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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Almanac/Skullduggery

Air Date: Week of November 14, 2003

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This week, we have facts about Piltdown Man. Fifty years ago, a skull thought to be the missing link between ape and man was exposed as one of the biggest hoaxes in the history of science.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

[MUSIC: The Flaming Lips “Are You A Hypnotist” YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS (Warner Bros. Records - 2002)]

GELLERMAN: It seemed like the discovery of a lifetime. Amateur anthropologist Richard Dawson suspected the skull he dug up in southern England in 1912 was the long sought connection between ape and man. Scientists agreed and newspapers headlined “Missing Link Discovered in Piltdown Quarry.”

But Richard Milner, contributing editor for Natural History magazine, says there was a bit of old English bluster behind the celebrated find.

MILNER: The British really wanted to accept Piltdown from the start because they were somewhat jealous of France that had all these wonderful cave paintings, and had Cro-Magnon remains, and their Neanderthals. And the Germans had their Neanderthals. So the English were hungry to have the earliest Englishman.

GELLERMAN: Forty years later, scientists decried Piltdown as a great hoax. An orangutan’s jaw, a 500-year-old human skull, and filed teeth were all chemically treated to look prehistoric. But, who done it? Dawson? Or maybe one of his colleagues? Milner points an accusing finger at a celebrated mystery writer of the time.

MILNER: Despite the intellectual science of “Sherlock Holmes,” Conan Doyle was really something of a mystic. He believed you could communicate with spirits from the beyond. And the scientists ridiculed him, laughed at him that he didn’t know the meaning of evidence. So Conan Doyle, in this scenario, thought, I’ll teach them something about the meaning of evidence.

GELLERMAN: Patrons to Britain’s Natural History Museum are free to sleuth for clues and try to unravel the mystery for themselves this month. The forged Piltdown skull will be displayed there for the first time since its discovery. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: The Flaming Lips “Are You A Hypnotist” YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS (Warner Bros. Records - 2002)]

 

 

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