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“People love conspiracy theories,” he said. “And this is one of the biggest scientific hoaxes of all time.”

Whoever was behind it, the hoax delayed consensus on human origins, leading some scientists to question the authenticity of later finds because they did not fit with Piltdown Man.

Stringer said Piltdown Man stands as a warning to scientists always to be on their guard _ especially when evidence seems to back up their theories.

“There was a huge gap in evidence and Piltdown at the time neatly filled that gap,” he said. “It was what people expected to be found. In a sense you could say it was manufactured to fit the scientific agenda.

“That lesson of Piltdown is always worth learning _ when something seems too good to be true, maybe it is.”

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Online:

Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature

Piltdown Man at the Natural History Museum: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/piltdown

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Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless