The Taung Child and Infamous Piltdown Hoax

On the 18th of December 1912, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announced the discovery of the infamous Piltdown bones to the Royal Geological Society. Contrary to popular opinion and in keeping with the scientific process, the scientific community were very sceptical of the discovery. That didn’t stop tabloid journalism from exaggerating and embellishing the discovery for a patriotic and nationalistic British public.

It demonstrated the power that the people like British tabloid magnate Alfred Harmsworth held in society, but the scientific process in the case of Piltdown was relatively immune to this. By 1921, Piltdown was considered an anomaly and usually excluded from discussions of hominin evolution. In November of 1953, about 37 years after the death of Charles Dawson, Time magazine published the results of in depth analyses demonstrating that the Piltdown remains were forgeries. By 2016, the identity of the hoaxer was conclusively demonstrated to be Charles Dawson himself.

The public perception of the forgery has been shaped by print media and documentaries covering in exceptional detail the potential forgers but this sadly neglects a hidden sad back story. Born on the 4th of February 1893 in Queensland, Australia, Raymond Arthur Dart (1893 – 1988), would become one of the best known of early palaeoanthropologists. By 1920, he was senior demonstrator at University College London under Grafton Elliot Smith and reluctantly became a Professor of anatomy at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. A few years later, fossil remains made their way to his desk and after some preparation, he reckoned that he had some new and undiscovered.

The three fossils elements included a partial mandible, the face and a natural endocast of the interior of the cranial vault. Taung 1 was the first fossil in the history of evolutionary research that allowed early palaeoanthropologists to interpret the morphology of the brain in a hominin, it was also the first fossil of an early hominin ancestors to be identified within the continent of Africa.

Taung 1 was found at the Taung Quarry and it has been suggested that it came from strata dating to about 2.8 million years of age. The young child died after becoming victim to an eagle attack as suggested by the claw marks around the eyes of the child. This was a pretty horrendous way to die and conjures images of an eagle flying across a landscape with claws firmly grasping the skull of the child by the eyes.

Eagle fossil bones were also found in the vicinity of the child’s remains. We do not know the sex of the child, but based upon the teeth preserved, this child died around the age of three and a half years of age. Forty days after the discovery of the fossilised remains, Raymond Dart posted an academic paper to the prestigious journal Nature, describing the fossil and diagnosing a new species for Taung 1 – Australopithecus africanus. The paper was published on the 7th of February 1925.

On Valentine’s Day, the 14th of February 1925, Dart received a review of his paper from Grafton Elliot-Smith, Arthur Smith-Woodward and Arthur Keith. The news was not good, all three emphasised their scepticism that Taung 1 was a hominin ancestor. Arthur Keith later stated: “an examination of the casts… will satisfy geologists that this claim is preposterous.

The skull is that of a young anthropoid ape… and showing so many points of affinity with the two living African anthropoids, the gorilla and chimpanzee, that there cannot be a moment’s hesitation in placing the fossil form in this living group”. It is impossible to imagine how betrayed Dart must have felt, particularly in light of his former mentor Arthur Keith’s condescending review. The Scottish palaeontologist Robert Bloom remained a strong supporter of Dart’s conclusions and set out himself to find more fossilised remains of our hominin ancestors.

His prospection efforts bore fruit when the remains of a new hominin and extinct cousin was identified. This creature would later become known as Paranthropus robustus, a metre-tall upright walking sedge-loving hominin.

There are a number of reasons for the dismissal of all the fossil discoveries in South Africa. The British scientists had to defend the Piltdown remains and any fossil discoveries abroad had to be dismissed with precision. The second reason has to do with the popular assumption that Asia was the cradle of humanity, thanks in no small part to the assumptions of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919). That said, when Eugene Dubois (1858 – 1940) announced the discovery of what would later become known as Homo erectus to the scientific world, he met similar scepticism, despite the location of the fossils hominin remains on the island of Java. Palaeoanthropological politics also played a role in the dismissals of the Javan and South African discoveries. If the British scientists were not associated with the fossil discovery, this was a sure-fire way to expect a negative review. Time became the greatest enemy of the egotistical British scientists, which began to erode their authority.

American palaeoanthropologists developed an interest in eastern Africa after the shock discovery of Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis at the Olduvai Gorge. Louis Leakey spent much of his time touring the United States and elsewhere talking about the potential of finding more fossils at the Gorge, whetting the appetite of budding palaeoanthropologists. Mary Leakey spent much of her time in eastern Africa diligently working to find fossil hominin remains at the Olduvai Gorge in particular. It would not be until the early 1980’s that the Leakeys would lose their control of who could work at the Olduvai Gorge. By this stage, everybody was in agreement that Charles Darwin predicted correctly that Africa was more than likely to the origin of humanity. This allowed palaeoanthropologists to look at Taung 1 in a new light. Sixteen years after the Piltdown remains were declared a hoax, Mary and Louis Leakey made the world look once and for all at Africa as the origin of humanity, thanks to the discovery of OH 5.

Witten by Charles T.G. Clarke

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