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Raymond Dart 1893-1988

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Anthropologist Raymond A. Dart (1893-1988):

Taungs Baby and the Osteodontokeratic Culture

I. Introduction

Raymond Dart pioneered evolutionary anthropology in the mid-twentieth century,

and Dart earned a reputation not inferior to that of Louis Leakey, Sir Arthur Keith,

Le Gros Clark, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Breuil (or any other contemporary colleague)

for his work in evolution, human origins and the fossil record.

Dart's theoretical approach to anthropology still wields authority, and his landmark achievements are commonly reviewed in human evolutionary texts. As the discoverer of the Taungs Baby fossil skull, he achieved immortality in the field, and as sponsor of the ‘Osteodontokeratic’ theory of a pre-lithic austrolapithecine tool culture, he stimulated an acute and chronic debate. His apparent disinterest (he was a practicing medical neurologist who ran a medical school), his trenchant and spontaneous writing style, and his consistently ambitious ideation set him well above many of his less dynamic academic peers. In addition Dart named the intermediary species Homo habilis, built the important fossil collection at Witwatersrand, and completed a traversa across the continent of Africa.

Raymond Dart contributed not one but two academic milestones to science, both central to establishing twentieth-century anthropology as a credible discipline. In 1925 he published his work on the fossil skull (and priceless brain cast) of the Taungs Baby in Nature, naming the Taungs Baby fossil Australopithecus africanus. Dart claimed it as a direct ancestor of contemporary man. While this was enough to earn him a top-tier ranking as a physical anthropologist, Dart followed this a generation later with an even greater intellectual achievement. In January 1957 he published a statistical monograph analysis of the Makapansgat Lime Cavern brecciae and announced the compelling theory of a pre-lithic australopithecine ‘osteodontokeratic’ culture. Both of these theoretical breakthroughs—the naming of Australopithecus as a hominid and the description of their tool culture—engendered animated controversies and long-running scientific debate.

II. The Taungs Baby Controversy 1924 – 1947: Dart versus Sir Arthur Keith

The Nature article on Taungs Baby came at a pivotal, crucial formative period for the science of anthropology and human evolution. The Piltdown Man was in vogue, a forgery designed to prop up an approach to mankind’s origin which posited that a large brain had preceded other human cultural advances, like the use of tools. Dart’s Taungs Baby (not a forgery) expressed a new and less popular view, that upright bipedal beings with small but complex brains and modern teeth belonged on the direct ancestral lineage of mankind in Africa.

The opposition to Dart was immediate, long-running and vociferous. Sir Arthur Keith and other leading human anthropologists did not at first accept Dart’s findings.

Dart’s conclusions in Nature (1925) were ambitious and expansive. He claimed that the australopithecines had used their hands, ears and eyes for cognition of colors, shapes, and sounds. They had “that discriminative knowledge of the appearance, feeling, and sound of things that was a necessary milestone in the acquisition of articulate speech.” These conclusions stemmed not from some Hamlet-style musings over his fossil skull, but came directly from Dart’s doctorate in neurology, his understanding of the brain cast.

Dart saw the expanded area between the lunate sulcus and parallel sulcus as the source for true cognition. The Taungs Baby brain cast fossil exhibited a forebrain and midbrain much more highly developed than the lobes in the brain of modern chimpanzees and gorillas.

Dart saw the comments of Keith, Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, Sir Andrew Smith Woodward and W.L.H. Duckworth posted in Nature one week after his article appeared. Sir G.E. Smith showed a wise forbearance and demurred comment until he could view the skull, face and brain cast fossils with his own eyes. W.L.H. Duckworth, who had worked closely with Dart, believed the Taungs Baby was only a gorilla-like species (this view became the consensus view for many years, in opposition to Dart’s view of Taungs Baby as a type of australopithecine hominid). Sir Andrew Smith-Woodward ruled out the fossil as an extraneous thing. Arthur Keith was also dismissive. Where Dart claimed Taungs Baby to be far in advance of the gorilla and chimpanzee mentality, the older scientists held that Taungs Baby was indeed only a primitive troglodyte with misleading juvenile features.

Raymond Dart defended his findings in a conference in 1925, the British Empire Exhibition, and he was not embraced by the British and European anthropologists gathered there. Sir Arthur Keith hardened his opinion, “an examination of the casts exhibited at Wembley will satisfy zoologists that [Dart’s] claim is preposterous. The skull is that of a young anthropoid ape . . . . the Taungs ape is much too late in the scale of time to have any place in man’s ancestry.” With this Keith joined Smith-Woodward and W.L.H. Duckworth in condemning Raymond Dart’s conclusions in Nature. The Piltdown Man (with its Homo sapiens skull and orangutan’s jaw) was heartily embraced by the British—the African theory by the Australian-turned-South African Raymond Dart was sternly dismissed.

The Piltdown “fossil” was only one element in the mentalitie of that moment in anthropology. Peking Man, the Zhoukoutien fossils, were also prominent in 1925, when the ‘out-of-Asia’ theory took precedence over the ‘out-of-Africa’ approach of Raymond Dart. For many reasons dealing with Orientalism, Aryanism and skeptical anti-clericalism, the Asian model was preferred—in the Edwardian period—over any Middle Eastern, Nilotic or sub-Saharan theories of human ancestral origins. The work of Swedish paleontologist J.G. Andersson and Austrian Otto Zdansky eclipsed that of Dart in the 1920s. Sinanthropus pekinensis (the Chinese man of Peking) was embraced as a human ancestor while Australopithecus africanus (the Southern Ape of Africa) was not.

The weight of anthropological opinion swung to an Indonesian or Asian origin for mankind. South African finds were dismissed as anomalies, extinct primates. Eventually both theories would be vindicated and placed in proper relationship to each other.

Sir Arthur Keith’s changing opinion of Dart’s Taungs Baby is instructive. He found value in the fossil from the start and as Lee Berger (2000) points out, Keith’s position was not consistent and more subtly shaded than often believed. Arthur Keith agreed that Taungs Baby was the oldest dolicephalic, or long-headed, specimen fossil to emerge. Dart’s memoirs (1959) carefully charted the changes in Keith’s pronouncements on the controversy. Sir Arthur presided over the 1927 meeting at Leeds of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. After two years of debate and close inspection of the Taungs Baby, Lord Keith “pointedly” made no mention of Australopithecus whatsoever, while he championed the authenticity and importance of Eoanthropus (Piltdown Man) and Pithecanthropus (Java Man, or Homo erectus). In a chapter of J.A. Hammerton’s (1927) The Universal History of the World, Arthur Keith noted that Raymond Dart had claimed the Taungs Baby to be a “missing link” between primates and humans. Sir Arthur Keith rejected this claim in the text of Hammerton’s ‘definitive’ text, using his authority to derogate Raymond Dart’s important concept.

By 1929 Dart had the support of Lancelot Hogben, professor of Zoology at Cape Town University, who equated R.A. Dart to A. Keith, and considered them equally astute scientists. Also in 1929 W.K. Gregory, the curator of comparative anatomy at the American Museum of Natural History came out in favor of Dart in the Taungs Baby controversy. In a careful comparison of dental aspects, Dr. Gregory found twenty characteristics of Taungs Baby to be nearer to Homo sapiens, two characteristics of Taungs Baby to be nearer the gorilla, three characteristics common to ‘chimpanzees, gorillas and mankind,’ plus one element ‘common to apes but not man’ and no dental feature ‘nearer to ape than man.’ “In light of all this additional evidence, if Australopithecus is not literally a missing link…what conceivable combination of ape and human characters would ever be admitted as such?” After Dr. Gregory, the German anthropologist T. Adloff also came to the same conclusion as Dart and stated unequivocally that Taungs Baby was a hominid. At this point (1930-1931) Dart completed his eight-month-long rigorous and Livingstone-esque (or Indiana Jones-esque?) motorized traversa of Africa and returned to London “bronzed and feeling like a Rider Haggard character…confident enough to tackle anything.” He was again premature in his optimism, and disappointments were again on the horizon for the paleo-neurologist.

On February 17, 1931, Dart joined Elliot Smith, Sir Arthur Keith and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward (Chairman) for a conference at the London Zoological Society. Armed with plaster cast samples and compelling lantern slides, Eliot Smith gave a “masterful” address on the culture of Sinanthropus. Dart followed with an extemporaneous and disappointing “anticlimax” talk concerning Taungs Baby and the australopithecine’s mental development. “What a pitiful difference between this fumbling account and Elliot Smith’s skillful demonstration!” as Dart would write later in his memoirs. Although he gave a better talk the next night at the Royal Society Club, the Royal Society decided not to publish Dart’s complete monograph on Taungs Baby and the “missing link” aspects of Australopithicus. This failure to publish in London was a pivotal event for Dart, he abandoned the Taungs Baby project for many years after the 1931 setback.

Dart spent the next few years investigating the Bushmen. In the 1930s he developed a radical theory of Asian origins for the Bushmen, he argued for pervasive Indian Ocean migrations during the Pleistocene period, and deduced this from the fossil and cultural records of prehistoric Rhodesia.

In 1939 the aforementioned Dr. W.K.Gregory and Milo Hellman published an article supporting Dart in the Journal of the American Dental Association, entitled “South African Fossil Man-Apes and Origin of the Human Dentition.” Dart considered this article to “mark the turning point in attitudes of most scientists in America, Britain and the Continent.” The carnivorous nature of the Taungs Baby, and its branching away from frugivorous primates, as well as Dart’s theory on the advanced brain type of Taungs Baby were now accepted. Dart’s protégé, Robert Broom, was now actively championed the South African school; Dr. Franz Weidenreich also aligned with Dart’s point of view.

In 1946 (little anthropological work was done during the 1939-1945 period) another book was published by R. Broom and G.W.H. Schepers supporting the Dart theory of 1925, and this brought the acquiescence of Dart’s nemesis, Sir Arthur Keith.

A few quotations show the degree of Keith’s about-face on the Taungs Baby controversy. In a letter to Broom he stated, “Whatever theory one holds of human evolution, man as we know him must have passed through such a stage as is represented by the Australopets [sic] I agree they may be direct descendants of such a stage.”

In a different letter Keith said, “No doubt the South African anthropoids are much more human than I had originally supposed.” Finally in 1947 (twenty-two years after Dart’s thesis) Arthur Keith wrote to Nature:

When Professor Dart of the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, announced in Nature the discovery of a juvenile Australopithecus and claimed for it a human kinship, I was one of those who took the point of view that when the adult form was discovered it would prove to be nearer akin to the living African anthropoids—the gorilla and the chimpanzee. Like professor Le Gros Clark I am now convinced on the evidence submitted by Dr. R. Bloom that Professor Dart was right and I was wrong. The Australopithecinae are in or near the line which culminated in the human form…ground-living anthropoids, human in posture, gait and dentition. (A. Keith quoted in R. Dart, 1959: 81)

III. Makaganspat Tools and the ‘Osteodontokeratic’ Culture Controversy

Whatever the magnitude of Raymond Dart’s discovery of Australopithecus and his neurological theory of their mental capacity might be, a larger debate was engendered by his work on Makapansgat. The theory of a pre-lithic “Bone Age” stimulates hot debate today. The place of the Taungs Baby and the debate over Australopithicinae with Sir Arthur Keith are long settled in favor of Dr. Dart, but the implications of Dr. Dart’s second great theory are still in contention. Unlike the controversy of 1925-1947, this contested arena is not susceptible to a ‘case-closed’ summary, the arguments on both sides have been cogent and incisive. While many scientists have differed from Dart on the meaning of the faunal remains found in the limestone brecciae, C.K. ‘Bob’ Brain has emerged as the most eloquent of the anti-Dart theorists in this contested field. The consensus supports Brain in many aspects, but the compelling nature of the original Dart proposals have been embraced by a vocal minority.

Whatever the final outcome, Dart’s monograph on the Makapansgat material will retain its value as a potent exposition of quantified theory. Makapansgat contained over 7000 faunal remains, and Dart carefully identified and interpreted these bones. His conclusions were surprising and ambitious, as usual. He established a theory that the bones found in the cave were in fact a tool assemblage, with scrapers, cutters, clubs, daggers and awls. The relative frequency of certain type bones were interpreted in masterful and compelling detail, leaving a clear picture of a pre-lithic tool using culture.

Much as Piltdown Man and Aryan/Orientalism had clouded the debate of the 1920s, the field of anthropology at mid-century was affected by a bias concerning stone implements.

Stone tools were being found in mounting numbers, and clear cultural traditions were inferred for the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic period. Olduwan, Acheulian and Mousterian stone tools were type markers in the Old World and the Clovis technology demarcated New World views of human cultural development. When Dart worked at Makapansgat, a ‘cult’ of rock industry largely drove his contemporaries’ approach to the history of primordial mankind, stone culture marked human developmental milestones.

Dart found a cultural tool technology outside of the emerging stone-tool ‘gospel.’ He found a human logic behind the selective bone remains of the Plio-Pleistocene limestone brecciae. He showed logic in the bones and pointed to conscious tool-using. This approach gave Australopithecus, an upright and bipedal anthropoid/hominid, power over slaughtering, butchering and high-protein scavenging. The monograph proved its case both statistically and graphically. The bones found in the cave were almost exclusively those of the head and limbs. The absence of vertebral and other post-cranial remains was convincingly explained as a conscious choice made by the tool assembling australopithecines. The great canines, horns, mandibles and femurs of bovids were posited as human tools, and the culture of using these common-sense materials for survival was named the awkwardly compound term “osteodontokeratic culture.” In lighter moments Dart himself would refer to the tradition as the “Bone Age” or the “Bone and Antler Industry.” A theory of early man using and working with non-stone tools in a pre-stone age was appealing to many, but appalling to others.

This debate is essentially a philosophical contest, between those who stress violence, hunting and carnivorous behavior and those who see a more placid and vegetarian human condition. L.S.B. Leakey generally supports Dart, and claims that early man was in fact an animal, and behaved as one. Frederick S. Szalay (1975) saw Pleistocene man as a consumer of meat, not seeds. The “strong vertical incisors and incisiform canines must have been tools to tear and grasp meat and fascia,” when hunted or scavenged and “large pongid like canines would interfere with this.”

Meat as the strong preference in genus Homo is also proposed by Katherine Milton. She sees the dominance of the small intestine as an indication that the “routine inclusion of meat in weaned children seems mandatory.”

Dart put forward evidence of a consciously amassed tool assemblage, and he specifically debunked the theory that other carnivores (specifically the hyena) brought the bones into the cave. Although Dart presented a convincing case that hyenas do not in fact assemble bones in their lairs, this was the core of later assaults on his interpretation. Dart showed that hyenas can eat and digest donkey heads, and rarely if ever leave uneaten bones around. Brain (1968) came to the opposite conclusion, attributing the bones to hyenas. Neal T. Boaz is one writer who sides strongly with Brain in the controversy over how the bones were collected in the brecciae. He states, probably too categorically, that the bones of Makagaspat were not australopithecines’, but rather were dropped by “leopards and saber tooth lions” into the cave. He concurs with Bob Brain that the bones had passed through the digestive systems of hyenas, which Dart would certainly reject. Finally Boaz rejected Dart’s conclusion that the depressions in the skulls of game animals were not made by twin headed femurs used as clubs, but were effects of sedimentation pressure. Boaz characterizes Dart as the source of the prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick and rails against the “Killer Ape” model of African Genesis by Robert Ardrey and the conclusions of Desmond Morris as influenced by Dart’s “killer ape.”

Mary E. Clark embraces the pacifist vision of Bob Brain in toto. She sees the early hominid hunting scenario as a sexist construct and minimizes hunting as a possible behavior. She claims that Dart was “completely wrong.” She sees a matriarchal and cooperative basis for human development and sees the tool assemblage, butchery, and scavenging scenarios as utterly repugnant. She believes in a noble savage, a pre-history devoted to peaceful co-existence and communal vegetarian norms. In this she may be fond, naïve or romanticizing the past, or falling into an axiomatic, teleological and politically correct circular revisionism far removed from Paleolithic behavior and the rock record.

Lee Berger follows Dart, and sees migration and game-following in the last 500,000 years, at least. “Game moving through the mountain pass was easier to kill than on the open grasslands. The dead animals were then carried back to the cave, where the meat was eaten and the skins and bones turned into weapons and clothes.” This scenario is to some observers only self-evident, however the debate continues, and it is often informed by post-modern sensitivities about nationalism, race, gender and the fluctuating ideals constructed for human behavior. Were australopithecines hunters, or the hunted?

Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History takes no opinion, but documents three others’ opinions. “Lewis Binford concluded that the putative killer Homo habilis had in fact been a scavenger….on the other hand, analysis of the cut marks left on some of the bones suggested to the archaeologists Henry Bunn and Ellen Kroll that stone tools had in fact been used to dismember the higher yielding parts of the animals” indicating they had killed the animals or chased off the large carnivore that had killed the game. Tattersall sees the academy as split on the issue with most leaning toward scavenging rather than hunting, and against a weapon and butchery tools assemblage.

The specifics of the Dart analysis of the site at Makaganspat—as opposed to more general debate over the philosophical and sociological implications of hunting and meat scavenging, was addressed in an extended debate in a major journal in the mid-1970s. Donald Wolberg stated that the Dart thesis was flawed and strongly supported the Brain revisions. This followed on the heels of the original Brain (1968, 1969) papers, which centered on refuting Dart’s (1959) elimination of the role of hyenas. Brain used current Hottentot examples and strangely divergent conclusions (visavis Dart) concerning hyenas’ behaviors. He put forth the theory that only a casual and random collection of bones were in the brecciae, that no tool assemblage was ever found at Makapansgat.

Catherine E. Read-Martin at this point in the 1970s became the principle proponent of the Dart position, and she found Dart’s original analysis of the osteodontokeratic nature of the bone assembly to be credible and compelling.

Catherine Read-Martin developed research into the Makaganspat deposits in her (unpublished) UCLA dissertation, and she put an abbreviated form of the thesis into Current Anthropology in late 1975. She was as dismissive of Brain as Brain was of Dart. She pointed out that a controversy still raged over the interpretation of Makaganspat. She cited Brain, Wolberg and Isaak (1970) as sponsors of the revisionist view.

“Brain (1969)has pointed out similarities between Makaganspat and goat bones of Hottentots.” She states that Brain admitted that “hominid activity, scavenging by other animals and differential preservation” were undoubtedly important, but states bluntly that Brain “ignores tool usage.” In her major article in Current Anthropology, (which ran a series of comments, replies and counter-replies) Read-Martin and her co-author Dwight W. Read stated their conclusions:

….most of the contentions on all sides have been speculative and with little firm support…[however]…the fragmentary animal remains from Makaganspat Limeworks Cavern are shown to support Dart’s contention that these hominids scavenged from Bovids killed by large carnivores and that [australopithecus] often used animal remains as tools…[this] suggests a role for scavenging in the hominid morphological and behavioral evolution. (Catherine Read-Martin, 1975)

In the subsequent issue, Andrew Hill calls the Dart theory an “attractive model” to explain the anomalous faunal remains, and clearly states that carnivore action and differential preservation cannot explain the spiral fractures and the fact that mandibles were often divided sectionally “for use as tools.” In a further Reply, Richard G. Forbis of Calgary lambasted the Read-Martin paper and the Dart theory as “sheer speculation.” Robson Bonnichsen in a discussion/criticism addendum indicated that the bone count and lack of randomness that Dart saw at Makaganspat showed obvious “hominid activity” and characterized critics as supporters of non-cultural theories leaning on differential weathering, carnivore and rodent activity which Bonnichsen found less than compelling, as it ignored manifest tool usage related to the bones.

IV. Conclusion

The monograph Dart presented in Pretoria in 1959 is an elegant, thoughtful and exhaustive review of hominid tool use in the late australopithecine era. His statistical, behavioral and graphic support for the theory retain their cogency. The antler thrust into the femur, the toolbox organization and the drawings of grasped specimens are intuitive. Brain’s (1968) paper leaned heavily on assumptions about the behavior of hyenas which may or may not be compelling, and the ambiguous markings on the bones are interpreted in various ways by opposing parties. The selection and arrangement of certain tool-like bones is a compelling argument for hominid osteodontokeratic culture. The obvious utility of mandibles, canines, femurs and ulnae make Dart’s program hard to disprove.

The debate has been subsumed into larger philosophical and sociological debates over diet and behavior. The original work retains its convincing power and Dart’s discovery of a pre-lithic tool assemblage, while contested, made a large contribution to understanding early hominid behavior and culture. While many see the jaws, femurs, horns and mandibles as only so many random accretions in the den of a hyena, many observers cling to the logic of a primordial man fascinated by the potential usefulness of enamel, bone and horns—in the dimly understood era before any stone tool culture had dawned.

Raymond Dart led four generations of anthropologists with insight, courage and patience. He was fortunately placed to be able to deal competently with the fossils coming to light across Southern Africa in the 1920s. While building up the Medical School at Witwatersrand, he developed theories for the symbolic rock markings in Rhodesia and postulated a diffusionist (ex-migration/in-migration) racial theory for Africa.

He named Homo habilis a favor to his colleague Louis Leakey and also named australopithecus, after he had investigated the posterior lying midbrain lobe and articulated lunate sulcus of the Taungs Baby. By interpreting a tool assemblage found in a South African limestone quarry as a butcher shop, he gained notoriety and cleaved the anthropological mentalitie of the twentieth century. Raymond Dart, Victorian, Edwardian, World War II veteran, Cold War Era scientist and ninety-five year old emeritus of human anthropology, Raymond Dart experienced five full generational transitions of international scientific development, while all along retaining his courage, patience and analytic insight.

V. Table

Chronology of the Taungs Baby Controversy


Dart receives the Taungs fossil and brain cast from his student, Josephine Salmons.


Nature publishes Dart’s groundbreaking work on Australopithecus africanus


Sir Arthur Keith, W.L.H. Duckworth, Sir Andrew Smith Woodward oppose Dart.

Sir Grafton Elliot Smith demurs. British Empire Exhibition.


Keith publishes against Dart theory in Hammerton’s book, declares for Piltdown.


T. Adloff, Lancelot Hogben and W.K. Gregory all support Dart theory.


Smith, Keith and Woodward show no interest in Dart’s Theory at London Zoological Exhibition, Royal Society declines to publish Dart’s monograph. Dart ceases work on Taungs and Australopithecus.


Milo Hellman and W.K. Gregory publish in support of Dart theory.

Henri Breuil publishes “Bone and Antler Industry of Choukoutien Sinanthropus”


R. Broom, G.W.H. Schepers and Franz Weidenreich publish in support of Dart theory. Schepers and Broom win the Giraud Award.


Sir Arthur Keith issues full retraction in Nature, after 22 years. Cites the work of Broom and fully vindicates Dart’s theory that ‘Taungs Baby’ was a hominid anthropoid in the human ancestral line.

VI. Table

Chronology of the Makapansgat Osteodontokeratic Culture Controversy


Makapansgat Cave the site of Kruger siege, 2000 killed.


W.L. Distant publishes on the skulls found inside Makapansgat.


Wilfrid Eitzmann sends Dr. Dart some fossils from Makapansgat.


C. Van Riet Rowe finds handaxes and the ‘Cave of Hearths’ at Makapansgat.


Dart returns to Makapansgat for systematic search.


Dart publishes “Predatory implemental technique of the australopithicines.”


Dart publishes “The Osteodontokeratic Culture of Australopithecus Prometheus”

Washburn publishes.


Brain publishes “The Transvaal Ape-Man-Bearing Cave Deposits”


Kitching publishes “Bone, Tooth and Horn Tools of Paleolithic Man” in Britain.


Desmond Morris publishes “The Naked Ape”

Brain publishes “Who Killed the Swartkrans Ape Men?”


Brain publishes work on Hottentots, Hyenas and Bone accumulation theory.


Walberg publishes “The Hypothesized Osteodontokeratic Culture.”


Catherine Read-Martin and Dwight Read publish “Australopithecine Scavenging.”


Hill counters Read-Martin, against Dart with “Carnivora and Weathering.”


Boaz publishes “Quarry” against Dart.


Catherine Milton publishes “Meat Eating” in support of Dart.


Mary Clark publishes “In Search of Human Nature” against Dart.

Shanet Clark

GSU Atlanta 2006

Edited by Shanet Clark
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