By: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 12/12/2012 01:04 PM EST on LiveScience

It's a detective story with a century-old crime: The forgery of a supposed "missing link" in human evolution that went undetected for decades.

Now, researchers are set on identifying the long-dead culprits responsible for the famous Piltdown Man hoax — involving forged bones said to belong to an early human — and teasing out their motives.

Writing in this week's issue of the journal Nature, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, explains why he and his colleagues are still investigating a mystery that began 100 years ago.

"Personally, I am intrigued by the question of whether the hoax was driven by scientific ambition or by more jocular or vindictive motives," Stringer wrote. He and his colleagues plan to test the forged bones from the Piltdown case with modern methods, aiming to find out who most likely made them and why. [The 6 Greatest Hoaxes in History]

History of a hoax

The Piltdown Hoax is one of the most successful scientific frauds in history. In December 1912, British paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson announced to the world that they'd found an amazing early human fossil in Piltdown, England. The curious specimen had a humanlike skull with an apelike jaw. Given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni, it was more commonly called Piltdown Man.

Dawson and Woodward also reported that alongside Piltdown Man were a number of other stunning finds: stone tools, fossilized mammals and even an elephant bone. In 1916, Dawson claimed to have found more remains at a second site nearby.

According to Stringer's telling, some scientists did question the Piltdown Man bonanza discovery. They didn't immediately cry fraud, but suspected the fossil deposits had simply been mixed together over time, suggesting the ape jaw and humanlike skull weren't actually associated. [Rumor or Reality: The Creatures of Cryptozoology]

But it wasn't until the 1950s that Piltdown Man was exposed for the fraud it was. Chemical studies found the fossil to be less than 50,000 years old, not 1 million years as Dawson and Woodward claimed. Further testing showed the skull was likely from a modern human and the jaw probably from a modern orangutan.

Whodunnit?           

The question is, who stained the bones to match each other and filed the teeth to appear more human?

That's the mystery Stringer and his colleagues hope to solve with radiocarbon dating, DNA testing and other molecular studies. If the researchers can pin down the origins of the bones used to make the faked fossils, Stringer wrote, they may be able to figure out which archaeologist on the project was responsible.

For example, if faked fossils from both the Piltdown site and Dawson's second site match up, the amateur probably did it, as he was the only discoverer of the second site, Stringer said. Dawson's motivation likely would have been scientific ambition and the desire to be accepted among the elite, Stringer added.

Though 12 suspects in total have been accused in the hoax, there are three particularly likely suspects, other than Dawson. Woodward is one, as is Woodward's assistant Martin Hinton, a zoologist who was found after his death in 1961 to possess a collection of stained and altered bones. A Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, who discovered a tooth at Piltdown, may also have been involved.

Even the famous have not escaped suspicion. British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, has been accused of being mixed up in the hoax, according to the BBC. Doyle lived near Piltdown and was an archaeological society member. He wrote about ancient apes in his novel "The Lost World" and could have been inspired to fool the scientific community because of their mockery of one of his great passions, spiritualism. (Doyle also believed in fairies.)

A century-old mystery may hardly seem fresh, but Stringer sees the case as an important milestone in the history of science. The Piltdown hoax likely made scientists less willing to accept real early hominin fossils such as Astralopithecus africanus, also known as "Lucy," Stringer wrote. But the hoax also shows that even if it takes time, science will eventually ferret out the truth, he said.

"Regardless of who was responsible, the Piltdown hoax is a stark reminder to scientists that if something seems too good to be true, then perhaps it is," Stringer wrote.

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GALLERY: THE GREATEST HOAXES
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  • Famous Loch Ness Monster Photograph

    The most famous picture of the Loch Ness Monster, a grainy black-and-white photograph showing a long head and neck emerging from the lake, was eventually revealed to be a hoax. As the <em>New York Times </em><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1994/03/20/weekinreview/loch-ness-fiction-is-stranger-than-truth.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>, the "monster" in the photograph was a bogus 12-inch-high model made from plastic, wood and a toy submarine purchased for two shillings, six pence in Woolworth's in a London suburb, David Martin and Alastair Boyd, of the Loch Ness and Morar Project said. (Photo: AP)

  • Adolf Hitler's $6 Million Diary

    In 1983, German newsweekly<em> Stern</em> claimed to be the new owners of what would have been the most explosive diaries in history: the collected thoughts of Adolf Hitler, <em>Time</em> <a href="http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1931133_1931132_1931123,00.html" target="_hplink">reports</a>. Though the magazine paid a cool $6 million for the documents, the diaries were later exposed as "grotesquely superficial fakes" made on modern paper using 1980s-era ink and riddled with historical inaccuracies. The prank cost editors at <em>Stern</em>, the <em>Sunday Times</em> and <em>Newsweek</em> their jobs. (Photo: AP)

  • War Of The Worlds

    The 1938 broadcast of a <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/0617_050617_warworlds.html" target="_hplink">radio adaptation</a> of HG Wells' <em>The War of the Worlds</em> frightened many listeners into believing an actual alien invasion was in progress. Narrated by Orson Wells, the adaptation had been written and performed to sound like an actual news broadcast about an invasion from wars. Believing they were under attack by Martians, listeners flooded newspaper offices and radio and police stations with calls, asking how to flee their city. (Photo: AP File)

  • Georgia Invasion Hoax

    As <em>Time</em> <a href="http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1931133_1931132,00.html" target="_hplink">reports</a>, Georgians were in for the shock of their lives in when the pro-government Imedi station announced that the country's pro-western leader Mikheil Saakashvili had been murdered and Russian tanks were yet again invading their land, barely 18 months on from the short-lived war of 2008. Panic understandably ensued as people piled onto the streets, and the cell phone network collapsed. Apparently the broadcast was introduced as a simulation of possible events but this warning was clearly lost on many Georgians: people were taken to hospital suffering from stress and it's been reported that one woman, whose son was in the army, had a heart attack and died. (Photo: Getty)

  • Piltdown Man

    In 1912, British scientists believed they had finally found definitive proof of mankind's evolution: the missing link between man and ape. As<em> Time</em><a href="http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1931133_1931132_1931125,00.html" target="_hplink"> reports</a>, the parts of a skull and jawbone, collected from a gravel pit in the village of Piltdown, had many experts convinced they were the fossilised remains of an unknown form of early man. But 41 years later, Piltdown man was finally exposed as a composite forgery: a human skull from medieval times, the 500-year-old lower jaw of a Sarawak orangutan and chimpanzee fossil teeth. (Photo: Wikicommons)

  • Balloon Boy

    On 15 October 2009, Richard and Mayumi Heene in Fort Collins, Colorado, allowed a gas balloon filled with helium to float away into the atmosphere and then claimed that their six-year-old son Falcon was inside it. As CNN <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2009-10-16/us/colorado.balloon.boy_1_richard-heene-mayumi-heene-alderden?_s=PM:US" target="_hplink">reports</a>, when the balloon finally landed, Falcon was not on board. Later, he came out from hiding in an attic over the home's garage.

  • Alien Autopsy

    As the Science Channel reports, London-based video entrepreneur Ray Santilli claimed to own footage of an alien autopsy performed after the 1947 Roswell Incident, which aired in 1995 to an audience of millions. He later fessed up to the hoax, noting that all the alien innards in the film were actually sheep brains, raspberry jam and chicken entrails. (Photo: AP)

  • Microsoft Buys The Catholic Church

    In 1994 a press release bearing a Vatican City dateline, began circulating around the Web claiming that Microsoft had <a href="http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/msft.html" target="_hplink">bought</a> the Catholic church. The release even quoted Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates as saying, "The combined resources of Microsoft and the Catholic Church will allow us to make religion easier and more fun for a broader range of people." Microsoft finally issued a formal denial of the release on 16 December, 1994. (Photo: AP)