Australian anatomist and anthropologist Raymond Dart was known for his discovery and analysis of the fossil hominid Australopithecus africanus. Born in Toowong, Brisbane, Australia, Dart was one of nine children born to strict and religious parents. Living and working on his parents’ Australian bush farm, Dart’s pioneer life and naturalistic inclinations would influence both his decision to leave the farm and to pursue a course of relevant academic interest. After attending Ipswich Grammar School, Dart won a scholarship and attended the University of Queensland, where he studied zoology. Proving his academic merit, Dart won a residential scholarship to St. Andrew’s College in Sydney, where he studied biology.
After his graduation in 1917, Dart went to wartime England to serve in the medical corps. This would give Dart the opportunity to study in London, England. While at University College, London, Dart studied anatomy under Elliot Smith. During this period of study, Dart was presented with an opportunity to study in America. Due to the generous contributions of the Rockefeller Foundation, Dart went to Washington University, St. Louis, United States, to study histology. Between studies and research, Dart met and married Dora Tyree, before returning to England in 1921. Upon returning to University College, Dart was appointed head of histology. During his remaining time at University College, the influence of neurologist Dr. Kulchitsky, former Russian Minister of Education and political refugee, served to strengthen Dart’s ability in both microscopic and gross anatomy. With the encouragement of Elliot Smith and Arthur
Keith, Dart accepted the chair of anatomy at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1922. However, accepting the chair was not tantamount to his research and position at University College. The city of Johannesburg was thriving, but the department at the university was not. Since the University of Witwatersrand severely lacked both equipment and literature, Dart renewed his interest in anthropology.
Contributions and Perspectives
During the time when Asia was thought to be the cradle of humankind, the discovery at Taung in the Bechuanaland Protectorate rekindled the Darwinian speculation that Africa was the origin of our species. Recovering fossils lying in limestone (through the aid of both Dart’s students and miners at the Taung mines), Dart began to evaluate the specimens that were sent. One of the first specimens was an endocranial cast that was bigger than a baboon or chimpanzee (with a cranial capacity around 520 cc) but less than what can be considered as primitive for the human species. With small canine teeth and a more forward foramen magnum, the morphological features would indicate that the specimen could be considered as the “missing link” between the human species and the common ape. When comparing and contrasting any significant features, what was of real importance was that the specimen possessed two distinct furrows, lunate and parallel sulci, the latter of which are found in primitive humans. Given the geographic location, this species would indicate a deviation in the previous thought concerning the habitat of our early ancestors. What was more striking and controversial than the origin was the possibility concerning the depth of the australopithecine’s Osteodontokeratic culture.
Finding and correctly interpreting behavior via material culture is problematic at best. Facing conflicting theoretical constructs and related terminology, the possibility for a conclusive definition may seem elusive, whether it is applied to either our remote ancestors or our living cousins, the chimpanzees. The imposing question remains: Does the manufacturing of tools become a sole indicator of hominid intelligence and related culture? Or may the possibility of utilizing, and perhaps slightly modifying, preexisting material for intentional be seen as a cultural indicator? For Dart, this question was not problematic. The australopithecines did possess a rudimentary form of culture. The implication concerning hominid behavior was staggering: No longer were our ancestors seen as passive and humble creatures of the forest canopy. Rather, they were depicted as aggressive and intelligent hunters on the open plains and grassy savannas. This translated into a unique view of this hominid form.
According to Dart, the South African man-apes utilized many existing bones as tools. Similar to the evidence found at Choukoutien, Dart came to the conclusion that this hominid form expressed its behavior in the same way. Using an antelope thigh bone or arm bone as a club or sharp ends of broken bones as daggers, the australopithecines became a formidable predator. Although the evidence at Taung was attempted to be dismissed as being a product of hyenas (which itself is a myth), the faunal remains (buffalo, saber-toothed tiger, and giant porcupine) suggest that these hominids must have had the ability to effectively communicate and execute complex maneuvers. Such dangerous confrontations would have had to necessitate both higher forms of technology (beyond arbitrary implements) and social structure. However, the world of academia would be reluctant to extend many of the attributes to the Osteodontokeratic culture.
The contribution made by Dart was considerable. Besides his insights into anatomical evaluation of the specimen at Taung (especially in viewing the endocranial cast), the extending of human qualities continues to raise philosophical questions. This can be divided into two issues, one being taxonomical and the other being cultural. In view of the morphological characteristics of the australopithecines, the adoption of an erect posture promoted bipedality. This fact, along with an increase in cranial capacity and the free use of hands, made the australopithecines more reliant on their larger brains (some past the “Rubicon” of 750 cc) than brute strength. Although this “missing link” was not capable of articulate speech, the physiological characteristics of their brains do suggest greater complexity than was seen in earlier hominid forms. The placement of these hominids among the array of other hominid forms provided the Darwinian view of gradualism and continuity. With their more complex brains and bipedal gait, the development of culture becomes a necessity. The defining attributes of culture, similar to that of characteristics in general, become subjective to the anthropocentric evaluation of our species. The reluctance to credit this hominid form, as with our primate cousins, tends to obscure the evolutionary progression of our own humanity. Granting that the extent by which this can be called culture is not great as compared to the advancements of modern humankind, Dart’s evaluation forces us to reevaluate humankind’s place within nature.
- Dart, R. (1956). The myth of the bone-accumulating hyena. American Anthropologist, 58, 40-62.
- Dart, R. (1958). Bone tools and porcupine gnawing. American Anthropologist, 60, 715-724.
- Dart, R. (1960). The bone tool-manufacturing ability of Australopithecus prometheus. American Anthropologist, 62, 134-143.
- Dart, R. (1982). Adventures with the missing link. Philadelphia: Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential.