No ordinary anthropoidal brain
Raymond Dart used one of his wife's knitting needles to prove that humans originated in Africa.
The Australian-born South African physical anthropologist and paleontologist tells the story of the momentous discovery in his autobiography, 'Adventures with the Missing Link'. It was a summer's afternoon in Johannesburg in 1924 and Dart's friend and Wits university colleague Christo Beyers was getting married in Dart's home.
Dart's wife had ensured what Dart referred to as his "London-cut morning clothes" were taken out of brown paper and mothballs and "that in general my normally casual appearance would be smartened up so as not to disgrace my role as best man".
Dart had been waiting to take delivery of boxes of stone blocks containing bone fragments found near an old mine at Taung, south of Vryburg in what is now North West province.
Standing at the window of his dressing room "cursing softly while struggling into an unaccustomed stiff-winged collar", Dart noticed two men in SA Railways uniforms staggering along the driveway of his Melrose home with two large wooden boxes.
Ignoring his wife Dora's pleas to focus on the imminent wedding ceremony, Dart writes that "as soon as my wife had left to complete her dressing I tore the hated collar off and dashed out to take delivery of the boxes which meanwhile obstructed the entrance to the stoep...
"I wrenched the lid off the first box and my reaction was one of extreme disappointment... Impatiently I wrestled with the lid of the second box, still hopeful but half-expecting it to be a replica of its mate. At most I anticipated baboon skulls, little guessing that from this crate was to emerge a face that would look out on the world after an age-long sleep of nearly a million years.
As soon as I removed the lid a thrill of excitement shot through me
"As soon as I removed the lid a thrill of excitement shot through me. On the very top of the rock heap was what was undoubtedly an endocranial cast or mould of the interior of the skull.
"Had it been only the fossilised brain cast of any species of ape it would have been ranked as a great discovery, for such a thing had never before been reported. But I knew at a glance that what lay in my hands was no ordinary anthropoidal brain. Here in lime-consolidated sand was the replica of a brain three times as large as that of a baboon and considerably bigger than that of any adult chimpanzee. The startling image of the convolutions and furrows of the brain and the blood vessels of the skull was plainly visible.
"It was not big enough for primitive man, but even for an ape it was a big bulging brain and, most important, the forebrain was so big and had grown so far backward that it completely covered the hindbrain.
"Was there, anywhere among this pile of rocks, a face to fit the brain? I ransacked feverishly through the boxes. My search was rewarded, for I found a large stone with a depression into which the cast fitted perfectly. There was faintly visible in the stone the outline of a broken part of the skull and even the back of the lower jaw and a tooth socket which showed that the face might still be somewhere there in the block.
I stood in the shade holding the brain as greedily as any miser hugs his gold, my mind racing ahead
"... I stood in the shade holding the brain as greedily as any miser hugs his gold, my mind racing ahead. Here, I was certain, was one of the most significant finds ever made in the history of anthropology...
"These pleasant daydreams were interrupted by the bridegroom himself tugging at my sleeve. 'My God, Ray,' he said, striving to keep the nervous urgency out of his voice. 'You've got to finish dressing immediately - or I'll have to find another best man. The bridal car should be here any moment.' Reluctantly, I replaced the rocks in the boxes, but I carried the endocranial cast and the stone from which it had come along with me and locked them away in my wardrobe."
For the next 73 days, Dart scraped away at the matrix in search of the hoped-for face. Finding his hammer and chisel too clumsy, Dart found his "most useful ally" to be one of his wife's knitting needles, which Dart sharpened into a pyramid-like point.
On the seventy-third day, December 23, the rock parted.
"I could view the face from the front, although the right side was still embedded. The creature, which had contained this massive brain was no giant anthropoid such as a gorilla. What emerged was a baby's face, an infant with a full set of milk (or deciduous) teeth, and its first permanent molars just in the process of erupting.
"I doubt if there was any parent prouder of his offspring than I was of my 'Taungs [sic] baby' on that Christmas of 1924."
Researched by Gillian Anstey with acknowledgement and thanks to:
Adventures with the Missing Link by Raymond Dart and Dennis Craig (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959)