Piltdown fly

Once a forgery had been exposed the work involved in creating it often seems rather amateurish. The jaw of Pildown Man was stained with chromate to fabricate an appearance of age, and its teeth were visibly filed flat. That being the case one might reasonably ask why the scientific world was misled for so long. Well firstly, and most importantly, the skull fulfilled predictions of what late Victorian palaeontologists expected to see. They had assumed that brain enlargement was the first feature that distinguished us from ape-like ancestors, whereas it is now considered that the upright posture is the main discriminatory hominid characteristic. Secondly, Piltdown Man provided a very useful career step for several of those Victorian palaeontologists. Finally it was British and hadn’t been found outside the empire in far-flung corners of the world like Java or Peking. Today the presumption is that the finder, ‘the Sussex Wizard’ Charles Dawson, faked Piltdown along with a collection of other bizarre finds from neighbouring seaside resorts. His motivation was perhaps to be knighted and elected FRS; if so the most famous scientific fake of all time failed to achieve either aim.

That, then, is Piltdown man. Now is the time to introduce you to the lesser known ‘Piltdown fly’ A fossil fly, that had been considered one of the Natural History Museum’s greatest entomological treasures, also finally turned out to be a Victorian fake. In a piece of detection worthy of the master of Baker Street an Andrew Ross, student of ancient insects, uncovered an entomological crime fully on a par with Dawson’s hoax, but perpetrated at least sixty years earlier. Amber is the resin of an unknown tree which goes through a form of fossilization. I say ‘form’ since, strictly speaking, the true fossilization process involves the replacement of organic remains by a mineral, and often the incorporation of the remains in sedimentary rock. The chemical processes which result in the formation of amber are more complex and seem to involve the constituent organic molecules linking up to form long chains or polymers. Most European amber is found round the Baltic sea coast and while in its ‘sticky’ stage, as those who have seen Jurassic Park know well, it trapped many samples of the contemporary flora and fauna. Unfortunately such imprisoned specimens, while making the amber more scientifically interesting, also make it also commercially more valuable.

The ‘Piltdown fly’ consisted of a unique, and almost perfect, specimen of the latrine fly, Fannia scalaris, preserved in an amber block and was placed among the other 2500 amber specimens in the Natural History Museum’s collection; the forgery had laid undetected for more than 140 years. The specimen was thought to have originated around the Baltic region some 38 million years ago Over time the fly had acquired considerable scientific fame, not only as the oldest known representative of the house-fly family, the Muscidae, but as an important example of a species that had ostensibly survived, unchanged by evolution, for many millions of years. In 1993 Andrew Ross was examining the fossil fly using a binocular microscope and an Anglepoise lamp. The heat from the lamp warmed the specimen, causing a crack to appear around the fly. Closer examination revealed that the amber had been cut in half, and hollowed out on one side. A fly had been inserted, covered in some contemporary resin, and then the amber had been glued back together again. The motivation for this fraud remains unclear.

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2 thoughts on “Piltdown fly

  1. Very interesting piece. Is this fraud generally known as “Piltdown Fly” or is this your attribution? Would it be possible to have a picture of said fly alongside the text?

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