February 4, 1893 (a Saturday)

Raymond Dart with the Taung skull.

On this date, the South African physical anthropologist and paleontologist Raymond Arthur Dart was born in Australia. His discoveries of fossil hominins led to significant insights into the evolutionary origins of human beings.

In 1924, working with students in the Taung limestone works in Bechuanaland, Dart was rewarded with a most interesting find. It seemed at first to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. He recognized it as the remains of a transitional form in the evolution from ape to man. Dart had found the “Taung child”, only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus, “australis” meaning south and “pithecus” meaning ape. At a time when Asia was believed to have been the cradle of mankind, Dart’s discovery substantiated Charles Darwin’s prediction that such ancestral hominin forms would be found in Africa.

Dart’s claim that a creature with an ape-sized brain could have dental and postural characteristics approaching those of humans initially met with hostile skepticism because his theory entailed the principle of mosaic evolution, or the development of some characteristics in advance of others. His claim also differed sharply from the mosaicist position of Elliot Smith, who held that hominization began with an enlarged cranial capacity. Nevertheless, Dart lived to see his theories corroborated by further discoveries of Australopithecus remains at Makapansgat in South Africa in the late 1940s and by the subsequent discoveries of Louis Leakey, which firmly established Africa as the site of mankind’s earliest origins.

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