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

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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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History
A Brief History of Time
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You may have heard that time is a social construct, but that doesn’t stop it from having consequences in the real world. If you show up to a party 10 minutes before it’s scheduled to start, you’ll likely be the first one there, and if you arrive to an interview 10 minutes late, you likely won’t get the job. But how did humanity agree on when and how to observe certain times of day?

In their new video, the It’s Okay to Be Smart team explains how humans “invented” the modern concept of time. The increments we use to measure time, like seconds, minutes, and hours, come from the ancient civilizations of the Egyptians and the Babylonians. Early clocks, like sundials and water clocks, were pretty crude, so people couldn’t pinpoint a time like noon down to the second even if they wanted to. But as clocks became more accurate, the problem wasn’t being unable to tell time accurately, but deciding which clocks qualified as “accurate” in the first place.

In 1884, President Chester A. Arthur organized the International Meridian Conference with the intention of deciding on a uniform definition of time to be followed around the world. The attendees ended up choosing the meridian running through Greenwich, England as the official Prime Meridian, and all clocks would be measured against the clock in the town’s observatory. Greenwich Mean Time is still used as the standard world time today.

Check out the full story below.

[h/t It’s Okay to Be Smart]

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

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