An Immature Gorilla: Reactions to Taung

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 9.25.35 AMDart Invents the Southern Ape

In early February 1925, Raymond Dart announced his discovery of the Taung Baby fossil to the world. I recently wrote about how Nature was scooped on the announcement, but I now want to focus on how the scientific world reacted to Taung’s discovery. In his paper, Dart argued that Taung represented a new species, which he named Australopithecus africanus (meaning the southern ape from Africa). He suggested that A. africanus was the “missing link,” meaning that it was transitional between humans and apes.

The Response

On February 14th, the opinions of four leading anthropologists appeared in Nature. Working only with Dart’s paper and the drawings he included, they reacted his claims. Overall, their reactions were not favorable. The opinions came from London, from Sir Arthur Keith, Elliot Smith, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward and Dr. W.L.H. Duckworth. They took issue with Dart’s claim that this new ape genus was human-like at all. They argued that because the fossil was that of a child, it was difficult to pinpoint which features were truly human-like, rather than simply characteristics of an immature ape. Additionally, they argued that Dart did not have enough ape skulls to compare this with, and if he had, he would notice that many of Taung’s features were present in baby apes.

Keith argued “those who are familiar with the facial characteristics of the immature gorilla and of the chimpanzee will recognize a blend of the two in the face of Australopithecus…” and based on this fact “one is inclined to place Australopithecus in the same group…as the chimpanzee and gorilla.” So for Keith, Australopithecus was not a link leading to humans, as Dart had suggested.Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 9.25.28 AM Smith agreed, stating that “many of the features cited by Professor Dart as evidence of human affinities…are not unknown in the young of the giant anthropoids and even in the adult gibbon.”

Why so Harsh?

The critical nature of Keith et. al’s reactions is especially interesting because Dart was actually right (mostly). Almost a century later, we can say for certain that Australopithecus is not a gorilla, and is in fact a hominin. When asking why Dart received such a backlash, a couple things are important to keep in mind:

  1. The cradle of humankind was thought to be Asia, not Africa. The fact that Dart’s Taung was from Africa immediately raised red flags.
  2. The specimen was that of a child, making the analyses infinitely more complicated.
  3. Taung didn’t fit with existing beliefs about the pattern of human evolution. Taung suggested that–in the timeline of human evolution–our ancestors stood upright long before they evolved large brains. This went against the idea that the hominin brain expanded first, and other adaptations such as bipedality came later in human evolution.
  4. They wanted more information. This, I think, is an important point. Smith summed it up well when he said: “What above all we want Professor Dart to tell us is the geological evidence of age, the exact condition under which the fossil was found, and the exact form of the teeth.” This type of reaction is common with new fossil announcements today. Scientists without access to the fossils, and knowledge of their geological context etc, don’t feel they can make good judgments about the fossils in question yet (and rightfully so)!

Following this published response, opinions became even more negative towards Taung. Many Professors claimed it was simply “the distorted skull of a chimpanzee.” This went on for decades, until Australopithecus was finally recognized as a legitimate hominin in the late 1940’s. For more on this, including the debate that unfolded, see Dart’s Adventures with the Missing Link.

3 thoughts on “An Immature Gorilla: Reactions to Taung

  1. Setting aside obvious issues of ‘professional jealousy’ in the academy (not least because Dart was Australian and tweaking the egoes of the British establishment by his assertion!) I can’t help thinking that the debate was driven by the fact that the Taung fossil didn’t fit the orthodoxy of the day. In which case, early twentieth century thinking went, the fossil (and its interpreter) had to be wrong. I suppose the field still gets hit by that one from time to time, witness the furore over the ‘hobbits’.

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