Dart, Raymond Arthur

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MB 1917 MSurgery 1917 MD 1927

Raymond Arthur Dart, anatomist and anthropologist, discovered ‘the Taung child’ in 1924.

Raymond was born in February 1893 in Toowong, Brisbane. He began his studies at the University of Queensland, later coming to Sydney to study Medicine within the Faculty. He graduated in 1917.

In 1920 Raymond commenced his post-graduate studies at the University of London with Grafton Elliot Smith and Arthur Keith. Under the mentorship of Elliot Smith, Raymond applied for the position of Professor of Anatomy at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In 1922 he moved to South Africa to take up the appointment, there extending his interest in early anatomy to include physical anthropology and palaeontology. His work was a combination of laboratory research and fieldwork.

In 1924 he was working with his students in the Taung limestone works in the Harts Valley, Bechuanaland (now Botswana). As Chrissy Duhn writes:

He offered a reward to those students who made the most interesting finds. First, there was an endocranial cast found, which seemed at first to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. His intrigue and dedication led him into 73 days of gruelling chipping and digging, which paid off in the end. Raymond Dart had discovered the Taung child, who was only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus, “australis” meaning south and “pithecus” meaning ape.[1]

Raymond recounted years later:

On the very top of the rock heap was what was undoubtedly an endocranial cast or mould of the interior of the skull. Had it been only the fossilised brain cast of any species of ape, it would have ranked as a great discovery, for such a thing had never before been reported. But I knew at a glance that what lay in my hands was no ordinary anthropoidal brain. Here in lime-consolidated sand was the replica of a brain three times as large as that of a baboon, and considerably bigger than that of an adult chimpanzee.[1]

Raymond hypothesised that Australopithecus africanus used tools made from the long bones of gazelles, antelopes and wild boar. There had been an accumulation of bones found alongside the Taung child, and his findings created speculation as to whether these bones were used by Australopithecus africanus as tools, or whether they were simply an accumulation of food refuse. He submitted his thesis to Nature Magazine, officially naming the species Australopithecus africanus. His work was published in early 1925, his finding receiving world acclaim as scientists squabbled to decide whether the Taung child was ape or human, or somewhere in between. Raymond’s evidence showed that the child had an ape-sized brain but that its dental and postural characteristics were closer to those of humans. Raymond further argued that as the head of the Taung child was balanced on the vertebral column, this meant that the Taung child had walked upright on two legs, rather than four. His discovery of the earliest human in Africa also challenged those who had seen Asia as the site of origin of man.

Thus Raymond’s discoveries challenged scientific knowledge of the day and caused much public controversy. Even his mentors, Grafton Elliot Smith and Arthur Keith, were not convinced of the accuracy of Raymond’s findings for many years to come. However, fellow palaeontologists Robert Broom found and identified two further forms of Australopithecus in 1936 at a site in the same area that Raymond had worked in 12 years before. The well-known anatomist Wilford Le Gros Clark too travelled to Africa in 1947 to investigate the validity of Raymond’s claims. Wilford’s own findings confirmed those of both Raymond Dart and Robert Broom. Twenty-three years later, in 1970, the Taung child was finally recognised and acknowledged as an important discovery that changed our understanding of the evolution of mankind. Yet it remains unclear whether Australopithecus is a direct ancestor of the genus Homo or “merely our cousins on the evolutionary scale”.[1]

Raymond remained teaching at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg until his retirement in 1958. The Institute for the Study of Man was founded there in his honour. Raymond died in November 1988, at the age of 95.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Dart, Raymond Arthur. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.