The Piltdown fraud - exposed as a hoax 50 years ago - was neither the most wicked scientific fraud ever carried out nor the silliest, but to this day remains the one that everybody has heard about.
Eoanthropus dawsoni, or Piltdown man, was found in a gravel pit at Piltdown in Sussex, south-west England, in 1912 by Charles Dawson. For 40 years Piltdown man, with his huge, humanoid skull and ape-like jaw, remained on display in what is now the Natural History Museum in London as an example of the elusive "missing link" between humanity and its primate ancestors.
On November 21, 1953, however, scientists pronounced it a crude forgery, the marriage of a modern human skull and an orangutan’s jaw, and decided that the entire package of fossil fragments at Piltdown — which included a ludicrous prehistoric cricket bat — had been planted by someone.
The world of palaeontology went pink, and the conspiracy theorists went ape. There was no shortage of potential suspects, and for the next five decades, they were named. The cast of potential pranksters in this anthropological whodunnit included enthusiastic amateurs, passionate professionals and disinterested jokers.
Theorists have even pointed the finger at a Jesuit priest — Pere Teilhard de Chardin, who posthumously became a New Age guru — and the begetter of Sherlock Holmes himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who in 1912 composed his own paleontological thriller, The Lost World .
"Piltdown matters for a number of reasons," says Chris Stringer, the museum’s head of human origins. "One is that it is still an unsolved mystery: we don’t know for sure who did it, how they did it, why they did it. Those mysteries remain. I think we have gone a long way towards building up the true story, but we haven’t got the whole story yet."
What is certain is that everything found in the gravel pit was fraudulently placed, and by an expert. "When you do a dig anywhere, most of the stuff you find is little flakes of bones and you don’t know what the hell it is and you can’t identify it. In Piltdown, every single fossil was diagnostic of a species and they were all small, so they were all bits that would fit in someone’s pocket, or trouser turn-up or whatever. So someone had the knowledge to say: how much of a rhino tooth do I need to show it is a rhino?" says Stringer.
There have been several scandals involving planted evidence. Fossil fraud is a lucrative business. "We get people coming into the museum with supposed Homo erectus skulls they have bought from a trader in Java," says Stringer. "They are carved out of fossil elephant bones, and they are beautifully done. People carve them and sell them for $500, and we have to say: 'it is a fake, I am sorry'."