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Raymond Dart

the first to describe Australopithecus africanus

Raymond Arthur Dart

Raymond Arthur Dart was born in Toowong, Brisbane, Australia, on February 4, 1893. He studied at the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney before moving on to the University of London, where he studied under the noted anatomists Grafton Elliot Smith and Arthur Keith. In 1922, he accepted the Professorship of Anatomy position at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

At Witwatersrand, Dart offered modest cash prizes to students who brought him bones that would be useful in teaching his classes. In 1924, one of his students brought him a fossil baboon skull that intrigued Dart so much that he asked the student to bring him more specimens from the same location. A few days later, the student returned with a box of material that soon produced an endocranial cast of the interior of a skull that was too large to have come from a baboon or chimpanzee. Over the course of about three months, Dart carefully sifted through the rest of the material and was able to recover enough facial bones to realize that he was in possession of the skull of a very ancient human ancestor.

What Dart had was the partial skull of an ape with a brain cavity slightly larger in size than that of modern apes, but with dental characteristics that were almost human-like. The fact that the spinal column obviously connected to the bottom of the skull led Dart to conclude that the individual walked upright on two legs. He was also able to determine that the skull belonged to a very young female, probably no more than three years old. Because it had been found in the Taung Limestone Works in Harts Valley, in what is now the province of Bechuanaland, it was given the popular name Taung Child. Dart described the skull in an article in Nature magazine, in 1925. In the article he explained why he thought Australopithecus africanus ("southern ape of Africa") represented a direct link in the evolutionary chain leading to present-day humans.

drawing of the first Australopithecus africanus skull
drawing of the first Australopithecus africanus skull

Dart's claim was met with much criticism. Another supposed human ancestor -- Piltdown Man -- had just recently come under scrutiny by the scientific community, so it was only natural that Australopithecus africanus would be seen as just another claimant to the human line. That criticism was silenced in 1936, when Robert Broom found and identified two more Australopithecus specimens while working in the same area in which Dart's skull had been found. As more and more discoveries were made, including the first adult skull, it became clear that Australopithecus africanus was indeed part of the human family tree. However, scientists have yet to come to a universal conclusion as to whether Australopithecus was a director ancestor of modern humans or simply a "cousin."

Dart continued to teach at Witwatersrand until 1958. He died on November 22, 1988.

C. Loring Brace, Harry Nelson, Noel Korn, Mary L. Brace Atlas of Human Evolution New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979

Australopithecus africanus
Piltdown Man

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This page was last updated on 10/20/2017.