The man behind the missing link
First Published in the Sunday Times on April 9, 2006
Chris Barron relates the story of Raymond Dart's discovery of the Taung child
One day in 1924 at a lime quarry in Taungs (subsequently called Taung) in the Northern Cape some chunks of fossil-bearing rock which had been blasted from a cave wall during excavations were packed into a couple of crates, railed up to Johannesburg and delivered to the home of a young Wits University academic with an Australian accent by the name of Raymond Dart.
Dart was being chivvied by his wife to get dressed for the wedding of a friend which was shortly to be held at their house. He was to be the best man, but was far from ready when he saw post office officials staggering up his driveway with what were clearly not wedding presents.
Dart had been anticipating this delivery and rushed downstairs in a state of semi-undress. He wrenched open the first crate but saw nothing to whet his appetite. He ripped open the second half expecting to be equally disappointed with its contents. Instead, his expert eye caught something that instantly banished all thought of the looming nuptials. Embedded in one of the lumps of rock-hard lime and grit was the faint outline of a skull. Dart grabbed a knitting needle and began to scrape around it, oblivious to the agitated pleas of his wife.
Dart grabbed a knitting needle and began to scrape around it, oblivious to the agitated pleas of his wife.
Only when the groom threatened to find another best man and the bride was practically at the door could he be persuaded to put his piece of rock down and wonder where he had put the ring.
For six weeks, using his wife's sharpened knitting needle and a hammer and chisel he'd bought from the local hardware store, Dart chipped away solid breccia from the fossil skull it had enclosed for who knew how many hundreds of thousands of years until he'd exposed the almost perfect little face of a child with a full set of milk teeth and its first molars just coming out. He put its age at five or six years.
The size of the teeth, the absence of a marked eyebrow ridge, the shape of the forehead and jaw, and the brain size suggested by the brain cast convinced him that this was closer to being a human than an ape.
An examination of drawings of an infant gorilla and infant chimpanzee in a copy of Duckworth's Morphology and Anthropology which he'd brought from England (luckily, because there was no library at Wits and the mail was even slower than it is today) confirmed that the skull belonged to neither.
Here was a creature which was daring to vie with Man.
"Here", he wrote, with an excitement one can still feel when reading the words, "was a creature which was daring to vie with Man". Its features were "startlingly similar".
At that moment Dart knew that in his hands he held the first unequivocal, "living" proof that humans had indeed evolved from apes, and also that Darwin's much derided theory that man's early progenitors came from Africa was right after all.
The theory had taken a hammering with the discovery of Neanderthal Man, Java Man, Peking Man and, more recently, Piltdown Man (years later to be revealed as fraudulent) cited as evidence for Europe or Asia, not Africa, being the cradle of mankind.
Dart saw that the crucial difference between them and his Taung child was that they were humans with ape-like features. In other words, they were not our progenitors - they were already us.
The Taung child had human features but was not yet quite human. Nor was it an ape. It spanned the gap between them. It was the missing link that scientists had been looking for since Darwin posited his theory of evolution 75 years before.
Dart knew that if he was right about the Taung skull then he had made one of the most momentous discoveries of all time.
And as he saw it his conclusions were "irrefutable".
"I was aware of a sense of history for by the sheerest good luck I had been given the opportunity to provide what would probably be the ultimate answer in the comparatively modern study of the evolution of man," he wrote.
It was a firmly entrenched practice in those days to keep potentially important discoveries of this nature under wraps for anything from five to 40 years before publicly announcing and "describing" them.
This was partly, of course, to minimise the risk of public humiliation. Get something like this wrong and you were dead professionally.
Dart had no such reservations, and fired off a report to the British science journal Nature, announcing that he had found the missing link. Or, as he actually put it, "the skull of an extinct race of apes intermediate between living anthropoids and man".
He called it Australopithecus, southern ape-man.
Nature promised to publish his report on February 3, 1925. But when the editor contacted leading anthropologists in England to say that he'd received an article about "a new missing link", their sceptical response persuaded him to stay his hand.
Here was a man who had made one of the greatest discoveries in the world's history, and he was being treated like a naughty schoolboy.
And so the glory of breaking the greatest scientific story of the century went to the Johannesburg Star, which had given Dart an undertaking to withhold publication until the evening of February 3 so that it would appear in the prestigious scientific journal first.
The story was picked up by the international press leaving Nature with no choice but to publish four days later.
Jan Smuts, who was president of the SA Association for the Advancement of Science, immediately sent Dart his "warm congratulations" on "what may well prove an epoch-making discovery".
But from leading scientists in Europe and America came a hostile chorus of angry and bitter rejection, which didn't let up for 25 years.
The so-called Taung child was "an unmistakable ape", "the distorted skull of a chimpanzee", a fossil that had "little bearing on the question" of man's origins, and so on.
The English scientists even criticised Dart's Latin while they were about it.
One leading light at the British Museum wrote sniffily in Nature that, "if you want to join in a game, you must learn the rules", adding that "Professor Dart does not yet realize the many-sidedness of his offences".
"Here was a man who had made one of the greatest discoveries in the world's history", wrote his staunchest supporter, Scottish-born South African-based palaeontologist Robert Broom, and he was being treated "like a naughty schoolboy".
Dart's real offence, Broom suggested, was that he did not immediately send his find to the British Museum "where it would be examined by an 'expert', and probably described 10 years later".
The Taung child became the subject of British music hall jokes. "Who was that girl I saw you with last night? Is she from Taungs?" invariably brought the house down.
Flappers did the Charleston to ditties about "the young horror from Taungs".
The Spectator magazine launched a competition to see who could write the best epitaph for Australopithecus.
Larger-than-life, unpredictable, inspirational and eccentric, Dart's 'histrionics were extraordinary and memorable'.
Letters poured in to newspapers and to Dart's office from self-professed Christians around the world expressing the hope that Dart would "roast in the general fires of Hell" or be "unblessed with a family which looks like this hideous monster with the hideous name".
He was "a traitor to your Creator" and an "active agent of Satan".
Consolation of a kind came from the Prince of Wales who, while touring South Africa in 1925, asked to see "Professor Dart's baby".
Dart was taken to his apartment at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg where, he wrote, the prince ran his fingers over the skull with "unfeigned interest".
Dart said that he was "disappointed" although "not entirely surprised" by the reaction of his peers. But Phillip Tobias, a former student and colleague, says that Dart was so depressed that he withdrew from active anthropology for 20 years.
Dart's name is now so much part of South African history that it is easy, and no doubt comforting, to forget that he was actually an Australian.
He studied medicine at Sydney University before going to University College London where he worked with some of the greatest names in anthropology.
South Africa was hardly on the map academically, and Wits University, which had just been founded, was virtually unheard of.
Not surprisingly, Dart was most reluctant to take his professor's advice and accept the chair of anatomy at Wits in 1923, at the age of just 30. He occupied it until 1958.
In his recent autobiography Tobias, who succeeded him as head of anatomy, describes Dart as larger-than-life, unpredictable, inspirational and eccentric.
He was a born actor with huge charisma, says Tobias. "His histrionics were extraordinary and memorable".
Not for nothing was he known as the "terror of the dissection hall".
Doyen of British anthropologists Sir Arthur Keith, wrote about Dart's "flightiness, his scorn for accepted opinion, [and] the unorthodoxy of his outlook".
If any lesser person had discovered the Taung skull, one suspects, it might still be in a closet somewhere and we might still be wondering about Darwin.
The rest of the scientific world began catching up with Dart in the 1950s, and by 1984 the American journal Science felt confident enough to acknowledge his find as one of 20 scientific discoveries that had shaped the life of human beings in the 20th century.
Dart died four years later at the age of 95.