Raymond Arthur Dart

Names: Dart, Raymond Arthur

Born: 4 February 1893, Toowong, Brisbane, Australia

Died: 22 November 1988, Reno, Nevada, USA

In summary: Discovered the Taung child skull fossil, the first early hominid fossil.

Raymond Dart was born on 4 February 1893 in Toowong, Brisbane, Australia. He attended university in Queensland and Sydney. In 1920, Dart pursued further study at the University of London, under the anatomists Grafton Elliot Smith and Arthur Keith. When a Anatomy Professorship became available at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Elliot Smith encouraged Dart to apply for the position, which he was subsequently offered. Dart moved to South Africa in 1922 and later made enormous contributions globally to the fields of physical anthropology and paleontology.

In 1924 Raymond Dart made the discovery that would make him famous. While working with his students in the Taung limestone works in the Harts Valley in the present-day Northwest Province, Dart offered a reward to those students who made the most interesting finds. First, an endocranial cast was found, which seemed at first to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. His intrigue and dedication led him into 73 days of gruelling chipping and digging, which paid off in the end. Raymond Dart had discovered the Taung Child, who was only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus - " australis " meaning ‘south' and " pithecus " meaning ‘ape'.

Dart also hypothesized that Australopithecus africanus used tools made from the long bones of gazelles, antelopes and wild boar, based on further discoveries of Australopithecus africanus remains at the Makapansgat Cave in Limpopo province dating to over 1 million years ago. A controversy erupted, continuing to this day, over whether these bones were used by Australopithecus africanus as tools, or whether they were simply an accumulation of food refuse.

The world was soon intrigued by Dart's discovery because the Taung Child, being neither ape nor human, is classified somewhere in between. The Taung Child has an ape-sized brain, but the dental and postural characteristics are close to those of humans. The evidence that Dart had, showed that human postural characteristics dealt with the head. Since it was balanced on the vertebral column, Dart knew that the Taung Child walked on two legs rather than four.

Another reason the world was watching this discovery so closely, was because, whereas Asia had previously been thought to be where humans originated, this discovery suggested Africa was. These theories, revolutionary for their time, were not welcomed. Also unconvinced were Raymond Dart's old instructors, Grafton Elliot Smith and Arthur Keith. Dr Robert Broom from the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria came out in support of Dart's findings. In 1936 Broom found and identified two forms of Australopithecus, after labouring in the same area that Raymond Dart had worked 12 years before. In 1947, the world-renowned anatomist Wilford Le Gros Clark had also worked there and he agreed with both Dart and Broom. Finally, after 23 years and several more discoveries in the same area, the Taung Child was recognised as an important discovery.

While Dart found some very important clues to the evolutionary puzzle, he continued to ponder the significant but elusive ‘missing link' question of the Australopithecus connection to humans. Were they direct ancestors of the genus Homo, or were they merely our cousins on the evolutionary scale? Raymond Dart taught at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg until 1958. The Institute for the Study of Man in Africa was later founded in his honour at the university. Raymond Dart died in November 1988 aged 95.

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