Teeth & Human Evolution: Scientist Spotlight on W.K. Gregory


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Popular Science article by WK Gregory

William King Gregory was a paleontologist who studied a variety of fossils creatures during the first half of the 20th century. He worked at the American Natural History Museum and Columbia University, and spent many years studying everything from fish to primates to human ancestors. Gregory introduced new approaches to examining fossils, helped settle human ancestor debates, and more! Check out these highlights of his work:

Fast Facts:

  • His work on fossils extended far beyond the old bones. Gregory  was interested in how the the bones once worked in the body, their function. How did they operate mechanically, in conjunction with the muscles? To answer these questions, Gregory studied living creatures at the Bronx Zoo, applying knowledge gleaned there to his fossil studies. He also applied this knowledge to understanding the body parts’ evolution over time.
  • His studies on teeth furthered knowledge of human origins. Gregory conducted detailed studies of human, primate, and hominin fossil teeth, culminating in a book on the evolution of teeth called The Origin and Evolution of Human Dentition. He did many other things for the field of human origins, including overturned long-standing myths such as the idea that humans evolved in Asia.Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 11.54.12 AM
  • He thought the Piltdown skull was legitimate. Even the experts were fooled by the fraudulent amalgamation of bones! As many of you know, Piltdown was an early 20th century hoax that matched an orangutan jaw with a human cranium, leading many to believe it was a human ancestor with a big brain and a primitive jaw.  Gregory was so enthusiastic about Piltdown he constructed an exhibit at the AMNH about the skull. In addition to exhibiting plaster casts of the skull, Gregory wrote about the fossil’s importance, introducing it to the American public.
  • He helped settle the Taung child debate. In 1930, Gregory visited South Africa to study the teeth of the recently described and very controversial Australopithecus africanus fossil. Some scientists had argued that Taung was a human ancestor, while others dismissed it as merely a young gorilla. Gregory was able to show that it was, indeed, a link (of sorts) between humans and apes. His study on the fossil was the turning point in accepting it as a part of the human lineage, and thus in  accepting that humans likely evolved in Africa! After his examination of Taung’s teeth, Gregory declared at a lecture:

“It is the missing link no longer missing. It is the structural connecting link between ape and man… This is an actual fossil form found in South Africa and it does, to that extent, favor the view of Darwin that Man arose in Africa.”


ourfacefish2manThese snapshots of Gregory’s work do not even begin to cover his many achievements. He studied many mammals besides primates, aided in the study of sauropod dinosaurs, and studied countless fish skulls.In 1929, he published one of the more interesting books I’ve seen: Our Face from Fish to Man. Hopefully this at least sparked your interest about Gregory, and you can find more in a biographical memoir on him, or this post on Palaeoblog!

4 thoughts on “Teeth & Human Evolution: Scientist Spotlight on W.K. Gregory

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #41 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Great synthesis! W.K. Gregory also coined the term (or diagnosed the malaise) “pithecophobia”, a sort of precursor of Frans de Waal’s famous “anthropodenial”. The term was intended to describe the “irrational fear of apes and monkeys as potential ancestors [. . .] brought on by greater knowledge of our own evolution” (from C. Beard’s excellent “The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey”). Actually, I have recently written a paper on topics such as the history of palaeoanthropology, tellingly entitled “Mind the (Unbridgeable) Gaps: A Cautionary Tale about Pseudoscientific Distortions and Scientific Misconceptions in the Study of Religion”! 😉 http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15700682-12341372


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