James Kitching is arguably the most accomplished fossil hunter that ever lived. Born in South Africa, Kitching started fossil hunting early in life and later worked for the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research for over 53 years. During his time at BPI, Kitching spent approximately 215 months (just short of 18 years) in the field collecting fossils. I first stumbled upon Kitching by accident while researching dinosaur egg discoveries. But it turns out, Kitching’s discoveries go far beyond the amazing fossilized dinosaur embryos he found, extending into discoveries of human ancestors and more.
- His first fossil discovery was at the age of 6. A year later, Kitching found his first new species, a marine sponge, which Robert Broom named Younopsis kitchingi, (later called Hymeniacidon kitchingi). It would be the first of many new species finds by Kitching.
- He found the oldest dinosaur eggs. The six partial dinosaur eggs Kitching found in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa, dated back to the Jurassic, making them the oldest dinosaur eggs found at the time. Based on a partially exposed skull within one of the eggs, Kitching hypothesized that the eggs belonged to the long neck group Massospondylus. He was proved correct almost 3 decades later. I wrote an article on history of these eggs, which you can find here.
- He linked Africa and Antarctica through fossils. On an expedition in Antarctica, Kitching provided the first recorded fossil evidence of the same fauna on both continents, thus supplying evidence for the idea that southern Africa was once part of a much larger land mass that included Antarctica, parts of the Americas and Australia.
- He found Australopithecus fossils. Working with Raymond Dart and others in the famous site Makapansgat, Kitching uncovered part of an Australopithecus skull. Interestingly, his younger brothers joined the Makapansgat fossil hunting, later making discoveries of their own. The boys were all taught to look for fossils by their father at a young age.
At the time of Kitching’s death, in 2003, the Bernard Price Institute housed on of the largest fossil collection in the southern hemisphere, with Kitching and his team having collected over 90% of those fossils. During his lifetime, Kitching received numerous awards and honorary degrees. He has since left quite a legacy, with a hall named after him at the Bernard Price, a ridge in Antarctica called “Kitching Ridge,” and more, I’m sure. But it is incredible how little this man is remembered in the historical literature. I wrote a short article about Kitching for the Embryo Project Encyclopedia: “James William Kitching (1922-2003)“.