Not a German Piltdown

It has recently been reported (Telegraph, Guardian) that German scientist Reiner Protsch had committed a number of scientific frauds. Protsch apparently could not even operate his own carbon-dating equipment, and routinely made up dates for bones that had been sent to him for dating, often giving recent specimens dates that were much too old. Many webpages have repeated the following quote about the significance of these frauds:

Chris Stringer, a Stone Age specialist and head of human origins at London’s Natural History Museum, said: “What was considered a major piece of evidence showing that the Neanderthals once lived in northern Europe has fallen by the wayside. We are having to rewrite prehistory.”

Stringer, however, says that he never said that:

This is a made-up quote as I never placed great weight on the significance of the Hahnofersand find in the first place. It was never called a Neanderthal as far as I know, but certain people saw “mixed” features in its morphology. Its removal is certainly not rewriting anything I have ever said about the Neanderthals, let alone rewriting prehistory! (Chris Stringer, personal communication)

That sounds right to me. I have never even heard of any of the fossils that Protsch misdated - they are all obscure and of no importance to the big picture of human evolution. Judging from news reports, it seems as though all of the fossils involved are modern humans, even though many websites refer to Neandertals in their article titles. The earliest article I can find using this quote comes from the Telegraph. Stringer had this to say about that article:

I never saw this published piece so was unaware of the source of the false quote. I remember talking to the reporter concerned, and from what I remember the words in question were what he said to me, with him asking whether I agreed with the statement. I told him that the “fossil” was never regarded as a Neanderthal and was briefly important in the 1980s to people like Gunter Brauer who were arguing for gene flow between Neanderthals and modern humans. However, as anyone who is familiar with the palaeoanthropological literature over the last 20 years would know, the find has been of negligible significance to recent debate. It has to be said that this is also a reflection of Dr Protsch’s low reputation in the field, as anyone familiar with the recent literature would also know. (Chris Stringer, personal communication)

So, it’s all a storm in a teacup. The media exaggerated the significance of these frauds, with phrases like “History of modern man unravels” and “key discoveries” occurring in headlines. The frauds are doubtless a blow for the researchers unlucky enough to have sent samples to Protsch for dating, but do nothing to weaken the evidence for human evolution (despite the occasional creationist claiming otherwise).

See also Pharyngula’s commentary: Anthropological fraud in Germany