or perpetrators of this hoax have never been definitively identified. Dawson almost certainly was involved, as many of his other “discoveries” have also since been proven fraudulent; however, any number of other leading scientists and philosophers may have had a hand in the deception. Regardless of whether their intentions where to deceive or merely to play a practical joke on the scientific community, this hoax shaped and disrupted understanding of human evolution for nearly forty years, signifying the true menace of archaeological hoaxes.


Image Credits

Piltdown Skull:

Piltdown Man’s Jaw and Teeth:

Interesting Links
This link contains details on a number of the suspects, including Dawson and Arthur Conan Doyle:

A somewhat over-dramatic BBC documentary about the Piltdown Man, focusing primarily on the later discovery of the fraud:

What Modern Technology is Telling Us about Stonehenge

Less than three kilometers from the well-known site of Stonehenge lies the Durrington Wall site; while it was long known as a location of interest, with features including timber circles and a recently discovered Neolithic settlement, new information showing that the site also once included as many as ninety stones, now buried beneath the surface, was released in early September 2015.

Preliminary map with data from project. Durrington Wall marked at top left in yellow, stones marked there in red.

Preliminary ‘invisible’ map of region with data from project. Durrington Wall marked at top left in yellow, stones marked there in red.

Through the Hidden Landscapes Project, researchers were able to survey the land with sophisticated magnetometers, as well as laser and radar arrays, which produced high quality images that showed many features including these new ones at the Durrington Wall site. The data collected from this five year project will be merged to form a detailed map of the so-called ‘invisible’ landscape, which the researchers hope will be useful in tying together the full scale of Stonehenge and the surrounding areas.

A magnetometer in use during the Hidden Landscapes Project.

A magnetometer in use during the Hidden Landscapes Project.

But the researchers are still most excited about the radar and magnetometer data from the Durrington Wall site. The data revealed foundations where stones had stood and stone fragments, as well as full sized stones, some around fifteen feet in height. While radar works by bouncing a signal off of a subsurface object, a magnetometer measures small fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic that can be caused by artifacts or features; a magnetometer can be attached to a tractor, to facilitate movement and data gathering. In the digital images, the stones clearly form a row along one part of the Durrington Wall site.

This new discovery is particularly significant, as it has led the researchers on the project to rethink assumptions held about Stonehenge and the great area. Until the discovery of the stones at Durrington Wall, Stonehenge was believed to be the only major site to include stone structures of this magnitude. The new information that there was another large stone site at the same time as Stonehenge (or possibly even earlier), has lead researchers to question preconceived notions regarding the builders, their relationship with the land around Stonehenge, and the presence of great monuments of this scale and type.

Without the top of the line geophysical and remote sensing technologies that the Hidden Landscapes Project made use of during this survey, the stones beneath Durrington Wall that have led to these new questions might not have even been found. Through technological advances and the funding to use them, the archaeological community has the opportunity to reexamine some widely held assumptions, revise some of its theories, and continue to expand its understanding of the past.

Further Information

Virtual film representation of stone structures at Durrington Wall:

Download link of official press release pertaining to Durrington Wall discovery: