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Piltdown Man's Forger Unmasked

The Piltdown Man is one of the most famous hoaxes in science, and researchers now say they've pinpointed its perpetrator, the Washington Post reports.

The Piltdown Man, which was unveiled in 1912, was purported to be a "missing link" between modern humans and our more ape-like ancestors, but the sample was actually comprised of a collection of human and orangutan bones that had been treated with iron and acid to simulate age, the Post adds. The hoax was detected some 40 years later.

A team of UK researchers reports in Royal Society Open Science that they used a combination of DNA analysis, spectroscopy, virtual anthropology, and more to re-analyze the Piltdown fossils. From this, the team says that one orangutan specimen and at least two human specimens were used to create the fake fossils. The approach used by perpetrator was similar across the samples, suggesting the work of one person. That forger, the team says, was likely Charles Dawson.

Dawson, a solicitor and amateur archaeologist, "discovered" the first set of remains, the Post adds, noting that he still might have had an accomplice. Just why he forged the fossils isn't clear, but the Post suggests that he wished to be recognized as an archaeologist and to be elected as fellow of the Royal Society.

The researchers add that the hoax was successful at the time because it played to researchers' preconceived notions at that time. "Solving the Piltdown hoax is still important now," first author Isabella De Groote from Liverpool John Moores University and her colleagues write. "It stands as a cautionary tale to scientists not to see what they want to see, but to remain objective and to subject even their own findings to the strongest scientific scrutiny."

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