Dart and his Taung Baby
Raymond Dart and his Taung child fossil are well known in the history of paleoanthropology. The story goes: the fossil came from a limestone quarry near the town of Taungs, South Africa. It fell into the hands of Dart, an anatomist at the nearby University of Witswatersrand. Recognizing that he had a special primate in his hands, Dart spent 73 days removing the hard rock matrix from the skull using a knitting needle. His work revealed an ape like, human like “missing link,”now known as Australopithecus africanus. In early 1925, Dart submitted his findings to the well respected journal Nature. If all went according to plan, the most respected scientific journal in the world would announce his work to the public. However, this is not quite what happened. Here is the story of the announcement of the Taung child to the world, as remembered later by Dart in his autobiography.
A Curious Journalist
The Johannesburg paper the Star was edited by a man who had an extreme interest in fossil humans: B. G. Paver. Though he was the editor, Paver also worked as a journalist when it came to stories about human evolution. He visited Dart’s office in 1925, as he often did, to get a comment from Dart about the recently discovered Rhodesian man bones.
At the time of this visit, Dart had already sent in his photos and description of his Taung child to Nature. Though he had to tread a careful line and not leak his story to this paper, his excitement made him tell Paver about his fossil find anyway. Eager to learn more, Paver promised he would not publish the scoop in his Star until it appeared in Nature. Once Paver had agreed to this, Dart gave him a copy of the complete paper and photographs he had sent to Nature, so that Paver could prepare his own story for press.
The Nature publication was set to appear February 3, 1925. However, as the date approached, there was no word from the journal. The Star finally contact Nature and asked about the publication date, and Nature replied that Dart’s claims of the missing link were so unprecedented that the paper had been sent to various experts in England for review. But the reviewers had not yet gotten back to Nature. The Star informed Nature that they would not withhold their release, and would publish their story as planned on February 3.
Star Announces the Missing Link
On February 3, then, it was the Star that broke the news to the world that a missing link fossil had been found. This announcement was copied and commented upon by morning newspapers throughout the world on February 4, which was Dart’s 32nd birthday. The Nature publication did appear a few days later, under the title “The Man-Ape of South Africa.” I like this story because it’s fun to imagine the small, local newspaper–run by an interested editor–having the opportunity to share such a huge fossil with the world. Today, publishing before Nature would be all kinds of problematic, but in 1925 it worked out–and provided a fun twist in a famous story. More can be found in Dart’s 1959 book Adventures with the missing link.