Piltdown Man, Beringer’s lying stones, dinosaurs… are they all hoaxes?

23.02.2015 16:07

The history of palaeontology is littered
with examples of famous frauds and fakes,
often with eminent researchers in the field
being thoroughly hoodwinked by some
fairly shoddy fabrications.
One of the most famous is Piltdown Man.
Discovered in a gravel pit in Sussex in
1912, a few ancient-looking fragments of a
skull and jawbone quickly became hailed
as evidence of a very early type of human,
perhaps half a million years old. The
specimens were named Eoanthropus
dawsoni (“Dawson’s dawn man”), after
their discoverer, amateur archaeologist
Charles Dawson.
Piltdown Man was considered genuine
until the 1940s, when new dating
techniques and reanalysis of the bones
began to provide damning evidence: the
skull fragments came from a modern
human and the jawbone from a young
orangutan. Even without accurate dating
techniques, it’s astonishing how many
scientists were taken in. Back in 1912,
genuine fossils of early human species had
already been discovered in France and
Germany. Piltdown, taken at face value,
provided the eager Brits with an even
more ancient and ape-like ancestor, while
Dawson himself became a celebrity.
Other fakes seem even more obvious to us
today. In 1725, Professor Johann Beringer,
a physician and dean of the University of
Würzburg, discovered a haul of marvellous
fossils, describing them in a book called
the Lithographiae Wirceburgensis. It’s now
available to view online, and you don’t
need to be able to read Latin to appreciate
the fossils – there are 21 pages of
illustrations at the end of the book. There
are shells, leaves, worms and insects,
apparently perfectly preserved, along with
complete reptiles and birds, with skin,
feathers and beaks intact. To the modern
eye they look like fairly crude stone
carvings – which is exactly what they are.
But Beringer fell for it all, hook, line and
sinker. Even faced with fossils of shooting
stars and Hebrew letters, he rejected the
possibility that the stones could be
manmade. It was only after he’d published
Lithographiae that it became clear that the
fossil-hunter had been deceived by
disgruntled colleagues who had
commissioned the carvings for Beringer to
find. The literally incredible collection
became known as Beringer’s Lügensteine,
lying stones.
The late palaeontologist and essayist
Stephen Jay Gould wrote about more
recent “lying stones” from Morocco. These
range from real ammonite fossils with
added embellishments to 3D plaster casts
of trilobites, crabs and even small lizards,
stuck on to likely-looking rocks. Some of
them look similar to Beringer’s stones –
and equally ridiculous. But Gould argues
against criticising Beringer too roundly for
his gullibility. If you know that fossils are
the remains of once-living organisms, then
fossilised stars and Hebrew words seem
preposterous. But people were still
arguing about the nature and origin of
fossils when Beringer wrote his treatise.
This intellectual context is crucial because
Beringer’s “fossils” represented an
important contribution to the debate, just
as Piltdown Man appeared to satisfy big
questions about human origins. These high
stakes help to explain why both frauds
were so eagerly seized upon.
I consider myself to be a relatively
sceptical person. I like to see evidence for
myself, and try to avoid speculating
beyond available evidence. But I also have
to accept some things on trust. One of those
things is the past existence of dinosaurs.
I’ve seen many dinosaur fossils, some
mounted in museums, others in the
process of being extracted from their rocky
matrix, and it has never occurred to me
that any could be anything other than
genuine. I know a bit about vertebrate
anatomy and I’d like to think that I’d spot
if a skeleton was entirely fabricated or
cobbled together from existing bits and
pieces. I know quite a few palaeontologists,
and most of them seem to be perfectly
decent, well-balanced individuals. Even if
they are the exception to the rule, I find it
unimaginable that palaeontologists across
the globe could be engaged in a huge
global deception, hoodwinking museums
into paying for dinosaur fossils – like the
lying stones of Marrakech on a planetary
Some, it seems, are not so quick to trust
palaeontologists. These ultra-sceptics
doubt the very existence of dinosaurs. And
they express those doubts publicly, even
on that most enlightened of fora, Mumsnet.
In a February post entitled: “I’m getting
sick and tired of dinosaurs being forced on
our children” , CADministry wrote: “I’m
really concerned about dinosaurs, and I
think something needs to be done. The
science behind them is pretty flimsy, and I
for one do not want my children being
taught lies…” In a victory for rationalism,
the tone of the following discussion was
amused incredulity.
I tweeted a link to the post and
immediately found myself embroiled in
repartee with fakefossils – apparently Twitter spokesperson for the Facebook group Christians Against Dinosaurs. Lots of dinophiles (and some actual palaeontologists) weighed in, and on the other side fakefossils was joined by
dinodenier, who tweeted “dinos a human invention, but motivated by greed, so yes Satan responsible” . “Stop being deliberately obtuse” tweeted fakefossils,
in response to a tweet suggesting they
might be creationists.
As we sparred on Twitter, a thought
suddenly occurred to me. These dino-
deniers seemed too funny, too ridiculous,
to be true. Were they, like Beringer’s
stones, themselves a hoax? At the moment
it’s a hypothesis I can’t rule out. Like any
good scientist, I have to keep an open