Dart, Raymond Arthur
DART, RAYMOND ARTHUR
(b. Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 4 February 1893;
d. Johannesburg, South Africa, 22 November 1988), pale-oanthropology, anatomy.
Dart fundamentally changed research into human origins through his discovery of Australopithecus africanus, a new species of hominid that Dart considered the evolutionary link between the anthropoid apes and modern humans. His years of research and his sustained effort to convince others of the importance of the australopithecines in the history of human evolution helped to focus the attention of paleoanthropologists toward Africa as the continent where the earliest human ancestors would be found. His work on the origins of tool use, although now discredited, offers historians important insights into twentieth century debates over the role of tools in human evolution.
Education and Training . Dart was born in a suburb of Brisbane called Toowong, the son of Samuel Dart and Eliza Anne Brimblecombe. Dart’s maternal and paternal grandfathers had both emigrated from Devonshire, in England, to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, one to search for gold and the other to grow sugarcane. After attending the prestigious Ipswich Grammar School, he left to study medicine at the University of Queensland in 1911. Dart had been raised in a strict religiously fundamentalist family, but at university he encountered evolution theory and acquired a love for zoology. He completed his Honors degree in 1913 and his MS in 1915.
In 1914, he entered the University of Sydney, where he was a tutor of biology in St. Andrew’s College as well as a demonstrator of anatomy and later secretary of the Sydney University Medical Society. That same year the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Sydney. At the meeting Dart met the prominent neuroanatomist and physical anthropologist Grafton Elliot Smith, himself a graduate of the University of Sydney, and William Johnson Sollas. From 1915 to 1917, Dart assisted James Thomas Wilson, head of the Anatomy Department, in his anatomical studies of the human brain. Dart’s achievements were such that he was made vice principal of St. Andrew’s College during his last year at the university.
Dart continued with his studies despite the outbreak of World War I, and he completed his medical degree in 1917. Soon thereafter he enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corp and shipped out to England in 1918. He spent the last year of the war stationed in France, but after demobilization in 1919, Dart left for University College, London, to join Grafton Elliot Smith in the Department of Anatomy, where he served as senior demonstrator. Soon after he joined the department, however, Elliot Smith encouraged Dart to accept an opportunity from the Rockefeller Foundation to teach and pursue research in the United States. Dart arrived at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, late in 1920. Robert J. Terry, the head of the Anatomy Department at the time, was assembling a large collection of human skeletons of different races at the university, and this demonstrated to Dart the value of anatomical collections, which would prove important later in his career. Dart spent a brief period demonstrating anatomy in Cincinnati, Ohio, and there he met a medical student named Dora Tyree. They married at Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts, in September 1921, just before Dart was to leave for England.
After his return to University College, Dart became interested in physical anthropology and began exploring the collection of brains housed at the Royal College of Surgeons. Elliot Smith had become deeply involved in anatomical studies of the Piltdown Man fossils, which drew Dart into the growing debate about their meaning. But then in 1922, Elliot Smith suggested that Dart apply for the Chair of Anatomy at the newly established University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dart was not keen to leave England, but he and Dora left for South Africa in December 1922. The medical school’s facilities were still under construction when Dart arrived, and he spent his early years at the university simply assembling the materials needed for a functioning department. In addition to his duties as professor of anatomy, Dart was dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the university from 1925 to 1943, and from 1934 to 1948 he served on the South African Medical and Dental Council.
Discovery of Australopithecus . Dart’s life and career took a dramatic turn in 1924 when in November of that year he received a crate full of fossils blasted from the Northern Lime Company’s quarries in Buxton, near the town of Taungs (the spelling was later changed to Taung). Among the various fossils in the crate were two pieces of breccia; in one Dart recognized an endocranial cast (the fossilized cast of the brain), and in the other he could see the interior of the front of a cranium, the bones of the face still encased in stone. Earlier in the year one of Dart’s medical students, Josephine Salmons, had brought him a fossilized baboon skull that had been found at the Taung quarry. The existence of fossil primates at the site had captured Dart’s attention, and he arranged for any other interesting fossils to be sent to him. The endocranial cast and partial cranium were particularly interesting because Dart quickly recognized that they belonged to some sort of primate.
Over the next four weeks, Dart carefully removed the stone to reveal the front portion of the skull of a hitherto unknown primate. The creature had humanlike teeth, and from the position of the foramen magnum, the opening where the spinal cord enters the skull, it was clear the creature walked upright. There were also humanlike features present in the endocranial cast. But there were also apelike features to the skull, most noticeably the small braincase. Interpretation of the fossil was made difficult by the fact that the remains were from a juvenile, perhaps only five or six years old, but Dart was convinced that he possessed an extinct species of anthropoid ape that evolutionarily represented an intermediate stage between apes and humans.
In January 1925, Dart sent a short article announcing his discovery to the journal Nature. The article, which was published in February, described the anatomical features of the fossil, the geological evidence for its antiquity, and Dart’s conclusion that the creature would best be described as a “man-like ape” and might very well be ancestral to modern humans. Dart named this new species Australopithecus africanus, or southern ape from Africa. The discovery attracted considerable interest and generated much debate. Despite the fact that Charles Darwin had suggested in the Descent of Man (1871) that humans had evolved from an apelike ancestor in Africa, many anthropologists of the early twentieth century thought that humans had evolved in Asia. Pithecanthropus erectus had been discovered by Eugène Dubois on the island of Java in the 1890s, and Henry Fairfield Osborn’s conviction that fossil human ancestors would be found in China was confirmed when successive excavations led by Davidson Black, Franz Weidenreich, and Pei Wenzhong recovered numerous specimens of Sinanthropus pekinensis(Peking Man) from the site of Zhoukoudian in China in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, few anthropologists were looking to Africa for evidence of human evolution.
The response to Australopithecus africanus was also influenced by differing conceptions of human evolution itself. Some anthropologists thought that in the process of human evolution bipedalism (walking upright) had evolved first and that led to an increase in the size of the brain as the hands were used to make tools. The small-brained but upright-walking Pithecanthropus erectus fossil supported this view. However, there was a significant contingent of anthropologists, led in England by Arthur Keith, who believed that intelligence and a large brain had evolved first and that had led to bipedalism. They dismissed Pithecanthropus as a human ancestor and pointed instead to the Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni) fossils unearthed between 1908 and 1911 to support their view. From this perspective, the small brained Australopithecus africanus did not correspond to their conception of a human ancestor.
A week after Nature published Dart’s account of Australopithecus africanus, the journal published responses by several influential British physical anthropologists to Dart’s discovery. Dart’s old mentor at University College, Grafton Elliot Smith, Arthur Keith, anatomist at the Royal College of Surgeons, and Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology and the British Museum (Natural History) each thought the discovery was significant but were skeptical about Dart’s suggestion that Australopithecus was a human ancestor. Dart did find one valuable supporter, however. Robert Broom, a Scottish-born physician who had emigrated to South Africa early in life and become an expert in paleontology, learned of Dart’s discovery and immediately traveled to Johannesburg to see the fossil for himself. After inspecting the fossil and discussing it with Dart, Broom became convinced that Australopithecus was not merely an extinct species of ape but was in fact an intermediate form between the anthropoid apes and humans. Broom wrote two influential articles in 1925, one in Nature and the other in Natural History, that provided observations and arguments that strengthened Dart’s assertion that Australopithecus africanus was a human ancestor. But this still failed to convert other anthropologists to Dart’s view.
Dart received an important opportunity to make his case more directly when he was invited to prepare an exhibit for the South African pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley, in London, during the summer of 1925. Dart had plaster casts of the skull prepared along with a chart that represented Australopithecus africanus as ancestral to Pithecanthropus and in an evolutionary tree that showed other early human types such as Neanderthal. The casts and the chart appeared under a banner boldly proclaiming “Africa: The Cradle of Humanity,” which prompted a very negative reaction from Arthur Keith and others who were unwilling to accept such a strong claim for Dart’s fossil. Late that summer Aleŝ HrdliČka, a leading physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, traveled to South Africa to examine the specimen for himself and to visit the site where it had been found. He acknowledged Australopithecus’s significance for understanding primate evolution, but he was unwilling to accept Dart and Broom’s stronger claims.
As the initial excitement over the discovery faded, Dart continued to study the skull, working to free the lower jaw from the rest of the face so as to be able to more closely examine the teeth, which would help to determine if Australopithecus was more apelike or on the path to becoming human. Meanwhile, his duties at the university were consuming much of his time, so work on Australopithecus proceeded slowly. Moreover, Robert Broom had realized that in order to truly convince other scientists of their interpretation of Australopithecus it would be necessary to find a more complete skeleton and fossils of adult specimens. Dart finally succeeded in freeing the lower jaw from the skull in 1929, and he prepared casts of the jaw to be sent to experts around the world. The British Association for the Advancement of Science also met in Johannesburg that year, and though Dart hoped that some of his critics would examine the fossil and change their minds, most continued to consider Australopithecus an extinct species of ape and not a human ancestor.
Then toward the end of 1929, the Italian Scientific Expedition, led by Attilio Gatti, invited Dart to accompany their research team on an eight-month research expedition through central and southern Africa. The expedition explored the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and the archaeological site of Solwezi. These experiences increased Dart’s interest in anthropology and archaeology more broadly. He closely followed the excavation of the archaeological site of Mapungubwe, located in the Northern Transvaal, which began in 1932. Dart also briefly explored evidence of a cultural connection between ancient India and China and the peoples that had built Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe. A further opportunity to study the indigenous cultures of southern Africa arose in 1937, when Dart was asked to join a team that planned to assemble a group of Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert that would be displayed at an exhibition celebrating the British Empire to be held in Johannesburg. Little scientific information had previously been collected about the physical and cultural attributes of the Bushmen, and Dart spent a month studying their physical traits. Their culture and technology also impressed Dart as living examples of Middle Stone Age cultures, much like that probably possessed by the so-called Boskop Man, whose fossilized remains had been discovered in the Transvaal in 1914.
Dart had devoted only limited time to working on Australopithecus during the 1930s. A promising opportunity arose to present the specimen to colleagues in Europe when Dart’s wife Dora, who had suspended her medical studies when they had married, decided to go to England in 1930 to continue her medical training, which she had resumed in Johannesburg. She took the Australopithecus fossil with her and showed it to several scientists. Dart joined her briefly in 1931 and used the occasion to visit Grafton Elliot Smith, Arthur Keith, and Arthur Smith Woodward, but they were far more interested in the recently discovered Peking Man fossils from China. Even his presentation delivered at the Zoological Society of London in February, where he displayed the skull, generated little excitement. Although Dart returned to Johannesburg somewhat discouraged, important events soon changed the status of Australopithecus africanus.
Robert Broom had hoped to find further specimens of Australopithecus ever since his first encounter with Dart’s discovery. Broom’s ability to pursue that search improved in 1934 when he was appointed curator of vertebrate paleontology and physical anthropology at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. He achieved spectacular success in 1936 when he found a partial skull of a creature very like Australopithecus in a quarry at a site called Sterkfontein. Despite its similarities to Dart’s fossil, Broom considered it a separate species and named it Plesianthropus transvaalensis. Then in 1938, Broom obtained a partial skull and other bones at Kromdraai, just across the valley from Sterkfontein, which differed enough from his previous discovery that he created another new species, Paranthropus robustus. The outbreak of World War II diverted both Dart and Broom from devoting much further time to searching for fossils, but they now had fossils from three different specimens of australopithecine upon which to build a better case for their being human ancestors.
Dart spent the years just prior to and during the war teaching and conducting research in comparative neurology. His marriage to Dora ended in 1933, but he married Marjorie Frew, the head librarian at the university’s medical library, in 1936. Broom, however, was busy preparing a monograph with Gerrit Willem Hendrik Schepers on the various australopithecine fossils that had been collected thus far. Attitudes about Australopithecus began to change after the war, in part due to the publication of Broom and Schepers’ The South African Fossil Ape-Men: The Australopithecinae (1946), which presented detailed descriptions of the fossils and an argument in support of their intermediate status between apes and humans. Equally significant was the visit to South Africa by Wilfrid Le Gros Clark in 1947 to examine the Australopithecus fossils firsthand. Le Gros Clark, professor of anatomy at Oxford University, possessed an extensive knowledge of primate comparative anatomy. His investigation of Dart and Broom’s fossils led him to conclude that Dart and Broom were correct, and the australopithecines did possess features that indicated they were an evolutionary link between early anthropoids and modern humans. Le Gros Clark’s prominence in Britain influenced many to take Australopithecus seriously as a human ancestor.
Makapansgat and the Osteodontokeratic . Dart’s relative inactivity in studying his fossil during the 1930s and 1940s came to an end in 1947 when James Kitching of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, which had been established at the University of Witwatersrand in 1945 to encourage research into paleontology, unearthed a portion of an Australopithecus cranium along with an enormous quantity of animal bones at a limestone quarry located in Makapansgat, in the center of Transvaal province. The discovery reignited Dart’s interest in human paleontology and sparked a new period of intensive research into the culture and evolutionary status of the australopithecines. The presence of charred material at the site led Dart to name the newly discovered fossil Australopithecus prometheus. Again Dart examined the fossil for evidence of its relationship to apes and humans, but the quantity and nature of the animal bones found at the site also drew Dart’s attention.
Kitching had found baboon skulls at Makapansgat that had been fractured in such a way that Dart suspected they had been struck by some kind of club. Moreover a survey of the animal bones present at the site showed an unusual number of ungulate leg bones. The abundance of bones from big game animals indicated that perhaps Australopithecus had been a hunter. Then Dart examined the fractures on the baboon skulls and concluded they resulted from the skulls being smashed by a leg bone used as a club. Thus it appeared that Australopithecus had hunted big game animals and used some of their bones as weapons, both of which were behaviors that were distinctly human and not apelike. In 1948, Dart, Kitching, and Alun Hughes (who was Dart’s assistant in the Anatomy Department) began a systematic search through the debris piles at the Makapansgat limeworks searching for additional Australopithecus fossils and further evidence of Australopithecus tool use. Work at Makapansgat continued through the 1960s and proved remarkably productive.
Additional Australopithecus fossils were periodically discovered, but increasingly Dart’s attention was devoted to collecting and interpreting the animal bones found at Makapansgat. Gradually Dart became convinced, from the kinds of bones he was finding and evidence that some of these bones had been modified, that he had discovered tools that had been used by the australopithecines of Makapansgat. No stone tools had been discovered at Makapansgat, or at any other australopithecine site, and Dart began to suspect that the evidence at Makapansgat showed that before the existence of stone tools bone had been used to make tools. He identified examples of leg bones, horns, and jaw bones that seemed to have been used as clubs, picks, knives, and saws. Dart argued that due to the difficulty of manufacturing tools from stone and the fact that bone tools worked very well for many of the same kinds of tasks that stone tools were later used for, it made sense that Australopithecus would have used bone tools. At the Third Pan-African Congress on Prehistory, held in 1955 in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia, Dart displayed a collection of these bone implements and presented a paper which outlined his arguments that Australopithecus had possessed an osteodontokeratic (bone-tooth-horn) culture.
There was immediate criticism of Dart’s osteodontokeratic tools and of the idea that the australopithecines had been tool users or tool makers. Sherwood Washburn argued, as did others, that the modifications to the bones Dart noted were not from their being used as tools but resulted from the bones being gnawed by carnivores before becoming fossilized. More seriously, Kenneth Oakley argued against the notion that Australopithecus was capable of making tools and was skeptical that they even used tools. Dart responded by rejecting the carnivore gnawing hypothesis and vigorously defended his evidence for an Australopithecus osteodontokeratic culture. Dart devoted tremendous energy and time to collecting and examining bone tools from Makapansgat between 1953
and 1965, resulting in a steady stream of articles supporting the osteodontokeratic tools of Australopithecus and his argument that Australopithecus had been a tool user.
There is considerable historical evidence to suggest that Dart’s interest in and ardent defense of the osteodontokeratic was related to his early failure to convince colleagues that Australopithecus was a human ancestor on the basis of the anatomy of the fossils. Once he had evidence that the australopithecines were tool users, he realized he had powerful support for his interpretation of the Australopithecus fossils because tool use represented a level of intelligence and culture that only humans and “protohumans” would possess. Despite Dart’s immense efforts, however, few researchers ever accepted the validity of the osteodontokeratic, and it was later shown, partially on the basis of studies conducted by Charles Kimberlin (Bob) Brain in the 1970s, that Dart’s bone tools were actually produced by natural weathering and carnivore gnawing.
Dart retired from teaching in 1958 but remained active in research through the 1960s. He wrote an autobiographical account of his studies in Adventures with theMissing Link, which was published in 1959. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1930 and served as an officer in many of the early Pan-African Congresses on Prehistory. Dart had a lasting institutional impact by gathering around himself a talented group of researchers who made the University of Witwatersrand a center for the study of paleoanthropology. Dart’s broader influence on paleoanthropology was to help shift the search for the earliest evolutionary ancestors of modern humans from Asia to Africa, a process that Robert Broom and Louis Leakey also contributed to. Thus, Dart’s research opened the way for significant paleontological and archaeological discoveries in Africa.
The Raymond A. Dart Papers are split between the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of the Witswatersrand Medical School, Johannesburg, South Africa, and the University Archives, University of the Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
WORKS BY DART
“Australopithecus africanus: The Man-Ape of South Africa.” Nature 115 (1925): 195–199.
“The Makapansgat Proto-human Australo-pithecus prometheus.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 6, n.s., (1948): 259–283.
“The Predatory Implemental Technique of Australopithecus.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 7, n.s., (1949): 1–38.
“Cultural Status of the South African Man-Apes.” In Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955.
The Osteodontokeratic Culture of Australopithecus prometheus. Transvaal Museum Memoir, no. 10. Pretoria: Transvaal Museum, 1957.
Africa’s Place in the Emergence of Civilisation. Johannesburg: South African Broadcasting Corporation, 1959.
Broom, Robert. “Some Notes on the Taungs Skull.” Nature 115 (1925): 569–571.
———. “On the Newly Discovered South African Man-Ape.” Natural History 25 (1925): 409–418.
———, and Gerrit Willem Hendrik Schepers. The South African Fossil Ape-Man: The Australopithecinae. Pretoria: Transvaal Museum, 1946.
Fischer, Ilse. Professor Raymond Arthur Dart: A Bibliography of His Works. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, Department of Bibliography, Librarianship, and Typography, 1969. Includes brief biography.
Tobias, Phillip V. Dart, Taung and the “Missing Link”: An Essay on the Life and Work of Emeritus Professor Raymond Dart. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1984.
———. “Ape-like Australopithecus after Seventy Years: Was It a Hominid?” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Insititute 4 (1998): 283–308.
Wheelhouse, Frances. Raymond Arthur Dart: A Pictorial Profile. Sydney: Transpareon Press, 1983.
———, and Kathaleen S. Smithford. Dart: Scientist and Man of Grit. Sydney: Transpareon Press, 2001.
Matthew R. Goodrum