Piltdown House and Piltdown Man


So, why name your house after the missing link? Well it relates to Elizabeth's great grandfather, Dr (later Sir) Arthur Smith Woodward.  He was keeper at the British Museum (Natural History) and a geologist / paleontologist of some standing by 1912 when he was approached by an old friend Charles Dawson with news of an amazing discoveries in some gravel beds at Barkham Manor, near the small village of Piltdown in Sussex.

These included fragments of a skull and jaw bone that seemed to provide evidence of an evolutionary link between modern man and the apes. This was a scientific sensation and the news was delivered to a packed and excited audience at the Geological Society of London on December 18th 1912. The Times and other newspapers were full of the story and the British felt justly proud. Here the true missing link had been found, not the Neanderthal man of France, but a true British missing link. In one of the sillier turns of the tale someone suggested that a 41 cm long piece of fossil elephant thigh bone which seemed to fit into the hand comfortably at one end might be a prehistoric cricket bat!

From an early stage, however, there were doubts over the fossils and by the 1930's these doubts had grown. In particular the discovery of rather more convincing fossil remains at Swanscombe in Kent ("Swanscombe Man") which did not at all fit in with the evolutionary path suggested by Piltdown Man. Nevertheless, Woodward spent his final years still believing in the truth of the find. He became blind and dictated his account of the find and its significance The Earliest Englishman to his wife. It was published not long before his death in 1948.

In 1953 forensic techniques showed that the fossils consisted of human skull fragments (a genuine fossil but not a million years old) and an orang utan jaw. They had been stained with bichromate to make them appear older than they were. Various theories as to who the perpetrator was have been expounded, but on the whole Woodward escapes suspicion. His main failing seems to have been that he was pretty poor anatomist, but there again he was really an expert on fossil fish until his unfortunate brush with Piltdown Man.

If you are interested in more about the Piltdown Man Hoax, and the possible perpetrators the best web site is found by clicking the skull below!

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