Henry Fairfield Osborn and the Tragic Legacy of Piltdown Man

According to Henry Fairfield Osborn, Piltdown man, the famous fake [1], was proof that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was wrong, and that modern humans did not need trace their ancestry through Africa. To bolster his arguments, Osborn, who was president of the American Museum of Natural History from 1908 to 1935, turned the considerable resources of his institution toward the development of a wide range of compelling visual materials – reconstructions, painting, charts, graphs and photos – that illustrated his story of evolution. He then distributed these materials freely to textbook publishers and the popular press.

The consequences were tragic.

By flooding the market, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, advanced a racialized theory of evolution that resisted countervailing evidence for decades, survived Piltdown’s fall in 1953, and tainted the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s.

The four “early men” of mid-century evolution: Java man, Piltdown man, Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man, as pictured in the 1952 edition of Elements of Biology. In 1953, examiners announced that Piltdown was in fact a fake. Though neatly X’ed out here by an anonymous student, the sudden removal of Piltdown precipitated a decades-long crisis for the many textbook authors who had used the “fossil” to support a popular non-African and non-Darwinian story of human origins.

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