Raymond Dart and the Origins of Palaeoanthropology in SA

By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

The name of Raymond Dart (1893-1988) is well known in South African and international scientific circles. His contribution to the developing field of palaeoanthropology in the early part of the twentieth century is immense. His successors have been many and varied, and even now they are discovering and explaining the many, often controversial, aspects of the discipline that he so unexpectedly founded in South Africa.

Raymond Dart

            Dart was Australian by birth, and as Robin Derricourt – University of New South Wales historian of archaeology – has argued, also by temperament: ‘the brashness of an outsider to a world of science dominated by metropolitan Europe: the independent Australian character’. The Dart family lived in the Brisbane inner suburb of Towoong where Dart senior owned a shop, but there was also a larger family farm property in the small town of Laidley, about 80km west of Brisbane. As one of nine children, higher education for Dart depended on his obtaining scholarships, in which he was successful. He gained a B.Sc. (1913) and Honours (1916) from the University of Queensland, one of the first students at that then-new university, established in 1909. He went on to obtain a medical degree at the University of Sydney. After a year as an Australian army doctor in the last year of World War I, he was made senior demonstrator at University College, London. At first he was an assistant to fellow Australian anatomist Grafton (later Sir Grafton) Elliot Smith, then living in London and who had been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1907. After a year in the USA, where he met and married his first wife, Dora Tyree, Dart returned to University College.

            Dart was encouraged by Smith to apply for the position of Professor of Anatomy at the new University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg. He was duly appointed and arrived in January 1923. He was, however, far from enthusiastic about moving to this outpost of the British Empire where he would be distant from important scientific colleagues and conversations taking place in Europe. His predecessor at Wits had been anatomist Edward Stibbe, whose short term as Professor (1919-1922) had ended with his enforced resignation. In the narrow-minded mores of the time, Stibbe – a married man – had been found to be having an affair with the university’s head typist. The whole atmosphere of Wits, with its eccentric and extremely young principal, Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, and his domineering mother Deborah, was far from attractive. Dart’s own family was strongly religious and fundamentalist, and in accepting the worldview of evolution and rebelling against the family values – as he did at university – relocating to conservative South Africa held little appeal.  

            No sooner, however, had Dart settled into his new academic home than his international reputation was made, although this was not immediately apparent. In many publications, whether scholarly articles, books, and other anecdotal accounts – and Dart’s autobiography – the story is recounted how, in December 1924, a fossil from the Buxton Limeworks near Taung, now in the North West Province, came to his attention through the interventions of Josephine Salmons, his first female student, and his Wits colleague, Robert Young, Professor of Geology. Within just over a month, after freeing the fossil – a skull and an endocast – from the surrounding matrix (using his wife’s sharpened knitting needles) Dart had completed a paper on what was soon dubbed the ‘Taung child’. He named it Australopithecus africanus, and declared it to be ‘intermediate between living anthropoids and man’. The paper was published in Nature on 7 February 1925, with – it seems – initial encouragement from the experts.

            Dart’s mentor, Elliot Smith, however, was not impressed with Dart’s published conclusion that this creature – supposedly alive some 2 to 2.8 million years ago – was an ancestor of Homo sapiens. Nor were other renowned anatomists and anthropologists of the time, including Sir Arthur Keith, Arthur Smith Woodward and Wynfrid Duckworth. Just a week after Dart’s initial announcement, the four responded in Nature, expressing their very strong doubts, indeed, referring to Dart’s claim as ‘preposterous’. They also regretted that, although casts were on display at the South African pavilion at Wembley during the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-1925, they could not be handled by ‘students of fossil man’ and had to be viewed through glass, and that only after queuing with the general public! (Not long afterwards, casts were available for purchase.) The publicity for the fossil display at Wembley, done in accordance with

Raymond Dart’s instructions for the display of A. africanus at the Empire Exhibition of 1924-1925.

Dart’s diagram of how he wanted the exhibit to be arranged, was immense, fuelled by the very public rivalry and disagreement among the experts. Their repudiation of Dart’s claim bears out the adage that ‘the biggest impediment to new thinking is old thinking …’. It was an extravagant claim from a little-known anatomist at a new and obscure university.

            In the 1920s it was accepted by the experts that humans had evolved in Asia. There were also other factors that discredited Dart’s idea. Some scientists were reluctant to accept that early hominids had brains as small as that of the Taung child; they were also cautious about relying on the single specimen, particularly that of a juvenile. Others disliked the name, being a mixture of Latin and Greek. Moreover, Dart himself was young and inexperienced and was attached to a minor university, he therefore lacked scholarly gravitas and reputation. But, importantly, a large-brained fossil skull had been unearthed at Piltdown quarry in Sussex in 1913, by two highly reputable palaeontologists, Charles Dawson and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward. Here, they said, was proof that man had evolved in the northern hemisphere. As we now know, Piltdown Man was exposed as a fraud, but only in 1953, almost forty years later. And as we also now know, some of those respectable, indeed renowned, scientists of that time were implicated in this deception. This hoax was an important one, for it stalled fresh thinking around international palaeoanthropology for more than a generation.

Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. Back row (from left): F.O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A.S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W.P. Pycraft, and Ray Lankester. Note the portrait of Charles Darwin on the wall. Painting by John Cooke, 1915.

            Although Dart only published full details about the Taung fossil in 1959 in his autobiography – he never published an academic monograph on the subject – he was, of course, vindicated within his discipline in South Africa as more Australopithecus africanus fossils were discovered. A prime mover in this regard was Robert Broom of the Transvaal Museum, who found fossil material from this and many other species in the dolomitic caves at Sterkfontein and other similar sites not far from Johannesburg. Fossil-collecting also began in the 1920s in the lime-works of the Makopane valley (about 280km north-east of Johannesburg), and Dart published a note on this site in the South African Journal of Science just five months after the Taung announcement. Dart began formal investigations at Makopane after World War II with a research grant from the Bernard Price Foundation for Palaeontological Research. In 1948 and 1949, with hominid fossil specimens – mostly fragments – retrieved from that site, Dart erected another member of this genus, an even older Australopithecus prometheus (3.6 million years), which he

Cast in three parts: endocranium face and mandible, of Collection of the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwaters-rand

called a ‘proto-human’ and that he analysed in papers published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1948 and 1949. He named this Australopithecus ‘prometheus’ after the god of fire, postulating that this creature had tamed and used fire. Decades later, another, complete, individual of this species discovered at Sterkfontein, and given the nickname ‘Little Foot’, has been unearthed and studied by Wits Professor Ron Clarke. Dart’s osteodontokeratic culture hypothesis, originating from the work at Makopane, about early humans as cannibalistic predators was questionable. He referred to them in far-from-cold scientific vocabulary, as ‘the blood-bespattered, slaughter-gutted archives of human history’, and this idea morphed into Robert Ardrey’s books such as African Genesis. Ideas around humans as ‘killer apes’ gained traction but was not based on firm factual evidence.

            Dart’s forays into other disciplines and his adherence to maverick theories is perhaps less well known, as most of colleagues were full of praise for his prescience and possibly reluctant to criticise a scientific hero. Such was his reputation that the Royal Society of South Africa did not hesitate, it seems, to publish a large range of articles by Dart that were not related to palaeoanthropology and that are, from our vantage point in time, scientifically extremely suspect. These included his views on population fluctuations in Egypt over 7 000 years, a Stone Age manganese mine what was then Northern Rhodesia, and numerous others. His publication output was prodigious on many topics, but his major published output was in archaeology, on which he wrote nearly 100 papers, beginning with ‘Boskop man’ in 1923 and encompassing many subjects, including precolonial mining. Over the years Dart’s ideas became increasingly improbable, incorporating waves of Mongoloid, Chinese, and other foreign and exotic influences on the people of Africa. His extreme views were his passion, and his improbable diffusionist notions may well have had their origins in his early years with Elliott Smith. Nor were Dart’s racist ideas, well unpacked by Saul Dubow in Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa, acceptable. They were expressed in a publication, apparently accepted reluctantly by the South African Archaeological Society in 1951, entitled African Serological Patterns and Human Migrations. While he was daring on the inspired conclusion of the Taung child, he himself found it hard to believe that Africans were responsible for the archaeological sites that abounded in South Africa and he argued for Egyptian, Indian, and other collaborators.

             In later life, from 1966 until 1986 (he retired from Wits in 1958), Dart spent six months of every year in Philadelphia, USA, at the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential, his interest in brain-injured children coming from his concern about his son’s motor damage at birth and how it might be ameliorated by innovative techniques such as pattern therapy.

            Dart was a fascinating, multi-sided, even enigmatic person. Clearly fiercely passionate about his work – to the extent of suffering a nervous breakdown in 1943 – he blazed a trail that has been followed with great success, ensuring South Africa a significant place in the history of palaeoanthropology. His enormous contribution to the establishment and growth of palaeoanthropology in South Africa is incontrovertible. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1930 and received honorary degrees from the University of Natal (1956) and Wits (1965). His career, however, as Derricourt reminds us, should also be understood as the consequence of the intersections between place, timing, and personality.

 

REFERENCES

Brain, C.K., ‘Raymond Dart and our African origins’, in L. Garwin and T. Lincoln, eds, A Century of Nature: Twenty-One Discoveries that Changed Science and the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Cartmill, Matt, A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Dart, R.A., ‘Australopithecus africanus: The man-ape of South Africa’, Nature 115, 1925, pp.195-199.

Dart, Raymond A. and Craig, Dennis, Adventures with the Missing Link. New York: Harper, 1959.

Derricourt, Robin, ‘The enigma of Raymond Dart’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 42(2), 2009, pp.257-282.

Dubow, Saul, Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Dubow, Saul, ‘Human origins, race, typology and the other Raymond Dart’, African Studies 55, 1996, pp.1-30.

Tobias, Phillip V., Dart, Taung and the Missing Link. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 1984.

Tobias, Phillip V., ‘The discovery of the Taung skull of Australopithecus africanus Dart and the neglected role of Professor R.B. Young’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 61(2), 2006, pp.131-138.

Wheelhouse, Frances and Smithford, Kathaleen.S., Dart: Scientist and Man of Grit. Sydney: Transpareon Press, 2001.