Dart Discovers the First Australopithecine Fossil

Raymond Arthur Dart discovered the first australopithecine, or link between ape and man, cast in limestone recovered from a quarry in Taung, South Africa.

Summary of Event

In 1871, Charles Darwin Darwin, Charles suggested in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex
Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, The (Darwin) that it was quite likely that Africa would prove to be the continent where humankind first appeared. Darwin’s suggestion was to become the center of a debate that greatly influenced the field of paleoanthropology. He made his suggestion despite the fact that the only human fossils known at the time had been found in Europe; for example, the first paleontological human remains were those of Neanderthal man, Neanderthals found in Germany in 1856. Indeed, the first hominid remains discovered outside Europe were those from Java Java man found in 1891 by Eugène Dubois, Dubois, Eugène which prompted Western scientists to believe that humans first appeared in Asia, not Africa. Dubois’s find, better known as Java man, has since been reclassified into the genus and species Homo erectus. Homo erectus
[kw]Dart Discovers the First Australopithecine Fossil (Summer, 1924)
[kw]First Australopithecine Fossil, Dart Discovers the (Summer, 1924)
[kw]Australopithecine Fossil, Dart Discovers the First (Summer, 1924)
[kw]Fossil, Dart Discovers the First Australopithecine (Summer, 1924)
Australopithecine fossils
Anthropology;ancient man
Taung child
[g]Africa;Summer, 1924: Dart Discovers the First Australopithecine Fossil[06110]
[g]South Africa;Summer, 1924: Dart Discovers the First Australopithecine Fossil[06110]
[c]Anthropology;Summer, 1924: Dart Discovers the First Australopithecine Fossil[06110]
[c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;Summer, 1924: Dart Discovers the First Australopithecine Fossil[06110]
Dart, Raymond Arthur
Broom, Robert

Raymond Arthur Dart.

In 1907, a fossil known as the Heidelberg man Heidelberg man was discovered in Germany. The next hominid remains believed to be of major significance were those found by Charles Dawson Dawson, Charles in 1911 in Sussex in southern England. This fossil was placed into a new genus and species known as Eoanthropus dawsoni, meaning “Dawson’s dawn man.” The fossil is perhaps best known as Piltdown man. Piltdown man Although fossil discoveries that are given a new name create controversy, this was not true of Dawson’s find, because it looked the way most anthropologists of the time thought it should. In other words, the cranium was large and modern-looking, and the face was primitive and apelike. At the time, it was widely believed that intellect was an important step in the evolution between humans and apes, an idea supported by the large cranium. Additionally, as a human ancestor would need to possess some primitive traits, these might be found in the face and lower jaw.

In 1924, Raymond Arthur Dart was a young professor of anatomy in his second year of teaching in the Medical School at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Early during that summer, a fossil was brought to him from the Taung quarry by a student, Josephine Salmons. Dart determined that the fossil was that of a previously found extinct form of baboon, but it prompted his interest in the limestone quarry at Taung. He made arrangements to receive any other fossils the workers might find in the quarry, and he later received some boxes from Taung that contained more fossils. In one box was an unusual endocast, or fossilized cast, representing the interior of a cranium, notable for its size and unique structure. Dart recognized the anatomy as that of a higher primate, but unlike that of any living ape by virtue of its increased size. Also included was a single large fragment of a fossilized facial skeleton. The endocast and face were portions of the same animal. To Dart, the remains revealed a never-before-seen combination of traits, suggesting an anthropoid halfway between man and ape.

In February, 1925, Dart introduced his find to the scientific community with a brief article in the British journal Nature. He described the fossil as a juvenile member of a new genus, Australopithecus, and new species, africanus. Australo means “of the Southern Hemisphere,” pithecus means “simian” or “apelike,” and africanus means “of Africa.” Thus Australopithecus africanus literally means “the South African ape.”

Except for Robert Broom, a Scottish physician who had become a well-known paleontologist as a result of his South African discoveries bridging the gap between reptiles and mammals, the scientific community immediately opposed the acceptance of Dart’s discovery. A major criticism was related to Dart’s introduction of the new name based on a juvenile specimen. There was no question that the fossil was that of a juvenile, because the specimen retained some of its deciduous, or baby, teeth. As a result, Dart’s discovery has frequently been called Taung child, Taung baby, or Taung boy.

Some critics seized this issue and argued that new names should not be based on juvenile specimens because dramatic differences between juveniles and adults of the same species might exist. Some argued that Dart may have simply found a juvenile member of an already documented fossil primate. Criticisms also were based on the fact that the discovery was made in South Africa and not Asia, where the world’s attention had become focused since Dubois’s discovery in 1891. Additionally, Dart’s discovery possessed a small brain and a relatively modern-looking face and dentition, unlike Dawson’s Piltdown man.

By the mid-1950’s, however, the discoveries of adult forms of Australopithecus and other intermediate forms in the same area compelled many of Dart’s critics to accept his 1924 discovery. Many critics were converted to Dart’s ideas as a result of the 1947 Pan-African Congress of Prehistory held in Nairobi, Kenya. The congress, organized by L. S. B. Leakey, allowed several widely respected physical anthropologists to examine some of the early African hominids firsthand.

The last barrier to acceptance was torn down in the early 1950’s. In 1953, Kenneth Page Oakley Oakley, Kenneth Page and others began a reexamination of Eoanthropus dawsoni. Fluorine dating, a new technique, revealed that the cranium was from the late Pleistocene epoch and the mandible belonged to a modern orangutan. Both portions had been modified and stained in order to appear as though they had come from the same animal. Piltdown man was thus exposed as a fraud, and its existence could no longer hinder the acceptance of the South African australopithecines as the link between modern Homo sapiens
Homo sapiens and living apes.


Although the limestone and sedimentary contexts from which the South African fossils were recovered did not lend themselves to accurate geological dating, one could suggest that the fossils were from the lower Pleistocene epoch, approximately one million years ago. Moreover, the South African discoveries led paleoanthropologists to conclude that early hominids first appeared in a grassland or savanna environment, as opposed to the tropical forests others were suggesting. In addition, Australopithecus africanus and the remaining australopithecines provided clear evidence that human ancestors possessed more or less modern jaws and were walking upright before the expansion of the brain. This idea contradicted the previous notions about the significance of increased cranial capacity during human evolution.

Some have called Dart’s discovery of the first Australopithecus one of the most significant scientific events of the twentieth century. Although such claims are debatable, there can be little question that the discovery must rank near the top of any list of important events in the fields of anthropology, paleontology, and prehistory. Fossils;australopithecine
Australopithecine fossils
Anthropology;ancient man
Taung child

Further Reading

  • Campbell, Bernard G. Human Evolution. 4th ed. Chicago: Aldine, 1998. Presents the major findings concerning the evolution of human beings, including discussion of the work of Dart and others in the early twentieth century as well as more recent developments in the field. Includes illustrations, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • Campbell, Bernard G., and James D. Loy. Humankind Emerging. 8th ed. Newton, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon, 1999. Comprehensive introduction to the field of physical anthropology. Chapter 6 discusses Dart’s and Broom’s work. Includes glossary, selected bibliography, and index. Individual chapters feature lists of suggested further reading.
  • Dart, Raymond A. Adventures with the Missing Link. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959. A firsthand retrospective view of the discovery of Australopithecus africanus and the controversies that followed.
  • _______.“Australopithecus Africanus: The Man-Ape of South Africa.” Nature 115 (February, 1925): 195-199. The publication that announced the discovery of the first australopithecine ever recovered. Presents details about the limestone quarry site at Taung, South Africa, and the circumstances of the fossil’s discovery and describes the fossil cranium and accompanying endocast. Concludes that the remains are those of a juvenile member of a new genus and species, Australopithecus africanus.
  • Johanson, Donald C., and Maitland A. Edey. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. 1981. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Coauthored by a prominent figure in the field of paleoanthropology, this volume offers a popular account of hominid discoveries from the Pleistocene of East Africa. Addresses the financial problems encountered in such research and describes the various strong personalities and controversies that have influenced attempts to document the human fossil record.
  • Leakey, Richard E., and Roger Lewin. Origins. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977. Draws, in part, on the work of Leakey’s parents, but also discusses paleontological discoveries at Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Suggests that three or more species of hominids may have existed as contemporaries in East Africa approximately two million years ago. Emphasizes the question of why the lineage of Homo survived and the others did not.
  • Pfeiffer, John E. The Emergence of Humankind. 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1985. Although not written in the style of most textbooks, this volume is used frequently as a textbook in introductory physical anthropology courses. Addresses the various lines of research often employed by paleoanthropologists in their attempts to learn about the hominid fossil record.

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