Evolutionary scientists and young-Earth Creationists have been locked in a one-sided struggle ever since the theory of evolution was widely accepted. Listening to the debates, you'll find one refrain from the Creationists:
Where's the missing link?!
The idea of a 'missing link' is misleading in itself. There were more links between man and monkey, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. This is, of course, a misnomer. Humans are apes, and monkeys aren't. The clue is in the tail.
Well, scientists keep finding the fossils of our ancestors. These fossils are found in Africa, for the most part. That's because the human species evolved in Africa before spreading like butter across the surface of our world.
This idea of Africa-first really got on the nerves of the Europeans. So, when a brand-new fossil was found in Germany, 1907, the Europeans celebrated. Everyone except the British. They wanted to be important too.
The Gravel Man Rises
Charles Dawson, amateur archaeologist, claimed to have in his possession the fossilized remains of a human ancestor. The remains were unearthed by workmen digging in a gravel pit near Barkham Manor, Piltdown, in East Sussex.
The workmen found an intact skull, and in a Cro-Magnon display they smashed it open. What they at first thought was a fossilized coconut, turned out to be the skull of an ancient humanoid.
They took it to a local lawyer, Charles Dawson, who in turn took it to Arthur Smith Woodward, a real paleontologist working for the British Museum. Together they pieced together the skull of a large-brained proto-human with a particularly ape-like jaw.
Woodward announced their find at a meeting of the Geological Society of London, in 1912. He dubbed the fossil Eoanthropus dawsoni. Going as far as to say that it was the true missing link between human and ape. The media dubbed the creature 'The Piltdown Man'.
British scientists lapped it up. They were blinded by their patriotic enthusiasm. You see, tensions were building in Europe in the lead-up to the Great War. Germany couldn't be the only place to have been important in the evolution of humans.
Paleontologists swarmed the site in hopes of finding further remains. For the next 2 years, 1913-1914, they extracted several stone tools, bits of animal bones, and a slab of bone which they named the 'cricket bat'.
Dawson died in 1916. He offered up one final piece of his puzzle to Woodward shortly before his demise. The tooth, and skull fragments, he sent seemed to belong to the same individual as the Piltdown Man.
Mainstream science accepted the fossil as an alternative to Homo Erectus. Besides, this one was British!
The Truth Will Out
Everyone assumed the Gravel Pit was ancient. It had to be, for the fossil to be worth anything. So they added the Piltdown Man to history textbooks. People learned about it as a legitimate part of human history.
By 1926, scientists knew the gravel pit near Barkham Manor wasn't ancient at all. Four years later the supremacy of Homo Erectus as our ancestor was settled. Several other species of proto-humans were found in great quantities as well. The Neanderthal became our true European cousin as well, with many more examples of it being found.
Things looked a bit awkward for the Piltdown Man. Only one specimen had ever been found. So, in 1953, a scientific inquiry into the authenticity of the Piltdown Man began.
They found the skull to be that of a modern human who died around 600 years earlier. Most of the teeth along with the jaw itself, were from an Orangutan. One of the later teeth came from a Chimpanzee.
With the Piltdown Man becoming the Piltdown Fraud, science was free to accept the Africa First theory. All evidence pointed towards the mother-continent.
Fingers started pointing at Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward. They were clearly both guilty of running a con. Some argued that Woodward was the intended target of the hoax. It was an attempt to discredit him in the eyes of history.
Pebbles were stuffed into the hollow parts of the bones and covered with putty to add weight to the bones. The teeth were artificially worn down to resemble the way human teeth wear down.
Isabelle's conclusion was that a single hoaxer was responsible:
“Throughout the whole assemblage, there's evidence of one hand, one maker, one signature”
De Groote's view is that Charles Dawson was a desperate man who played the scientific community. He was desperate to join the Royal Society, and they were consistently dismissive of him.
Isabelle De Groote sums up Charles Dawson's Piltdown Man hoax as such:
“Dawson really played a very clever card. With the findings coming out of Germany, and Britain wanting to be at the forefront of science, there was this sense that, 'We must have these fossils in Britain, as well.'”