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Famous Frauds

Piltdown Man | Archaeoraptor | Lithographiae Wirceburgensis

Piltdown Man
Arguably one of the most famous frauds, due to both the length of time before it was realised to be a fraud and its implications upon discovery for human evolution. In a meeting the Geological Society of London held on the 18 December 1912, Charles Dawson announced that he had been given a fragment of a skull four years earlier by a workman at the Piltdown gravel pit. According to Dawson, workmen at the site had discovered the skull shortly before his visit and had broken it up. Revisiting the site on several occasions, Dawson found further fragments of the skull and took them to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. Greatly interested by the finds, Woodward accompanied Dawson to the site, where between June and September 1912 they together recovered more fragments of the skull and half of the lower jaw bone.






The original Piltdown Man skull.

At the meeting Woodward announced that the reconstruction of the pieces of the skull were similar to Homo sapiens except for the occiput and brain size. The lower jaw bone, with the exception of two human-like molars, was almost identical to that of a modern, young chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). From the reconstruction it was suggested that Piltdown man was a "missing link" in hominid evolution (and as such given a name Eoanthropus dawsoni), and the human-like cranium with ape-like jaw suggested that hominid evolution was brain-led rather than posture-led. This fit with the prevailing scientific thought at the time.

As early as 1915, French palaeontologist Marcellin Boulle deduced the jaw was that of an ape. Subsequent to this, an American zoologist, Gerrit Smith Miller, concluded that the jaw came from a fossil ape. It was in this year, however that Dawson claimed to have found fragments of a second skull (Piltdown II), fproviding further evidence for the Piltdown man case. In 1923, anatomist Franz Weidenreich correctly reported that the original Piltdown man "fossils" consisted of a modern human cranium and an organgutan jaw with filed-down teeth. This, he claimed, was obvious, as an anatomist.

In November 1953, The Times newspaper published evidence accumulated by Kenneth Page Oakley, a professor of anthropology from Oxford University, through which he demonstrated that the fossil was a composite of three distinct species. Consisting of a human skull, medieval in age, as well as the 500-year-old lower jaw of a Sarawak orangutan, and chimpanzee fossil teeth. The striking aged appearance had been created by staining the bones with an iron solution and chromic acid. Microscopic examination revealed file-marks on the teeth, and it was deduced from this that some person had altered the teeth to give them a shape more suited to a human diet.

The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown, but suspects have included Dawson himself, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Martin A.C. Hinton, and Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) as well as numerous others. Teilhard had traveled to regions of Africa where one of the anomalous finds originated, and was residing in the Wealden area from the date of the earliest finds. Hinton left a trunk in storage at the Natural History Museum in London that in 1970 was found to contain animal bones and teeth carved and stained in a manner similar to the carving and staining on the Piltdown finds. The recent focus on Charles Dawson as the sole forger is supported by the gradual accumulation of evidence regarding other archaeological hoaxes he perpetrated in the decade or two prior to the Piltdown discovery.

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Archaeoraptor
The most recent of the major frauds and will always be remembered by National Geographic who were left embarrassed and shamed by the fiasco. The fossil was apparently found in the fossiliferous deposits of Liaoning Province in China. The fossil was then sold on the black market and smuggled out of China (it is illegal to transport fossils out of China without special permits), and into the United States of America. The Dinosaur Museum in Utah, run by Stephen Czerkas and his wife Sylvia Czerkas, purchased the fossil for $80,000.


The infamous Archaeoraptor "fossil."

The Czerkases contacted National Geographic Society and Phil Currie (a palaeontologist) to study the fossil and announce it to the public. Currie and National Geographic agreed to study the fossil and announce the fossil if it was eventually returned to China. Currie found the left and right legs were exact mirrors of each other. It was sent for CAT scans and these results showed the bottom fragments were not part of the main fossil. Currie failed to inform National Geographic on any of these issues.

National Geographic unveiled the fossil to the public on 15 Octover 1999. Unfortunately for National Geographic the peer review in Nature failed to publish the article, so Stephen sent the article to Science. Upon peer reviews Science was informed that "the specimen was smuggled out of China and illegally purchased" and that the fossil had been "doctored...to enhance its value." Science rejected the paper. National Geographic apparently remained uninformed on the details of the rejection. Despite the lack of a peer reviewed acceptance National Geographic published an article in November 1999 describing the fossil and announcing its "missing link" status.

Xu Xing (a specialist in feathered dinosaurs from Beijing's Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology) had noticed in October 1999, during his time in the USA studying the fossil, that Archaeoraptor's tail was strikingly similar to an unnamed maniraptoran (now named Microraptor zhaoianus). Upon visiting Liaoning, Xu confirmed his suspicions that the dinosaur-like tail and the bird-like upper body did not belong to the same species. In December 1999 he found the fossilized body that corresponded to the tail of Archaeoraptor. Xu contacted the National Geographic Society who paid for CAT scans and the scans confirmed Xu's suspicions of a fraud. By January 2000 National Geographic published a retraction of the atricle, and after an investigation, a further retraction and an article were released in the October 2000 issue.

The fraud all started with a farmer in Liaoning digging for fossils collected the bird-like upper body, and later discovered the dromeosaur fossil, from which he took the tail section from. According to the dealer the farmer believed the two belonged together, but this seems unbelievable as the tail was connected to another skeleton. Perhaps he was just in it for money. We will never know. Since getting to the USA there was a long series of miscomunications which resulted in the embarrassment of all involved and especially the National Geographic Society and the author of the article Chris Sloan.

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Lithographiae Wirceburgensis
Early in the 18th century, Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer fell victim to a massive hoax. Beringer was a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Würzburg and a keen natural scientist who frequently went to Mount Eibelstadt to collect fossils. Two of his colleagues at the university, J. Ignatz Roderick (professor of geography and mathematics) and J. Georg von Eckhart (privy councellor and univeristy librarian) decided to play the hoax in revenge for Beringer's apparent habitual arrogance and to damage his credibility.

Over the course of a year Roderick and von Eckhart had stonemasons produce around 2000 "fossils" (of organisms from the textbooks, stars and comets, Arabic and Herbew writings of God) and paid Beringers assistants to take them to him. The mechanism of fossilisation was unknown at the time and Beringer published his first edition of his book in 1726. In his book Beringer covered various explanations ranging from the "plastic" theory (spontaneous fossil growth), "spermatic" theory (modern animals "impregnating" rocks with sperm), even discussing the possibility of pagans carving the rocks before discrediting this as they would not know the name of God.


Some of the "fossils." Spiders on the left, "fish" in the middle, and snails and slugs on the right. See more at http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.com/2006/08/fossil-fakes.html

Rumours of the finds being a hoax started from just before the book was published, but Beringer ignored them. Shortly after the book's publishing a rock with Beringer's own name turned up. Only then did Beringer realise the rocks were truely frauds. Beringer took Roderick and von Eckart to court to "save his honour" and rumour says he spent the vast majorities of his life savings buying back as many of his copies of his book as he could. Not only did the hoax discredit Beringer, it ruined both hoaxers reputations, and forced Roderick to leave Würzburg and von Eckart lost his post and privileges within Würzburg hampering his research which remained unfinished at the time of his death. A copy of the book in Latin can be found here, compliments of the University of Bologna.

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