John Cooke via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
John Cooke via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

DNA Shows Infamous ‘Piltdown Man’ Hoax Was Two Parts Human, One Part Ape

John Cooke via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
John Cooke via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just half a century after Darwin’s controversial claim that humans and apes were linked, proof appeared in Piltdown, England: A paleontologist named Charles Dawson claimed to have found the fossilized skull of a creature with the large brain case of a human and the jaw of a great ape. The missing link was real. Unfortunately, it was a hoax—but whose hoax, and why? Researchers say they have a pretty good idea: Dawson himself. They published their report in the journal Royal Society Open Science

The first fossil, recovered in 1912, seemed to raise as many questions as it answered. The skull was clearly old, but it looked an awful lot like somebody had just glued fragments of several animals together. Yet Dawson insisted it was the real deal, and found vindication when his subsequent digs uncovered another, similar skull, along with additional teeth, stone tools, and the fossilized remains of other mammals from around the same projected time period. "Piltdown Man"—a.k.a. Eoanthropus dawsoni, or "Dawson's dawn man"—became the toast of British scientific society. In your face, Dawson told his detractors. (He's the smug-looking gent in the top row of the painting above.) And then he died.

Image credit: Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Less than a half-century after that, scientists confirmed what the skeptics had been saying from the beginning: The remains of Piltdown Man were just a patchwork of primate parts. But the details of the hoax remained unclear, and to this day scientists are still trying to pick apart the forger’s identity, technique, and motivations.

The most recent investigation had several aims: to identify exactly how many animal skulls went into the two Piltdown Man “fossils,” to trace the origin of those skulls, and to determine if all the forgeries were made by the same person. Researchers measured the fakes and scanned them using radiography and computed tomography (CT). They took DNA samples and used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of all the fragments.

Their results indicated that the skulls were made from the remains of one orangutan and at least two medieval humans. All of the bone fragments had been manipulated the same way: stained brown with chromic acid and iron, loaded with little pieces of gravel, and held in place with putty. That’s not a coincidence, the researchers write; the same person must have been responsible for all of it. 

For all of his suspicious behavior, Dawson was far from the only suspect. Since the first skull appeared in 1912, at least 20 other men have been accused of fraud. Suspects included Dawson’s collaborator Arthur Smith Woodward, paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who was himself bamboozled by children just a few years later).

Still, through it all, Dawson remained the most likely culprit, and the researchers believe he still is. “Not only did Dawson have the access and connections necessary to obtain the specimens, he was also a great networker,” the authors write. More importantly, he “would have known what the British scientific community was anticipating in a missing link between apes and humans: a large brain, an ape-like face and jaws, and heavily fossilized materials that indicated great antiquity.” And Dawson’s experience as a fossil collector would have made it relatively easy for him to figure out how to make it look real. Then, of course, there’s the fact that the fossils stopped turning up after Dawson died in 1916. 

But why? The authors’ best guess is that Dawson’s ambition got the best of him. He wanted desperately to be named a Fellow of the Royal Society, but the Society wasn’t playing along. In a 1909 letter to Smith Woodward, he complained, “I have been waiting for the big ‘find’ which never seems to come along …” 

It seems he got tired of waiting.

Yet even forgeries have lessons to impart. “The Piltdown hoax stands as a cautionary tale to scientists not to be led by preconceived ideas,” the authors write, “but to use scientific integrity and rigour in the face of novel discoveries.”

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A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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