(postponed due to weather; watch for announcement of new date)

Friday, October 30 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Lydia Pyne, University of Texas Institute for Historical Studies

“Piltdown: A Name Without a Fossil”

Few scientific forgeries have captured imagination as completely as that of the Piltdown Man hoax. Discovered in 1912 in East Sussex, the Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni, “Dawson’s dawn-man”) dictated, dominated, and drove discourse about the direction of human evolution research for more than forty years. When the Piltdown “fossil” was determined to be a hoax in 1953, there were immediate consequences for reinterpreting the fossil record of human ancestors, but the revelation has done little to diminish Piltdown’s place in the history of paleoanthropology.

However, the legacy of Eoanthropus casts a long shadow, affecting even today how new fossil discoveries are presented to the public. Understanding the public and scientific cachet that Piltdown claimed in the first half of the twentieth century (through newspapers, museum exhibits, and reconstructions) helps us make sense of how Piltdown is, perhaps, the most-studied and least-resolved discovery in twentieth-century paleoanthropology — a “fossil” that still commands historical curiosity amid its stories of mystery and intrigue.


Lydia Pyne is a writer and historian whose essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Public Domain Review, and Nautilus. She holds BA and MA degrees in anthropology and history and a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science, and is currently a Research Affiliate of the UT Institute for Historical Studies. She is the co-author, with Stephen J. Pyne, of The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene (Viking, 2013). Her upcoming books include Bookshelf (Bloomsbury, Jan. 2016), part of the “Object Lessons” series, and Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils (Viking, Aug. 2016).