GRE Reading Comprehension

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The tale of Piltdown Man, the most infamous forgery in the contentious detective story of the origins of mankind, began in 1912. On December 18 that year Charles Dawson, a well-known amateur British archaeologist, and Arthur Smith Woodward, of the British Museum of Natural History, announced the discovery of some amazing human fossils. The remains comprised nine pieces of skull, a broken jaw with two teeth in place, a few stone tools, and some animal bones, all of which had been discovered on a farm near Piltdown Common in Sussex.

When pieced together the skull looked distinctly human. Although Piltdown Man, as the hominid became known, had unusually thick bones, the brain case was large and rounded. There was no sign of prominent brow ridges or other apelike features. However, the shape of the jaw bone resembled that of an ape. The only human characteristic of this jaw was the wear on the two molars, which were ground down flat, as is frequently true of hominids who eat tough or abrasive foods, such as seeds. In other words the creature had the jaw of an ape and the skull of Homo sapiens. The primitive stone tools found with these remains suggested a remote age for Piltdown Man, perhaps the Early Pleistocene or even the Late Pliocene. (In 1912 experts thought the Pliocene lasted from 1 million to 600 000 years ago. Scientists now date it to between 5 million and 1.7 million years ago.) This date was also supported by some animal bones found with Piltdown Man. To most scientists of the time, Piltdown Man fulfilled a prediction made by the pioneering evolutionist Charles Darwin, who had believed that humans and the apes could be connected genetically through a still undiscovered creature. Most significantly, it was half-human in precisely the feature that was then accepted as the most important difference between humans and the apes - the brain. At this time there was little fossil evidence to contradict the idea that the brain was among the first of the human features to evolve. As time went on, however, Homo erectus fossils were found in Java and China, while in South Africa the australopithecines were being discovered. All these fossils had human-like jaws and teeth and relatively small brains in contrast to Piltdown Man's large cranium and apelike jaw. The large brain simply did not fit with the rest of the fossil evidence. By 1948 scientists knew that bones buried in the earth gradually absorb fluorine. The older a bone, the more fluorine it contains. When the Piltdown materials were tested for fluorine, the skull and jaw fragments turned out to be much younger than the Early Pleistocene animal bones with which the skull had been found.

Scientists were now very suspicious. In 1953 all the Piltdown material was tested for its authenticity. Not only was the recent age of the jaw and skull confirmed, but the jaw proved to be that of a modern orangutan, with the teeth filed down in a quite obvious manner to imitate wear on human teeth. But the forger had not stopped there. A bone tool found with the remains had been made in recent times with a steel knife, which leaves different marks than does a stone flake or axe. The tools, as well as the animal bones, had been taken from different archaeological sites.

Once the forgery was exposed by modem scientific analysis the mystery was no longer where Piltdown Man came in human evolution but who was responsible for the hoax, and why? Although Dawson, the discoverer of most of the Piltdown material, is frequently singled out as the person responsible for this practical joke, there is no definite proof and the question is far from settled.

Question List: 1 2 3 4

The Piltdown skull seemed distinctly human because it had (Select ALL answer choices that apply)

  • A a large brain
  • B thick bones
  • C brow ridges

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