The child from Taung
|From the left, Professor Phillip Tobias with three former deans of the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School: Professors Francois Daubenton, Eustace Cluver and Raymond Dart. Tobias was dean of medicine from 1980-82. The photograph was taken in January1980.
|Picture: © Sunday Times
Only Raymond Dart could show Africa had brought forth the first human species, writes Phillip Tobias in the fifth anniversary edition of the journal, Science.
Blasted out of the hot, dusty Buxton Limeworks near Taung in the northern Cape Province, the skull was the first of Africa's fossil testimonies to the dawn of humankind. The discovery of this ancient African child in November 1924 and all that flowed from it dramatically transformed our conception of human origins. Yet at the time, the dice were heavily loaded against its acceptance.
To begin with, it was in the wrong part of the world. After the primitive-looking Java Man was brought to light by Dutch army surgeon Eugene Dubois in 1890-92, leading investigators like Henry Fairfield Osborn and Davidson Black considered Asia the probably cradle of humanity. Their view was reinforced by some apparently human-like teeth found in China early in the 20th century, presaging the 1927 discovery of Peking Man. Fir the ideas of the time, the Taung child was geographically inconvenient.
In addition, the structure of the Taung fossil didn't fit the prevailing concepts. The expansion of the brain, so staggering a feature of modern man, was thought by many to have occurred at a verly early stage in the advent of humanity, perhaps when jaws, teeth, and posture were still quite apelike. The Piltdown forgery seems to have been an attempt to transform this conception into hard, bony "fact," for that infamous hoax of 1912 was based on a large-brained human cranium and an ape's lower jaw and teeth. The Taung skull turned this notion upside down, for it represented instead a creature whose teeth and posture were humanlike, while the natural braincast betrayed a brain no bigger than that of some modern apes.
That the skull was a child in the first place made its candidacy for membership of the human family suspicious, since the younger the specimen the more alike different primates appear. The skull's childhood status was inferred from the presence of all 20 deciduous, or mil, teeth. The first permanent molars had erupted, indicating an "ape-man" roughly equivalent in age to the modern child of around six years. This left two important questions unanswered: How much of the humanoid aspect of the child was simply the consequence of immaturity? And what kind of adult would the Taung child have become?
It might have seemed to some at the time that the Taung child fell into the wrong hands. In November 1924, Robert B. Young, Chairman of Geology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, brought it back from Taung and gave it Raymond A. Dart, who only the previous year had taken up the Chair of Anatomy at Witwatersrand's fledgling Medical School. Dart was just 31, rather inexperienced, inclined to scientific heresies, ebullient, emotional, imaginative, charismatic, a product of Sydney University medical school and the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps in those troubled wartime years of the previous decade - an unlikely combination, some would have said, to receive, disentomb from its rock matrix, describe and evaluate the world's first missing link between ape and human.
Yet with singular skill, Dart delivered the fossil from its rock bedding within a matter of weeks. With imagination and insight he discerned those of its distinctive traits, despite its childhood status, that are now known to characterize the early hominids. With incisive neuroanatomical and evolutionary acumen, and not a little courage, he drew attention to the features of the brain that he believed pointed to cerebral advancement in a human direction, despite the overall brain size. On the base of the cranium, he detected subtle pointers as to the carriage of the head, which was poised, he asserted almost brashly, on a more or less upright spinal column. The ape's head, in contrast, hangs forward from an obliquely poised backbone. He went further. If the spine was approximately upright and the creature went on two legs instead of four, claimed Dart, the hands must have been freed for humanlike sensory probings and motor skills. And he noted the small canine teeth, which he likened to those of humans rather than to the larger, fanglike canines of modern apes.
In other words, Dart had the perceptiveness, almost the prescience, to recognize that this creature had a bearing on hominid evolution that, in the process of "hominization," upright posture, bipedal gait, canine reduction, and qualitative changes in the brain must have preceded brain enlargement. All this he had the temerity to read into the skull, teeth, and brain-cast of the little child of Taung. And Dart had the historical sense to remind the world of the half-forgotten prediction, made by Charles Darwin in 1871, that "it is somewhat more probably that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere".
It was a breakthrough in the history of man's probings for his ancestral roots. Small wonder that many people treated Dart's claims with skepticism, even scorn. "Too much," cried the crowned heads of anthropological science, "too much is being read into too little." This opposition, and the intervention of World War II, delayed the acceptance of Dart's claims for over a quarter of a century.
In one respect, Dart's initial affirmation was modest. He was emphatic that Australopithecus africanus (the "southern ape of Africa"), as he named the species, fell outside the range of the Pongidae, or family of apes. Yet he could not bring himself boldly to enroll it as a member of the Hominidae (the human family). Instead, he invented an intermediate family for the creature that he believed had hovered in a twilight world between apedom and humanity. Much, much later, the unearthing of and careful study of many more African ape-man fossils, the lapsing of the old Asia-centered and brain-size-centered concepts, and the exposure of the Piltdown remains as fraudulent and irrelevant to the understanding of hominid emergence permitted Australopithecus to be classified as an unequivocal member of the august club of hominids. Dart and Taung had taught the world that small brain size alone is not sufficient to exclude a creature, replete with other hominid traits, from the evolutionary company of humans. Moreover, he stressed, there is no "cerebral Rubicon," no particular brain size that demarcates hominids from pongids.
Initially, the Taung discovery led to a ferment of argument and controversy. It was compounded in 1936 when Robert Broom sought and found the first Australopithecus adults at Sterkfontein in the southern Transvaal. He found also the first of another group of African ape-men who possessed broader premolars and molars, more rugged bones, and generally sturdier skeletons. Now called Australopithecus robustus, this seemed to be evolutionary side branch that had developed along a different route from the path that led to modern humans. In other words, Broom complicated the picture with evidence that not all earlier hominids were ancestral to later humankind.
The subsequent work in Africa of a remarkable group of investigators, including Louis, Mary and Richard Leakey, John T. Robinson, Donald Johanson, and others, has corroborated most of Dart's original claims, filled out many gaps in the story, furnished a dynamic picture of the hominid evolutionary process, and signaled Africa as the continent that gave the world the first humans and the first human culture. Discoveries have followed from the Transvaal to Ethiopia; dating methods have improved; analyses of australopithecine body structure, function, and way of life have been refined; appraisal of the fauna, flora and climatic conditions contemporary with Australopithecus have given an ecological dimension to our understanding of human evolution.
Hominids, according to abundant evidence, emerged as an upright-walking, small-brained offshoot of the higher primates late in the Tertiary Period, which lasted from about 65 million to just under two million years ago. At that time we see far less difference between human and ape than if we were to judge by today's humans and today's apes. Australopithecus, then, points powerfully to the nonhuman or animal origins of humankind, crystallizing the evolutionary concept as applied to man.
- Tobias, P., "The child from Taung", Science, November 1984, pp99-100
"I stood in the shade holding the brain as greedily as any miser hugs his gold."
Picture: © SA National Library, Cape Town
IN THE CLASSROOM
In this lesson plan, learners will become familiar with the story of Raymond Dart's defiance of accepted "scientific" wisdom. Very few people believed what Dart had to say. For 25 years he was ridiculed by many other scientists. But in the end he was proved right. It turned out that the other scientists had been taken in by a fraud! It's vital to be aware of how prejudice can cause us to make errors even when we think we are being scientific.
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