The Taung Child—one of the most iconic fossils in paleoanthropology’s history—was initially rejected by the scientific community. Despite claims from the little skull’s discoverer that it was an important “missing link,” the fossil was dismissed. Excluded from the human evolutionary story. The 1925 headlines that it was the “missing link” soon faded, and it would take decades for this brutal dismissal to give way to modern recognition that the Taung Child holds an important place in the evolution of hominins.
Why? Why was the fossil pushed aside, ignored—often in favor of other fossils that have since faded from fame or been exposed as fraudulent? To some, it’s a well-known story. Historians and paleoanthropologists have pointed to a number of factors contributing to the Taung Child’s dismissal, from the European community’s strong disdain for Africa as the potential cradle of humankind, to the strong personalities of the specialists whose ideas were challenged by the discovery. As is always the case with scientific judgments and debates, many factors contributed.
But the story is also multifaceted, more so than this summary suggests. I recently explored a new aspect of the Taung Child’s tale in a research article, after becoming convinced that the whole story hadn’t yet been told. Upon examining a host of archives from South Africa to England, I became convinced that there are aspects of the Taung Child’s story that, though they haven’t received much attention, were central in shaping the fossil’s reception. Indeed, I think there are even lessons in this narrative that can help us think about the science of paleoanthropology today.
My version of the Taung Child’s story is one takes the place where science is done seriously. In this case, that place is South Africa—ranging the remote district of Taungs, deep in the veld, where the fossil was discovered, to the University in Johannesburg where it was analyzed. Thinking about these places leads to interesting questions about access, resources, and practical challenges in the science of paleoanthropology.
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When the Taung Child fossil was announced to the world, its discoverer, Raymond Dart, declared it a relic of an extinct “race of apes intermediate between living anthropoids and man.” It was an important link, he argued, that connected humans back to their primitive primate past; a link that could shed light on the question of how humans evolved to become so uniquely human. But in order to convince the scientific community of a hypothesis this bold, Dart had to prove it. To do that, Dart had to compare the little skull to the skulls of many other primates—and humans—in order to show that it differed from each in significant ways.
At the time, direct comparisons had often been made in metropolitan centers that had accumulated vast collections of specimens, allowing for a boat-load (scientific term) of detailed comparisons to be made. This was a crucial part of the science. Every angle of the brow ridge, the shape of the forehead, and the alignment of the teeth could be measured, contrasted, and juxtaposed against a range of apes and humans from all corners of the globe.
Such comparisons had historically been made in places Dart was quite familiar with—institutions like the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. Indeed, the fossils themselves often traveled to these places, making the journey to the metropolitan center (usually from a colonial outpost) where they would be held indefinitely, kept safe alongside the other skulls and curiosities that had been shipped in from faraway lands.
But at the time, in 1925, Dart was in no such metropolitan center, and he had no such collections. The young anatomist was just trying to get the medical school in South Africa off the ground. He often complained that his institution, the University of Witwatersrand, was woefully underfunded, understaffed, and underequipped. There were no vast assemblages of the skulls of chimpanzees, gorillas, and other primates from all over the world. Indeed, this general region of Africa had been described “bleak and bare.”
Without access to specimens that could allow for such direct comparisons, Dart hoped to convince the scientific community anyway—by describing the anatomical detail of the fossil and constructing a convincing argument. But it was not enough.
The lack of direct comparative material clearly bothered much of the scientific community; it was the first complaint of many scientists in their reviews of the discovery. Two of the loudest voices in the dismissal of the fossil, Arthur Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith, for example, were not shy about Dart’s lack of access to comparative material. In one review, Keith admitted—almost guiltily—that “those who have charge of much larger collections…have a somewhat unfair advantage” over Dart. They were able to see, he suggested, that the fossil was not as special as he claimed.
The comparison problem was magnified by the fact that Dart’s specimen was a juvenile—likely less than six years old. This meant that Dart should have been comparing the fossil to a range of primates that varied not only in morphology—but also in age. The scientific community was especially concerned about age, given that young primates often display very human-like features. Elliot Smith pointed this out at one point, declaring that Dart was insisting “unduly” upon certain traits as evidence for humanness that are “merely signs of simian youthfulness.” Dart would have realized this, Elliot Smith explained, if he “had access to collections such as are available in London.”
Keith and Elliot Smith often used phrases like “unfortunate.” It was “unfortunate” that Dart had no access to apes of corresponding age, Elliot Smith said, for had such material been available Dart would have realized that the characters “upon which he relied for proof of his contention that Australopithecus was nearly akin to man, were essentially identical with the conditions met in the infant gorilla and chimpanzee”
How ironic is it that the exact conditions that allowed for a discovery such as this were also the same conditions that prevented the discoverer from “properly” understanding it (according to those in the metropolitan center)? Here Dart was, in the place he believed was the “cradle of mankind,” but because it was located so far from metropolitan, scientific centers, any findings from there could not be confirmed.
There were solutions of course: Dart could have just sent the skull off to London, as had been done with the Rhodesian Man years earlier—or he could have brought it up there himself, for a comparative visit. But none of this was ideal and Dart did not make the journey for a number of years. The journey was long, the medical school in need of constant attention, and perhaps—Dart was stubborn. And Dart wasn’t alone. One of his few scientific allies, a paleontologist also working in South Africa named Robert Broom, advised him, “don’t let the skull out of your hands.”
In the years after the Taung Child’s discovery (1925-1929), Dart got to work writing his “magnum opus” on the fossil. The result was a 200+ paper that was to be published by London’s Royal Society, finally. The paper, however, was promptly rejected. In an explanation of the rejection, Elliot Smith told Dart “the critics repeatedly referred to the fact, which of course you are only too aware of yourself: that the anthropoid material at your disposal was too small to justify adequate comparison.”
After this rejection, Dart pushed his work on the Taung Child off to the side. The magnum opus was filed away, covered in handwritten corrections and suggestions by Elliot Smith—suggestions that make the worst editing from an overzealous advisor look like nothing.
Eventually, the tables would turn for the Taung Child. New discoveries and theories resulted in Australopithecines began to be taken seriously as hominins. In 1947, Keith even issued a retraction in Nature, admitting that “I am now convinced…Prof. Dart was right and I was wrong.”
Decades later, given this turn of events, paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias asked his advisor if he would be willing to finally publish the Taung Child manuscript, the “magnum opus” he had worked so hard on in the 1920s. Dart’s response struck me. “The world cannot conceive nor can we reconstruct verbally,” Dart told his student, “the conditions under which we lived, trained doctors and simultaneously conducted physical anthropological research in Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand of the 1925–1929 period.” Dart went on to talk about the lack of resources, the difficulty of traveling at the time, and more. Even though he had “won,” his long-held perspective vindicated, he was still haunted by the lack of resources available in his location.
So often, the Taung Child’s story has been told by painting the British scientists—Keith and Elliot Smith—as overly competitive, cliquish, driven by ego, and prone to “paleopolitics.” They were used to getting the fossils to themselves in London, the narrative goes, and they rejected the Taung Child because it didn’t fit their ideas about human evolution or their egos. But by blaming their personalities and competitive nature, we risk overlooking the importance ascribed to large collections, as well as the causes and consequences of knowledge being centered in these metropolitan areas.
Instead of giant egos and paleopolitics, when I look at the letters and notebooks of the scientists involved in the debate, I see very real concerns about providing proper evidence for scientific claims. It is just unfortunate that the way that one was supposed to provide that evidence was somewhat geographically biased and unfair.
There is always a danger in putting too much emphasis on the personalities of the researchers alone, it seems to me. Not because they didn’t have big personalities—they absolutely did. But because it obscures some of the larger issues that were going on beneath them.
There are other dangers in the telling—and retelling—of the Taung Child’s story as well. The Taung Child is such an important fossil today that it is almost too easy to ask, “why did it so long for it to be accepted?” From a historical perspective, this, of course, an incredibly bias-laden question—one that breaks the cardinal rule of not judging the past in terms of the present.
By asking why wasn’t the fossil accepted, we are taking for granted that there is a “right” answer in the Taung story (and that the right answer is that it is a hominin)–when indeed it is more helpful to think of scientific knowledge as provisional. We then go about on a witch hunt for those who “obstructed” the acceptance of the true nature of the fossil.
Although scientists now accept that Australopithecines were an important part of the hominin story, I would argue that some of Dart’s decisions about fossil comparisons made it so that that conclusion was not obvious in the 1920s. This is important for us to keep in mind when we think back to the 1920s. Just imagine that if today, in 2019, we agreed with Keith and Elliot Smith’s cautious response to the fossil. Then the paleoanthropological “winners” and “losers” in the Taung story would look quite different.
The statements I make in this post will very likely read as blatantly obvious to paleoanthropologists and paleontologists today. Of course comparative samples matter. Nonetheless, it is important for the rest of us to think about the Taung Child’s story it in these terms—and to prod at the factors that allowed those comparative samples to exist. Underneath comparative samples and metropolitan centers are deep cultural and political histories that shaped the reception of the bones.
Viewing the Taung Child’s story from one of access to collections is interesting to consider as the world changes. Today, Dart’s University of Witwatersrand does have a beautiful hominin vault—a large room that is climate controlled and filled to the ceiling with comparative material. At the center of this magnificent space sits the Taung Child in a glass case.
But change has unfolded unevenly—and resources are still asymmetrically distributed around the world. Much effort has gone into constructing “centers” near fossil sites, as has online efforts that make comparisons more feasible. But place, access, and resources continue to be an important part of the paleoanthropological story.
Thanks for reading and drop me a line in the comments if you have any thoughts! You can read my full article online here—and if you’d like a copy of the pdf, drop me a note and I’ll email it to you.
P.S. / Bonus
While doing research in the archives at the University of Witwatersrand, I stumbled across an article that had been clipped from a newspaper, pasted onto a thick piece of construction paper, and filed into a binder. The opening paragraph of the article struck me—and it stuck with me throughout the process of writing about the Taung Child. It formed the background of my article and I thought I’d share it with you here:
The district of Taungs, British Bechuanaland, close to the Transvaal border, and on the edge of the Great Kalahari Desert, is not an inviting county-side. As far as the eye can reach there is nothing but bare brown “veld,” sparsely vegetated by patches of withered grass or stunted thorn bushes, that seem to survive by some miracle in the arid soil, and under the scorching glare of the African sun. Geologists call this the Kapp Plateau. Bare veld, lime quarries, a few corrugated iron sheds, all things bleak and bare beneath a brazen sky; less romantic surroundings can scarcely be conceived. Yet such is the setting for one of the most dramatic discoveries in the history of mankind. –Oscar Lazar