Caveat Lector: New-ish data on the Piltdown Man Hoax

So what’s the new thing I learned from the recent DNA-and-other-scientific-techniques analysis of the infamous Piltdown hoax fossils? Some people use the word “caveat” as a verb.

There it is, in the middle of the nicely open access article:

However, we caveat this by emphasizing that Bornean orang-utans have suffered from habitat loss and range fragmentation, two processes that can result in rapid shifts in the geographical distribution of genetic lineages (p. 7)

The internet helpfully tells me that the use of caveat as a verb in modern usage is considered awkward, and is most closely associated with Alexander Haig of “I am in control here” fame. Haig was a decade or two ahead of his time in his tendency to turn nouns into verbs.

There are a few caveats (“noun: a warning or proviso of specific stipulations, conditions, or limitations” -the OED) that may be worth keeping in mind regarding de Groote and colleagues’ article.

  • The DNA analysis of the orang-utan and human bones that comprise the “Piltdown Man” fossils was mostly unproductive, the only positive result being evidence that two of the orang-utan teeth likely came from the same individual ape, who likely lived in western Borneo (that’s the conclusion that they caveated – now I’m doing it, too).
  • Traditional morphometry (i.e, measuring the actual fossils) was more successful in confirming that the fossil teeth are actually from an orang-utan, and not from a different species of ape. I did not realize this was considered uncertain (there has been no doubt that the teeth are not hominin since the mid 1950s), and in fact a 1982 article in Nature they reference is titled “Piltdown Jaw Confirmed as Orang” but since the ape teeth were deliberately modified by the hoaxer, it’s good to get additional confirmation of the species identification
  • This is kind of nifty:

    In combination, the geometric morphometric analyses link the Piltdown I mandible and Piltdown II molar; traditional morphometrics link the mandible with the canine, and ancient DNA analysis links the canine and Piltdown II molar. Therefore, given the nature of the context, we consider it highly likely that the Piltdown hoaxer(s) used a single orang-utan specimen originating from southwest Sarawak to construct parts of both Piltdown I and II (p. 7)

  • Radiocarbon dating attempts were a complete failure (contamination and other issues – probably not a big surprise).
  • Microscopy and μCT scans provide some new details on modifications that were made to the bones.
  • All this new research doesn’t really change anything about what was already known about the Piltdown hoax. The authors accuse Charles Dawson of being the sole perpetrator, but, as they acknowledge, Dawson has been “the prime suspect since the fraud was exposed in 1953.” (p. 12) Despite headlines like Human Ancestor Hoax At Piltdown Finally Solved and Study reveals culprit behind Piltdown Man, their new analysis doesn’t provide any evidence that incriminates Dawson any more or less.



DeGroote, I., et al.

2016  New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created ‘Piltdownman’. R.Soc. Opensci.3:160328.

Delmarva Fox Squirrel No Longer Endangered

Delmarva Fox Squirrel at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain.

One of the original endangered species is about to be delisted. The Delmarva fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) will be removed from the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after populations have rebounded to an estimated 20,000 individuals throughout most of the Delmarva Peninsula (eastern Maryland, southern Delaware, and a tiny piece of Virginia). When it was listed as endangered in 1967, the DFS’s range had been reduced to a small portion of Maryland. The DFS is about twice as big as the more common and widespread gray squirrel (S. carolinensis) and has been described as more laid back – they prefer to quietly roam around forest floors rather than race through trees.

 Overhunting and habitat destruction accounted for their endangerment, and they have not been able to adapt to the modern suburban and urban environment as well as the gray squirrel. Stable populations of other subspecies of fox squirrel exist in many states in the eastern half of the United States, but fox squirrels are not found in New Jersey (where they were probably extirpated by the early 1900s) and New England.

Delmarva Fox Squirrel being tagged. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain.

 More on Fox Squirrels:

3D Fox squirrel skull (not Delmarva)

Citizen Science: Gray Squirrels versus Fox Squirrels in Chicago

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Information



Peptide Mass Fingerprinting for Mammal Identification

The Peabody Museum of Harvard University  announced a test of a recently developed technique that can identify the animals to family or species from  extremely small amounts of animal tissue (bone, skin, and other material containing collagen).

Peptide Mass Fingerprinting correctly identified 89 percent of the samples to at least the family level. For more information, see the Peabody Museum announcement.