Over a century ago, someone made monkeys out of the British scientific establishment. Jaw-dropping bone fragments found in Piltdown seemed to pre-date all other known proto-human finds. For forty years, mainstream science thought the first person was an Englishman. Eventually the evidence was properly tested and found to be completely bogus. To this day, we still don't know who falsified the Piltdown Man fossils.
In the PBS documentary "The Boldest Hoax," Nova digs into the case and finds suggestions of a cover-up at Britain's Natural History Museum.
The year was 1912. Even fifty-three years after Darwin published Origin of Species, evolution was a mystery to most. Tiny incremental changes resulting from random genetic mutations passed on to offspring--genetic fitness being defined by the act of reproduction--proved insufficient for minds seeking a so-called "missing link" between apes and humans. The fact that we did not descend from apes, but rather share distant common ancestors, was too hard to grasp for those wishing to ape finds in Germany, France, and Spain.
According to Andy Currant, of the NHM, stooping to fake the pieces of Piltdown Man skull "really was a horrible, nasty, vicious piece of work" because it deeply affected so many lives.
While speculation on the identity of the hoaxer abounds, the most sensational suspect is none other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had both the motivation and the opportunity.
An ardent spiritualist who attended séances and believed in mediums (in spite of his friend Harry Houdini exposing them as frauds), when Doyle presented "spirit photographs" to the science community as evidence of ghosts, he smarted at the rebuke because he didn't want to accept that these were merely double-exposures. He lived near Piltdown and regularly visited the site. Indeed, in his 1912 novel The Lost World, Doyle states, "If you know your business, a bone can be as easily faked as a photograph."
A more likely culprit, however, was the man who supposedly found the bones and presented them to the NHM. Charles Dawson had even more motivation and opportunity than Doyle, and was, according to the documentary, "a cheat and a swindler" responsible for dozens of known forgeries.
A fascinating story of egotism and ambition, "The Boldest Hoax" exposes the all-too-human trait of seeing what we want to believe at the expense of the evidence.
This skullduggery for all to dig is easily discovered online.