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The Boldest Hoax

PBS Airdate: January 11, 2005
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NARRATOR: For 40 years, a fossil skull discovered in Piltdown, a quaint village in England, was hailed as the missing link between apes and humans. It was named Piltdown Man. Later it would be called a forgery and set off a storm of scandal.

RICHARD MILNER (American Museum of Natural History): The scientific world was in an uproar; the public was scandalized. Were monkeys being made out of the scientists?

NARRATOR: Accusations of fraud struck at the heart of the most important questions in science: "Who are we? And where did we come from?"

If it were a hoax, how had it gone unnoticed for so long?

GILES OAKLEY (Son of Kenneth Oakley): Egotism, pride, ambition, rivalry, these things affect even scientific judgments.

ANDY CURRANT (Natural History Museum, London): It's a vicious hoax. It was a terrible thing to do. It really was a horrible, nasty, vicious piece of work.

NARRATOR: Over the last 50 years many suspects have been accused, from England's most respected scientists of the day to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but the identity of the Piltdown hoaxer has remained a mystery.

With special access to Britain's Natural History Museum archives, NOVA reopens the case and reveals hints of a cover up at the heart of one of England's most revered scientific institutions.

ANDY CURRANT: Maybe somebody in the museum could have been involved in this, and that, that wouldn't be good.

NARRATOR: The Boldest Hoax, up next on NOVA.

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NARRATOR: The story begins in the early 1900s, in the rolling hills of Sussex, a rural county in southeast England. A laborer, digging at Barkham Manor near the village of Piltdown, unearthed a strange piece of skull. He's reported to have passed it on to Charles Dawson, a local amateur archaeologist. Dawson later claimed he noticed that the skull was extremely thick and appeared rather primitive. This would be the first in a series of discoveries at Piltdown.

They would transform and pervert scientists' understanding of the origins of man for decades. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution had been published just 50 years before, in 1859.

In his Origin of Species, Darwin presented evidence that all living things descended from a common ancestry. Through a process of mutation, adaptation, failure and success, he claimed that all life on earth today, including man, is the result of millions of years of evolution. It was a revolutionary idea.

JAMES MOORE : In Darwin's day, the idea of evolution was regarded as highly unorthodox because it went against all of natural history in Great Britain. It jeopardized the standing of science. It did jeopardize the standing of a stable society, the Bible, and the Church as well.

Darwin's most audacious claim was that humans and apes were related. But yet to be discovered was the fossil evidence of the earliest humans and their primate ancestors. The hunt was on for the all important missing link, a creature part ape, part human.

Then in Germany, quarrymen working in the Neander Valley, made a remarkable find: strange bones, skeletal remains that resembled humans, but not those of any living humans. The creature was named "Neanderthal" and Germany the birthplace of early man.

But soon evidence of early man was being found in France and Spain as well. To their annoyance, the British had none.

RICHARD MILNER: The British had no early man. The French had lots of them; the Germans had lots of them. They had Neanderthals all over the place. They had caves full of beautiful pictures. And where was the earliest Englishman? There wasn't any.

NARRATOR: The buildup to World War One intensified the rivalry between Britain and Germany. Believing itself to be the greatest empire on earth, Britain was anxious to prove it was also the birthplace of the human race.

Since many Stone Age tools had been found in Sussex, it seemed a likely place to find Britain's missing link. Charles Dawson had enough experience to realize that the primitive-looking skull that the laborer had given him might be a fossil with extraordinary potential. A lawyer by trade, he was an enthusiastic amateur scientist who was already building his reputation with some unusual discoveries.

MILES RUSSELL (Bournemouth University): Charles Dawson was interested in, in geology, fossil hunting. He was interested in picking up archaeological artifacts. He was very keen in, in finding spectacular, making spectacular discoveries, publicizing them and trying to, I suppose, build up some kind of academic credibility.

NARRATOR: As one of the world's leading scientific institutions, London's Natural History Museum was the obvious place for Dawson to take his finds. There he met up with the eminent geologist, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward.

On the 14th of February, 1912, Dawson wrote with his exciting news.

CHARLES DAWSON (Amateur Scientist, Dramatization): I have come across a very old Pleistocene bed which I think is going to be interesting. I think I have a portion of a human skull which will rival the Germans' ape man.

NARRATOR: Even the staid Woodward realized this might be a crucial British discovery. He set off for a summer of digging with Dawson. They were joined by laborers, countless visitors, and their mascot, Chipper, a goose.

Very few records of what happened that summer exist, but it was incredibly productive. They found the remains of prehistoric animals, and even Stone Age tools. Finally, they struck pay dirt: an ape-like jawbone with human-like teeth that seemed to link it to the skull Dawson got from the laborer. Only one conclusion seemed possible: they'd found the missing link.

On December 18th, 1912, the public eagerly awaited their first glimpse of mankind's earliest ancestor. Sir Arthur Smith Woodward and Charles Dawson presented Piltdown Man to the world. It was nicknamed "the earliest Englishman." British science was triumphant. The Empire swelled with pride.

RICHARD MILNER: Piltdown Man was a really big deal in 1912, because it was a time when very little was known of human fossil remains that were very early, and it was perceived to be the missing link, the fossil that connected humans with apes. It established our place in nature. It was the proof of Darwin's theory.

SIR ARTHUR SMITH WOODWARD (Geologist, Dramatization): Another interesting find is this ancient jawbone.

MILES RUSSELL: In 1912, Charles Dawson gives British paleontologists, British anthropologists exactly what they want: that the earliest human, the missing link between apes and modern humans is, is not African, he's not German, he's not French, he's British, and he comes from the home counties.

NARRATOR: Of all the places in the world where mankind could be born, he had chosen England.

MILES RUSSELL: It was made world news. In America, in Africa, in Australia, all the way across Europe, this small village of Piltdown became the most famous place on earth.

NARRATOR: Journalists fed the public's appetite for images of this amazing creature. Soon Piltdown Man was etched in their minds as the missing link.

SIR ARTHUR SMITH WOODWARD (Dramatization): In recognition of the man responsible for this extraordinary find, I'm delighted to announce that we are to name this creature Eoanthropus dawsoni.

NARRATOR: Piltdown Man was the jewel in the Natural History Museum's crown, but some scientists wondered if this oddly matched jawbone and skull were really from the same creature.

CHRIS STRINGER (Natural History Museum, London): Even at the time, there was a lot of doubt amongst the experts about how human-like or ape-like this skull was. And, of course, what was frustrating was on the jaw itself this place of articulation was broken off. So there was no way that you could show whether this jawbone really fitted in this part of the skull.

NARRATOR: Woodward believed the jaw did belong with the skull and that it showed exactly the mix of features to be expected in a missing link. But a crucial piece was absent, the canine tooth.

Back at the dig, Dawson and Woodward invited another amateur archaeologist, a French philosopher and priest named Teilhard de Chardin. He would later become famous for his attempts to marry the science of human evolution with the creation doctrine of the Church.

Hopeless as it might seem to find a single tooth amongst tons of gravel, luck appeared to be on their side.

CHRIS STRINGER: Remarkably, a year later, a canine tooth was found at Piltdown and it more or less matched exactly Smith, Woodward and Dawson's predictions about the size of the canine.

NARRATOR: It was an incredible find. The canine helped silence doubters who had questioned Woodward's reconstruction of the skull. But their luck didn't end there. To the amazement of the scientific world, in 1917 Woodward announced the discovery of a second Piltdown Man.

SIR ARTHUR SMITH WOODWARD (Dramatization): ...a skull and a tooth.

NARRATOR: Just a few miles from the original dig, Dawson had unearthed another skull and tooth. This was Piltdown Man Two.

CHRIS STRINGER: Certainly, for some people this was the clincher, that here, two miles away, at another site, the same antiquity, the same fossilization. Nature couldn't play a trick like that twice. This had to make Piltdown genuine.

NARRATOR: With two family members and the backing of the Natural History Museum, Piltdown Man became the undisputed earliest human ancestor. Newspapers lapped up the story, and soon films appeared with dramatic interpretations of the lives of these early ape men. Winston Churchill even described these earliest Englishmen as the lords of creation.

For more than 40 years, Dawson's "Dawn Man" reigned supreme. But then, in 1953, came a sensational announcement: Piltdown Man was a fake. The world had been deceived.

RICHARD MILNER: The scientific world was in an uproar; the public was scandalized. Were monkeys being made out of the scientists? It even came up in parliament.

AMERICAN NEWSREEL: Britain's august Natural History Museum is all adither over a scandal concerning the Piltdown Man. One of the most famous fossil skulls in the world is declared to be, in part, a hoax. Forty years ago...

CHRIS STRINGER: Feelings were partly embarrassment on behalf of British science that, in particular, British scientists had been fooled by this find for so long, you know, whilst people in other countries had gradually become doubtful about Piltdown, and some of them had seriously questioned his, his authenticity. British scientists had tended to be, and remained, rather uncritical of Piltdown.

AMERICAN NEWSREEL: It was presumed to date back half a million years. Today comes the shocking news that this is skullduggery.

MILES RUSSELL: When Piltdown was first revealed as a hoax, it was horrifically embarrassing. It was probably more embarrassing by people who'd built aspects of their career looking at it, analyzing it and accepting it as being genuine.

AMERICAN NEWSREEL: Mr. Piltdown is branded "a phony." He isn't one of us. Most of him belongs to the ape side of our family.

NARRATOR: The chain of events that ultimately exposed the fake came from within the museum. Kenneth Oakley applied a chemical test to help authenticate and date the fossils. The result revealed Piltdown Man to be much younger than expected.

AMERICAN NEWSREEL: In the mineral department, on behalf of the Natural History Museum, tests were carried out to estimate the nitrogen content.

GILES OAKLEY: When they tested the Piltdown remains, it emerged that, yes, it was bogus. The skull was not as old as they thought and had been stained. The teeth had been filed down. It was just sort of a, just a random old ape jaw really, to put it very crudely, very simply. It was not some fossil man in that sense at all.

AMERICAN NEWSREEL: ...just what one would expect in fresh bone. Clearly the skull was quite a different age from the jaw.

NARRATOR: Oakley revealed a forgery on a scale that had never been seen before. The jaw was not even human, it was probably an Orangutan's. The teeth had simply been filed flat to disguise them. The fossils had been boiled and carefully stained with chemicals to give them an aged look. But the canine tooth, one of the key discoveries, seemed to have been made in a rush. It was crudely filed and colored with paint.

Every single one of the 40-odd finds at Piltdown had been forged and planted. But who had the audacity to mastermind a hoax that had fooled scientists for 40 years?

The hunt was on to find the culprit. Suspicions first fell on the men at the dig, but some surprising revelations soon brought new faces under the spotlight. The most famous name linked to Piltdown was someone who couldn't have written a better mystery himself, the great writer and doctor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Historian Richard Milner became fascinated by this great British eccentric when he learned of his connection to Piltdown.

RICHARD MILNER: Millions of people know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the father of the modern mystery story. But, in fact, most people don't know that he was also a medical doctor, a person who collected fossils, an ardent spiritualist, and perhaps one of the perpetrators of one of the greatest hoaxes of all time, the Piltdown Man.

NARRATOR: Conan Doyle was a colorful character with a theatrical flair. He was as keen on new inventions as he was on hunting fossils. He lived just seven miles from Piltdown, and moved in the same social circles as Charles Dawson.

RICHARD MILNER: Conan Doyle certainly knew the other people who were possible perpetrators and was a familiar figure at the site. He told Dawson that he was very excited about the find and would happily drive him anywhere in the neighborhood in his motor car.

NARRATOR: Conan Doyle often passed close to the dig on his round of golf at the Piltdown course. He could easily have planted the fossils. But what would have motivated him?

RICHARD MILNER: Why would Sir Arthur Conan Doyle want to put on the scientific establishment? Why would he want to sneak around and make fools of some of the most respected people in England? Well, perhaps, because they had tried to make a fool out of him.

NARRATOR: Despite his medical training, Conan Doyle fell out with the scientific community because of his controversial belief in spiritualism, the ability to communicate with the dead. It was the latest craze sweeping the nation, and Conan Doyle became a fervent convert.

RICHARD MILNER: He believed that one could communicate with departed spirits. He believed in spirit photography. He attended seances. When he showed these spirit photographs to scientists they laughed. They said, "These are simple double exposures, this evidence is no good at all. You don't know what evidence is." And that's when Conan Doyle, I think, got very upset, and he said, "I am the creator of Sherlock Holmes. You don't tell me that I don't know what evidence is. I will show the scientists that they don't know what evidence is."

NARRATOR: Could the scientists' rejection of the spirit photographs have infuriated Conan Doyle and driven him to perpetrate the forgery? He had both the motivation and the opportunity.

One theory says that he deliberately planted clues in one of his most famous books, The Lost World. Published in the year Piltdown Man was discovered, the book featured Conan Doyle in the guise of Professor Challenger, running an expedition to discover a mysterious prehistoric world.

RICHARD MILNER: You have all these wonderful clues peppered throughout the book. Sir Arthur himself, as Challenger, goes, in his imagination, into a lost world in Venezuela, where dinosaurs and ape men still roam. And he wants to bring the proof back to England and show people this fantastic breakthrough. Members of his expedition say, "How will they be believed?" "Well, we have these photographs." "Yes, but photographs can be faked." "Well, how about a piece of bone?" And he says in his book, The Lost World, if you know your business a bone can be as easily faked as a photograph. Well, if you're trying to figure out who planned Piltdown...somebody says "a bone can be as easily faked as a photograph," you start to think maybe Sir Arthur is trying to tell us something.

NARRATOR: But if Conan Doyle created Piltdown Man to mock the scientists, why didn't he come right out and reveal how easily he'd fooled them?

RICHARD MILNER: One possible answer is that shortly after Piltdown was really going and captured everyone's imagination, a little something called the First World War came along. At that time, Conan Doyle was seriously engaged in political talk and in trying to influence the British government in the conduct of the war. So clearly that was not the time in history for Conan Doyle to say to Parliament, "Here's how to conduct the war, and, oh yes, by the way, I sprung that little gag about the ape man in Sussex."

NARRATOR: Was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle really the type of man to carry out such an outrageous hoax? If his own detective, Sherlock Holmes, were trying to solve the mystery, he would surely consider the culprit's personality.

Conan Doyle was considered a man of truth and integrity. Would he really be prepared to see so many lives wasted in the fruitless study of Piltdown Man without obvious benefit to himself?

RICHARD MILNER: Well, it went so far beyond a joke or a prank that it did serious harm to people's lives. And frankly, that part of it makes me disinclined to believe it was Conan Doyle, because Conan Doyle was such a decent man that I find it impossible to believe that he could watch such suffering and waste on the, on the part of these scientists and not confess to it, even at cost to his own reputation.

NARRATOR: Although Conan Doyle had the means and motive to carry out the Piltdown forgery, it seems totally out of character.

There was another more obvious suspect who stood to gain much more from the discoveries. Most of what is known about Piltdown comes from Charles Dawson, the man who made the initial find. Although only an amateur archaeologist, his ambitions to make a name for himself in academic circles seemed limitless.

MILES RUSSELL: He was one of the foremost amateur antiquarians of his time, and so I think each one of his discoveries and presentations to the Royal Society, and presentations to the Antiquarian Society, presentations to the British Museum, increased his standing to the point where, had he not died in 1916, I'm sure he would have been knighted.

NARRATOR: Although Dawson's reputation in his lifetime was untarnished, once the forgery was revealed, his name began to crop up as a prime suspect. Local gossip quickly revealed a darker side to his character. He was accused of being a cheat and swindler after his dubious purchase of the grand townhouse, Castle Lodge, in Lewes.

Dawson sneakily bought the house from under the noses of the Sussex Archaeological Society, who had previously housed their museum there. He had no qualms about serving them with an eviction notice, despite having been a leading member.

MILES RUSSELL: The society, of course, were up in arms about this. They had nowhere to go, they had nowhere to store their museum, and it took them a good few years to actually re-establish themselves within Lewes. And where they actually ended up a few years later was quite interesting from, well, from the point of view of the Dawson family, because they moved into Barbican House, which is what, 100, 150 yards from the front door of Castle Lodge. And the Sussex Archaeological Society are still here today. They're still based in here. And you can imagine the Dawsons coming out of Castle Lodge, coming down, what, 150 yards down to the high street...they would have come into daily contact with the members of the society whom they had just only recently evicted. By buying that house and evicting them, he was effectively severing all links with the society.

I think that tells us something interesting about his character, in the sense that if he wanted something he would get it, irrespective of anyone's feelings, and damn the consequences.

NARRATOR: New revelations about Dawson's career proved even more incriminating. Once Piltdown was exposed as a forgery, questions were asked about his other discoveries.

Here at Pevensey Fort in Sussex, Dawson had found an important Roman artifact, a tile dating to the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. It too was a fake.

MILES RUSSELL: For almost 65 years, here was a major discovery, a major find, and everything that had been written about it was wrong. So if anything, if we're looking for anything that that proves, that really is the smoking gun that proves that Dawson was an inveterate hoaxer, forger and liar, then it is the Pevensey tiles that do that.

NARRATOR: But Dawson hadn't stopped there. Suspicions began to fall on the rest of his finds held at Hastings Museum. The Chinese pottery, the Lewes riding-spur, the Beauport Roman statue, the carved antler hammer: they were all exposed as forgeries.

MILES RUSSELL: The cumulative effect of having 46 individual objects which have questionable backgrounds, dubious origins, or have obviously hoaxed aspects to them, would suggest that the bulk, really, of Dawson's discoveries were hoaxed.

NARRATOR: Dawson clearly had the right kind of personality to commit the Piltdown forgery, and ample opportunity. He was often present when discoveries were made, and actually made many of them himself. But could he have perpetrated the hoax alone?

CHRIS STRINGER: We've got a chain of evidence which shows that Dawson really did have the motivation to do this, and certainly was in the right place at the right time to produce and find most of the material. Whether he perhaps had the knowledge and the skill and the access to all of that material or whether someone else was actually providing him with the material that he was finding at the two Piltdown sites...and for me that's the one remaining uncertainty.

NARRATOR: The forger went to enormous trouble to make Piltdown a convincing hoax. There were over 40 individual pieces including genuine mammal fossils that helped give it authenticity.

ANDY CURRANT: I think it's quite plausible that whoever put together this forgery, particularly the fossil mammals, was somebody who knew what they were doing. This material has been very carefully selected to be generally identifiable but specifically, maddeningly difficult to pin down. You can tell that this piece here is a fragment of a stegadon tooth, but you can't tell which stegadon it belongs to. That takes a little bit of skill to do that. And there weren't too many people around at the time who could have put such a thing together.

NARRATOR: The finger of suspicion points directly to Dawson's colleague, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, of Britain's Natural History Museum. What makes Woodward a prime suspect is that he was Piltdown's greatest advocate, and, as the most eminent scientist at the museum, it was difficult to challenge him.

ANDY CURRANT: Arthur Smith Woodward was a very important, very well known man. You have to remember that, in those days, there weren't really pop stars, so people like the keeper of geology at the Natural History Museum would have been well known. They would have been publicly known figures.

NARRATOR: Piltdown had made Woodward world famous. But with hindsight, his unscientific behavior looks suspicious. He didn't test the jaw for its nitrogen content, a basic test which would have proven it to be too modern. He even failed to spot the cruder aspects of the forgery, like the filed teeth, things that he could have seen with just a magnifying glass.

Had the desire to find Britain's missing link led him to perpetrate the forgery? Had his ambition blinded his scientific judgment? His grandson, David Hodgson, can't see how Woodward's involvement in the forgery makes any sense.

DAVID HODGSON (Grandson of Arthur Smith Woodward): My grandfather moved to Haywards Heath on his retirement, because he wanted to be near to his beloved Piltdown. He retired in 1924, and every summer from then on, all the way up to 1938, he came here every summer to dig.

NARRATOR: Why would the perpetrator have spent another 20 years digging at the site of his own hoax?

DAVID HODGSON: I think it was a wasted life for my grandfather. From 1916 onwards, nothing of significance was found here.

NARRATOR: Woodward died in 1948, still certain that Piltdown Man was genuine.

ANDY CURRANT: If you think about it, it's a vicious hoax. Some of these people continued to work on Piltdown for years and years and years after it all exploded. It was a terrible thing to do. It really was a horrible, nasty, vicious piece of work.

NARRATOR: Recently, evidence has surfaced inside the Natural History Museum that suggests a scandalous possibility: perhaps a rival deliberately made a fool out of Woodward.

ANDY CURRANT: In my early years at the museum, it was very much part of the, sort of the gossip of the department that maybe somebody in the museum could have been involved in this. And that, that wouldn't be good.

NARRATOR: The atmosphere inside the museum was one of intense competition and rivalry. Kenneth Oakley, the man who'd helped expose the hoax in 1953, suspected the forgery could have arisen out of an internal feud.

GILES OAKLEY: There were grudges held. There was a lot of egotism, a lot of rivalry between, not just between individuals within some departments, but between departments.

NARRATOR: One such rivalry was rumored between Woodward, department head of paleontology, and a man named Martin Hinton. The conflict was said to have begun about a year before the Piltdown discovery was made public, as a disagreement over money when Hinton was working as a junior scientist under Woodward.

Hinton became an accomplished fossil expert and eventually rose to become the Museum's department head of zoology.

ANDY CURRANT: It was part of departmental culture, if you like, that Hinton was in some way involved in Piltdown or knew what was happening at Piltdown. He is the kind of person who would have thought this to be quite an amusing hoax to produce. And we know that he was interested in hoaxes. He was a, he was a bit of a joker himself.

NARRATOR: Hinton carried a beaver skull in his frock coat and for years feigned near-sightedness, though his vision was perfect. Kenneth Oakley had suspicions about Martin Hinton, as his son recalls.

GILES OAKLEY: When going through the potential suspects, Martin Hinton's name kept on bobbing up like a cork. I think he found him a rather strange personality. He seems to have been very eccentric, and he was known to be a bit odd and a bit of an outsider in some ways, a bit of a joker in other ways, quite a strong personality.

NARRATOR: The rumors implicating Hinton really took off when Andy Currant and a colleague, Bob Knowles, during a renovation in the museum, stumbled across an extraordinary piece of evidence hidden away in one of the towers.

ANDY CURRANT: There, in a loft above a room which had belonged to Martin Hinton, was a big trunk, and there had been a lot of papers in it. There were also tubes of dissected mice. This seemed to be some of Hinton's anatomical specimens. They were a pretty gruesome mess. And Bob and I lifted this stuff out, and then we found, right at the bottom of the trunk, this little group of bones that appeared to have been stained. And then many of them have been cut in order to see how far the staining has gone into the bone.

This doesn't appear to be natural coloration. But, as you can see in this particular specimen, it seems to have been deliberately trimmed across the end in an attempt to see how deep the staining has gone.

NARRATOR: Recently, claims were made that the chemicals used to stain the fossils from the trunk were the same as those found on the Piltdown remains. But had Hinton forged the fossils, or was he just experimenting after the forgery had been unmasked to see how it was done?

Either way, the evidence suggests Hinton was skeptical of Piltdown's authenticity all along. In the archives, his letters show that as early as 1916, he was confiding his doubts about the Piltdown finds to an American colleague.

ANDY CURRANT: We know that there was correspondence between him and Miller, who—Miller was an American paleontologist—who had suggested that the jaw and the skull didn't belong together. And Hinton wrote to him and said, "Congratulations, you've exploded the myth of Piltdown Man." It was a very interesting thing to be saying in those days, and, if he thought it, there are other people in the museum who must have must have been thinking the same kind of thing.

NARRATOR: While Hinton and other experts in the Museum may have suspected Piltdown was a forgery, were they actually involved in planting the material?

ANDY CURRANT: Hinton's role in this is very, very difficult to tie down. He was not a straightforward man. He was obviously quite devious in a number of areas. It's very much in Hinton's character to lead people on thinking things may be so that weren't actually so.

NARRATOR: One of the very last discoveries at Piltdown may hint that the notorious practical joker Hinton was involved. In 1915, Dawson and Woodward found an artifact so bizarre that with hindsight it's laughable.

ANDY CURRANT: The most ridiculous find at Piltdown has to be this, and it's one of the last things that was ever found there. It was found, most of it was found under a hedge nearby. It wasn't even found in the deposit. It was actually written up by Woodward and Dawson as a curious bone implement, but everybody who has ever seen this thing has made the obvious deduction: it's a cricket bat.

I mean, there's no attempt to disguise this at all. These are not the marks made by stone tools. Somebody's got a chopper and just gone hacky-hack-hack at the end of this. They've made a sort of pointy end, where the handle would be. And it's nothing else, is it? It's a cricket bat; it's the earliest Englishman.

NARRATOR: The cricket bat had the hallmarks of one of Martin Hinton's jokes: the missing link was also the earliest English cricketer.

This blatant forgery was crudely thrown together and planted under a hedge. Surely it was obvious that Piltdown Man was a hoax? But Woodward only saw what he wanted to believe.

ANDY CURRANT: When the cricket bat turned up, Dawson and Woodward went to press in good faith, describing it as a Paleolithic artifact. They're not men who saw jokes. Short of writing a postcard and leaving it on the site and saying, "I'm very sorry, this was all a big hoax," to me, that's a confession.

NARRATOR: It seemed the perpetrator, whoever he was, had done everything he could to wake up the world to the Piltdown hoax, but the desire to find the earliest Englishman had blinded the scientific establishment.

GILES OAKLEY: Scientists are no different from other human beings. They're not all dispassionate seekers after truth in some kind of neutral way, unaffected by the pressures that affect non-scientists. Egotism, pride, ambition, rivalry, these things affect even scientific judgments.

If the cricket bat was an attempt to bring an end to Piltdown, it backfired.

NARRATOR: With the backing of Woodward, the discovery remained undisputed for more than 40 years.

RICHARD MILNER: The forgery lasted so long because people wanted to believe it, because it supported a patriotic world view, and because there were no technological tests to disprove it.

NARRATOR: So for 40 years rumors circulated inside the museum that Hinton and others knew Piltdown was a forgery and yet said nothing.

ANDY CURRANT: I think it's quite likely that a lot of people, even in the early days of Piltdown, knew there was something wrong. The discussion is going on at a higher level, it's going on between the great anatomists of the day. The little people have been forgotten. And in those days Martin Hinton was a little person. He would be relatively insignificant in this great organization.

NARRATOR: There were also rumors that the museum's own investigation into Piltdown had identified the hoaxer on the inside.

ANDY CURRANT: It's been suggested that there was a kind of cover up which went on for quite a long period of time. People have even accused Kenneth Oakley of perpetrating that cover up by not coming out and naming Martin Hinton as the hoaxer. And in private conversations with people in the museum he's known to have said, "I know it's him, I just can't get him to admit it."

NARRATOR: Some of Oakley's notes in the archives suggest that he suspected Hinton's possible involvement.

GILES OAKLEY: I think he suspected, but he had no proof, and without proof he would not say, he would not accuse someone, because he thought that would be unfair and he would not want to be behind an injustice to a man just because he suspected him.

NARRATOR: Hinton, an authenticator of fossils, had the expertise to carry off the forgery, but was his desire to discredit Woodward a strong enough motivation to perpetrate such a nasty deception?

Hinton's letters indicate that he long ago suspected Piltdown was a forgery. One theory is that he could have devised the cricket bat hoax as a humorous attempt to blow the whistle on Piltdown and humiliate Woodward, but the plan backfired when Woodward thought the bat was a genuine artifact. And as Hinton rose up the ranks in the museum, he couldn't implicate himself by confessing to the monster that he'd helped create.

The person with the strongest motive and the most to gain is Charles Dawson. Dawson has since been proven to be a cheat and liar.

MILES RUSSELL: If we look at Dawson and his background, then it is clear that he is the best person to actually produce that forgery. Piltdown is the epitome of his career in fabricating artifacts.

NARRATOR: Dawson was a master forger with enormous ambition, and forging the missing link would have made him, but, his premature death, in 1916, not only brought an end to his ambitions, it also meant he evaded getting caught.

For the next 40 years, the great Piltdown forgery continued to fool the scientific world. One man suspected the truth, another desperately wanted to believe in the lie, and the man who created the monster was dead.

Perhaps Charles Dawson can rest in peace with the consolation that a scientific forgery on this scale has never been seen before or since.

Next time on NOVA: The speed, the beauty, the cost...I admire immensely the technological achievement but they paid a hell of a price. NOVA, Supersonic Dream.

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The Boldest Hoax

Produced and Directed by
Kate Bartlett

Produced for NOVA by
Gary Glassman

Edited by
Peter Norrey
Rick Widmer

Assistant Producer
Dan Walker

Associate Producer
Cass Sapir

Production Assistant
Ben Sweeney

Narrated by
Richard Donat

Richard Ranken
Jeremy Humphries

Sound Recordist
Adrian Bell

Motion Graphics
Joshua Gigantino

Propped Up

Online Editor and Colorist
Mark Steele

Audio Mix
John Jenkins

Dinah Rogers
Renate Samson
Anna Elgart
Colin Sherer

Production Executive
Anna Mishcon

Production Manager
Laura Davey

Production Coordinators
Anna Charlton
Ian Glatt
Lisa McBain

Executive Editor for Timewatch
John Farren

Archival Material
American Museum of Natural History
Clips and Footage
Footage Farm
Prof Brian Gardiner
Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
Huntley Film Archives
National Geographic
Neanderthal Museum
Richard Lancelyn Green
Simon Carroll Archive
Smithsonian Institution Archive
Stapleton Collection/CORBIS
UCLA Film and Television Archives
Vulcan Productions

Special Thanks
Barkham Manor
English Heritage
Fratelli Brothers
Hastings Museum
Natural History Museum
Windlesham Manor

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Post Production Online Editor
Spencer Gentry

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton
Olivia Wong

Senior Researcher
Barbara Moran

Production Coordinators
Linda Callahan
Dara Bourne

Unit Manager
Lola Norman-Salako

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Manager
Maureen Barden Lynch

Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Producer, Special Projects
Susanne Simpson

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A BBC Production

Additional Production for NOVA by Providence Pictures, Inc. for WGBH/Boston

BBC Timewatch: Britain's Greatest Hoax © BBC MMIII

Additional Material © 2005 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved


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