It was an archaeological hoax that fooled scientists for decades. A century on, researchers are determined to find out who was responsible for Piltdown Man, the missing link that never was.
In December 1912, it was announced that a lawyer and amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson had made an astonishing discovery in a gravel pit in southern England—prehistoric remains, up to 1 million years old, that combined the skull of a human and the jaw of an ape.
Piltdown Man—named for the village where the remains were found—set the scientific world ablaze. It was hailed as the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans, and proof that humans’ enlarged brains had evolved earlier than had been supposed.
It was 40 years before the find was definitively exposed as a hoax, and speculation about who did it rages to this day. Read more.
In a few weeks, a group of British researchers will enter the labyrinthine store of London’s Natural History Museum and remove several dark-coloured pieces of primate skull and jawbone from a small metal cabinet. After a brief inspection, the team will wrap the items in protective foam and transport them to a number of laboratories across England. There the bones and teeth, which have rested in the museum for most of the last century, will be put through a sequence of highly sensitive tests using infra-red scanners, lasers and powerful spectroscopes to reveal each relic’s precise chemical make-up.
The aim of the study, which will take weeks to complete, is simple. It has been set up to solve a mystery that has baffled researchers for 100 years: the identities of the perpetrators of the world’s greatest scientific fraud, the Piltdown Hoax. Unearthed in a gravel pit at Piltdown in East Sussex and revealed to the outside world exactly a century ago, those shards of skull were part of a scientific scam that completely fooled leading palaeontologists. For decades they believed they were the remains of a million-year-old apeman, an individual who possessed a large brain but primitive jawbone and teeth. Read more.
A 15th-century manuscript is written in a language that has baffled every expert. Is it just a brilliant hoax, or will someone eventually decipher its meaning
Somewhere deep inside the bowels of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library – the Ivy League institution’s own cemetery of lost books – lies a tome that experts have studied for centuries, but which has yet to be understood by a single soul.
The book has no known author or official title; Yale librarians simply refer to it as manuscript MS 408. But thanks to its peculiar language, symbols and diagrams – often strangely familiar, but insistently elusive in meaning – it has intrigued and frustrated anthropologists, linguists and mathematicians for centuries: even the elite cryptologists at the US National Security Agency drew a blank, after they spent years trying to decode it in the 1950s. And the time that some researchers have dedicated to the problem seems all the more remarkable given the possibility that, for all the complexity and consistency of the script it contains, it could simply be an elaborate hoax. Read more.