On this day in Christian history, the "missing link" Piltdown Man was revealed to be a hoax

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On this day in Christian history, the “missing link” Piltdown Man was revealed to be a hoax

November 21, 2022 - Ryan Denison, PhD

Replicas of the Piltdown Man, which was termed an unscrupulous hoax by British scientists, are on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Nov. 21, 1953. British scientists said the relics, dug from an English gravel pit in 1911-1913, include what they said was an ape's jawbone and a canine tooth. The cranium, they said, is a genuine fossil, about 50,000 years old. (AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons)

Replicas of the Piltdown Man, which was termed an unscrupulous hoax by British scientists, are on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Nov. 21, 1953. British scientists said the relics, dug from an English gravel pit in 1911-1913, include what they said was an ape's jawbone and a canine tooth. The cranium, they said, is a genuine fossil, about 50,000 years old. (AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons)

Replicas of the Piltdown Man, which was termed an unscrupulous hoax by British scientists, are on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Nov. 21, 1953. British scientists said the relics, dug from an English gravel pit in 1911-1913, include what they said was an ape's jawbone and a canine tooth. The cranium, they said, is a genuine fossil, about 50,000 years old. (AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons)

When scientists in Britain hailed the discovery of the “missing link” back in 1912, it significantly altered the discourse around theories of human evolution and the relationship between science and religion.

As is often the case, however, the real story is far more complicated than the simple version most of us have heard.

Charles Dawson, a professional lawyer and part-time anthropologist, became famous when he claimed to have found an ancient fossil that had a human skull with a jaw resembling that of a monkey. He wrote to Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, the head of geology at the British Museum, about his “discovery” and the two presented their findings to an enraptured group of scientists at the Geological Society of London later that year.

Given that British scientists were already jealous of their German counterparts, who five years earlier had proclaimed the discovery of a six-hundred-thousand-year-old human jaw, the thought that an even greater find had turned up a short distance down the road was music to their ears.

Dawson and Smith Woodward quickly became famous, and the Piltdown Man, as the fossil was eventually known, became foundational to the advancing theories of human evolution. It even played an important role in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial—which falsely pitted evolutionary science against Christianity in the eyes of many—when Clarence Darrow cited it as evidence for the reasonableness of teaching evolution in the classroom.

There was just one problem: the Piltdown Man was a fake.

Too good to be true

In the decades following the Piltdown Man’s discovery, more and more questions began to arise around its validity. Though it had been among the first finds to point in the direction of human evolution, subsequent discoveries of ancient humans that dated back to a similar point in history looked nothing like it. Still, many were hesitant to give up on the fossil’s veracity since it had been foundational to so much of human evolutionary theory.

However, in the late 1940s, a new kind of chemical test was developed, and researchers from Oxford and the British Museum applied it to the Piltdown Man. They published their findings on this day, November 21, 1953.

It turns out the fossil was, in many ways, exactly what it had always appeared to be.

The skull resembled that of a human because it was a human skull—well, at least two skulls plastered together to be precise—and it was closer to five hundred years old than five hundred thousand. Likewise, the jaw resembled that of an ape because it belonged to an ape. In fact, the jaw and teeth all belonged to the same orangutan, likely purchased from a nearby curiosity shop or museum collection.

A further study in 2016 found that whoever had crafted the forgery covered the fossils in putty, painted over them, then stained them to ensure that the whole looked like it belonged to the same creature.

Looking back, it should not have been difficult to realize that something was amiss.

For example, Isabelle De Groote, who led the 2016 research, noted that “When a jaw and the skull bones were announced, there was a big discussion at the Geological Society about what the canine in such an animal would look like. And, ta-da—six or seven months later, a canine shows up and it looks exactly like what they had predicted.”

Ultimately, everything about the discovery was too good to be true, but, as Michael Price put it, “Dawson was able to fool the experts of the day by employing the same trick used by successful con artists since time immemorial: He showed them what they wanted to see.”

But before we look back with derision on those who fell for the Piltdown Man hoax, it’s worth remembering that we can be just as prone to make the same mistake today.

“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge”

Confirmation bias remains one of the most detrimental traps into which people fall. And, in many ways, it’s getting worse.

You’d think that with the wealth of information at our fingertips, it would be easier to separate the truth from the lies. Unfortunately, it’s had the opposite effect.

John Naisbitt characterized our world well when he wrote that “we are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.”

If you really want to believe that something is true, then chances are good that you can find enough support for that belief to justify holding it. And Christians are just as prone to this mistake as anyone else.

When Paul, for example, cautioned that a day would come when people would allow their “itching ears” to lead them to choose myths over God’s truth, he was talking—at least in part—about people who had accepted those truths previously (2 Timothy 4:3–4).

So the next time you encounter an argument or opinion that checks every box you want to be true, take a step back and proceed with caution. It could be that such a belief seems true because it is. However, it’s often far more difficult to spot the lie when we desperately want to believe it.

As those who claim to serve the God who is truth, our witness suffers greatly when we allow ourselves to be deceived (John 14:6). So let’s avoid making the same mistake as those who championed the Piltdown Man and prioritize building our beliefs around what’s real rather than what’s convenient.

After all, an inconvenient truth is always of greater use than a more palatable lie, even if it may not seem like it at the time.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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