One of the fundamental questions of humanity is “Where did we come from?” For ages scientists have tried to determine, who we are, how we came to be. Evolution is the theory most seem to agree on today – and it's been this way for over a century now.
In 1842, Charles Darwin penned the first sketch of what became his famous work On the Origin of Species — the foundation of evolutionary biology. Essentially, all currently alive life forms are thought to be evolved from simpler forms, which form a sort of a sequence, or a chain. And while early followers of the theory of evolution supported the idea of humans being descendants of apes, the lack of factual support of this notion was kind of a big deal.
Thus the concept of the 'missing link' appeared – an unknown animal, which previously existed, which would exhibit traits similar to both apes and humans. Its existence – or, at least, fossils serving as a tell-tale sign of their existence – would support the theory of evolution by becoming the 'missing link' between primitive life forms and homo sapiens. The first 'missing link' was discovered in 1891 by a Dutch geologist Eugene Dubois on the banks of Solo River, Java, Indonesia.
The fossil showed transitional traits between apes and humans — a low, ape-like skull roof with a brain estimated at around 1000 cubic centimeters – smaller than that of a human, but larger than a chimpanzee brain. Thus came to be the so-called “Java man”, the first discovered human evolution fossil. The find dealt a strong blow to evolutionary skeptics and fueled the search for other missing links. Enter the Piltdown man — a skull and jawbone, collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, England. The Guardian explains the significance of the find:
"The first Englishman had been uncovered and not only was he brainy, he was sporty. A sculpted elephant bone, found near the skull pieces and interpreted by scientists as being a ceremonial artifact, was jokingly claimed by many commentators to be an early cricket bat. The first Englishman with his own cricket bat – if nothing else it was one in the eye for French and German archaeologists whose discoveries of Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals and other early humans had been making headlines for several decades. Now England had a real fossil rival."
The Piltdown man was believed by scholars to be the real deal, and skeptics were largely discarded. It was only in 1950s when the skill pieces were properly tested. The researchers determined that the upper skull was approximately 50,000 years old, but the jawbone was only a few decades old. Moreover, the jaw apparently had been artificially stained to make it appear older. Britain's greatest paleontological discovery had been proven to be fake. So who was behind the hoax? The Guardian suggests they remained undiscovered:
"Since then, more than 30 individuals have been accused of being Piltdown hoaxers. Charles Dawson, the archaeological enthusiast who found the first pieces, was almost certainly involved. But many scientists still suspect he had the backing of experts who were the true guilty parties. Candidates include Arthur Conan Doyle, who played golf at Piltdown and had a grievance against scientists because of his spiritual beliefs."
That's right, the author of the smartest detective in the world could had managed to fool the scientific world for several decades. The Piltdown man is still considered to be one of the most damaging scientific hoaxes of all time.