Ancient Man Taung Baby Australopithecus Africanus Part 1

About the discovery of the Taung baby an example of the species australopithecus africanus, history and description of the infant skeleton.


TAUNG BABY (Australopithecus africanus)

In Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1924, Raymond A. Dart was on his way to a wedding when two crates of fossil bones arrived from a limestone-quarrying operation in a cave in Taung, South Africa, on the barren edge of the Kalahari Desert. A professor of anatomy, Dart was also an enthusiastic paleontologist, so he took the time to open the crates. One of the fossils, he saw, could be a human skull, but it was encrusted heavily. During the following months, he chipped away at it, using a knitting needle as a tool. He later said, "No diamond cutter ever worked more lovingly or with such care on a priceless jewel--nor, I am sure, with such inadequate tools. But on the seventy-third day, Dec. 23, the rock parted. I could view the face from the front, though 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 teeth and its permanent molars just in the process of erupting. I doubt if there was any parent prouder of his offspring than I was of my Taung baby on that Christmas."

Six weeks after he had received the skull, he published preliminary conclusions, saying it was a creature "intermediate between anthropoids and man." He called it Australopithecus africanus ("South African ape-man"). Other scientists, miffed because he had not consulted them and aware that a child's skull merely hints at what an adult would be like, criticized him; they said he was exaggerating the manlike characteristics of what was obviously an ape, identified the "Taung Baby" as a primitive chimp, and ridiculed its finder by calling it "Dart's Baby."

However, the Scottish doctor and paleontologist Robert Broom, who, at the age of 68, had taken the job of curator of vertebrate paleontology and physical anthropology at Pretoria's Transvaal Museum, thought Dart was right. But to prove him right, more specimens were needed. Touring local quarries in his old-fashioned business suit and his wing-collared shirt, Broom began to dig in likely gravel, somehow managing to remain immaculate in the process. And he found evidence: new ape-men, one of them on a clue from a schoolboy. Though he gave his specimens many classifications, they fall, according to modern experts, into two categories: Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus.

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