Thanks to one of the most successful scientific hoaxes of all time, palaeontologists spent the first half of the 20th century believing in the existence of an ancient hominid known as the Piltdown Man. Displaying an odd mix of human and ape characteristics, the anomalous animal was eventually exposed as a complete fraud in 1953, and researchers have now revealed what the counterfeit creature would have looked like if it actually existed.
The Piltdown Man was the work of lawyer and amateur geologist Charles Dawson, who contacted London’s Natural History Museum in 1912 with what he claimed was evidence of a missing link in the evolutionary sequence between apes and humans. Presenting a series of skull, jaw, and tooth fragments he claimed to have unearthed in Piltdown, southeast England, Dawson convinced the museum’s geology curator Arthur Smith Woodward that his discovery was genuine.
Based on the color of the remains, Woodward concluded that they had been mineralizing for around half a million years. At a meeting of the Geological Society in December 1912, he and Dawson formally presented the Piltdown Man, which was given the Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man") and passed off as a previously unknown species of ancient human.
Despite the acclaim this brought Dawson and Woodward, many palaeontologists immediately smelled something fishy. American scholar William King Gregory, for instance, was present at the meeting yet later reported that the Piltdown Man appeared to be “a deliberate hoax”.
Despite these suspicions, the specimen was widely accepted as genuine until 1953, when an article in Time Magazine provided proof that the Piltdown Man was in fact a mashup of modern human skull fragments, an orangutan jaw, and chimpanzee teeth.
According to the authors of a report in the bulletin of the Natural History Museum, the scientific community had been victims of "a most elaborate and carefully prepared hoax,” which was “so entirely unscrupulous and inexplicable, as to find no parallel in the history of paleontological discovery.”
Finally dismissed as a fake, the abomination was revisited by researchers in 2016, who revealed how Dawson had modified the various components to ensure they were not properly identified upon first inspection. The study authors also discovered that the bones had been deliberately stained with an iron solution in order to make them appear older than they were.
Despite the fact that the Piltdown Man never existed, a team of scientists including forensic expert and 3D illustrator Cícero Moraes have had a crack at revealing what the fictional hominid may have looked like. To do so, Moraes created a digital model of the creature’s skull using a mix of human, orangutan, and chimpanzee cranial scans.
Soft tissue markers from a human face were then distorted and adapted to fit this skull, before Moraes used his artistic license to apply the skin tone and hair.
The result is the first true facial reconstruction of a 500,000-year-old species of ape-man that never was.