Who Discovered Human Evolution and When was the Taung skull found in South Africa?

Humans have always wondered how we came to be on this planet. Virtually every culture and religion has created myths to explain the creation of humans.

In the early twentieth century, most scientists believed that the first humans appeared in Asia or Eastern Europe. Then Dart discovered the Taung skull and provided the first solid evidence both of an African evolution of the first humanoids and a fossil link between humans and apes, substantiating one part of Darwin’s theories. This discovery redirected all of human evolutionary research and theory and has served as a cornerstone of science’s modern beliefs about the history and origin of our species.

Raymond Dart was born in Queensland, Australia, in 1893 on a bush farm where his family was struggling to raise cattle. He excelled in school and received scholarships to study medicine, specializing in neural anatomy (the anatomy of skull and brain).

In 1920 he gained a prestigious position as assistant to Grafton Elliot Smith at the University of Manchester, England. But their relationship soured and, in 1922, shortly after his thirtieth birthday, Dart was sent off to be a professor of anatomy at the newly formed University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dart arrived feeling bitterly betrayed and outcast.

In 1924 Dart learned of several fossil baboon skulls that had been found at a nearby limestone quarry at Taung. Dart asked that they be sent to him along with any other fossils found at the site. He did not anticipate finding anything particularly interesting in these fossils, but the new university’s anatomical museum desperately needed anything it could get.

The first two boxes of fossil bones were delivered to Dart’s house one Saturday afternoon in early September 1924, just as he was dressing for a wedding reception to be held at his house later that afternoon. He almost set the boxes aside. But curiosity made him open them there in his driveway. The first box contained nothing of particular interest.

However, on top of the heap of rock inside the second box lay what he instantly recognized as undoubtedly a cast or mold of the interior of a skull, a fossilized brain (rare enough in and of itself). Dart knew at first glance that this was no ordinary anthropoid (ape) brain. It was three times the size of a baboon’s brain and considerably larger than even an adult chimpanzee’s.

The brain’s shape was also different from that of any ape Dart had studied. The forebrain had grown large and bulging, completely covering the hindbrain. It was closer to a human brain and yet, certainly, not fully human. It had to be a link between ape and human.

Dart feverishly searched through the box for a skull to match this brain so that he could put a face on this creature. Luckily he found a large stone with a depression into which the brain cast fit perfectly. He stood transfixed in the driveway with the brain cast and skull-containing rock in his hands, so long that he was late for the wedding.

He spent the next three months patiently chipping away the rock matrix that covered the actual skull, using his wife’s sharpened knitting needles. Two days before Christmas, a child’s face emerged, complete with a full set of milk teeth and permanent molars still in the process of erupting. The Taung skull and brain were that of an early humanlike child.

Dart quickly wrote an article for Nature magazine describing his discovery of the early humanoid and showed how the structure of the skull and spinal cord connection clearly showed that the child had walked upright. Dart claimed to have discovered the “missing link” that showed how humans evolved in the African plain from apes.

The scientific community were neither impressed with Dart’s description nor convinced. All European scientists remained skeptical until well-respected Scotsman Robert Broom discovered a second African skull in 1938 that supported and substantiated Dart’s discovery.

Darwin believed that humanoids emerged in Africa. No one believed him for 50 years, until Dart uncovered his famed skull in 1924.