The passion of belief, even in scientific discovery, can be enough to perpetuate a hoax across decades, as the case of “Piltdown man” shows. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist, claimed to have been presented with pieces of a skull dug up by a laborer in the English village of Piltdown. Along with a respected member of the Natural History Museum, Dawson presented his fossil as a remnant of man’s earliest ancestor. Other funny-looking fragments from the same region were unearthed in following years, all eagerly labelled as fossils of an early man.
It wasn’t until 1953, when more sophisticated dating techniques became available, that the fossils were determined to be a hoax, actually made from what appeared to be an orangutan’s jaw. It’s not clear whether Dawson was the original mastermind behind the fraud, or whether he was the front for others who had reason to stick it to the British scientific establishment (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, was one possible candidate), but regardless who the culprit was, he was certainly the one who enjoyed the last laugh.