When Raymond Dart discovered the Taung Child, Australopithecus africanus, how was he convinced that it was a human ancestor?  What mistakes did he make when attempting to prove this to other paleoanthropologists? It has often been said that Dart attempted to do this "at the wrong time in the wrong place."  How would this explain his failure to convince the scientific world that he had discovered the oldest human ancestor? Consider where the Taung Child was found, and also keep in mind other paleoanthropological discoveries occurring at the same time. Additionally, keep in mind the "zeitgeis" of the time (i.e., the way people thought in the early 1920s). 

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When the skull that became known as the Taung Child or Australopithecus africanus was discovered in 1924, Raymond Dart became convinced that it belonged to a human ancestor because the skull showed evidence of a complex brain as well as small teeth that looked human. Further, Dart could tell that...

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When the skull that became known as the Taung Child or Australopithecus africanus was discovered in 1924, Raymond Dart became convinced that it belonged to a human ancestor because the skull showed evidence of a complex brain as well as small teeth that looked human. Further, Dart could tell that the owner of this skull once walked upright and not like an ape.

Dart, however, may have been too quick to present his claims, and his article about the Taung Child earned him plenty of criticism from others in the field. For one thing, the Piltdown Man hoax had occurred only a little more than a decade before, and paleoanthropologists were being extra careful at this point. They had lost credibility over Piltdown, and they were not willing to have the same thing happen twice.

Further, many scientists believed that the skull was much more like that of a baby chimpanzee or gorilla than any human ancestor. The young of those species have skulls that look quite human simply because they are not developed. Many paleoanthropologists also had set ideas about what the skulls of human ancestors should look like. They expected big brains and big teeth, not small, complex brains and small teeth, and they were not willing to let go of their expectations.

Finally, in the 1920s, many people were still firmly against the idea of human evolution for religious or other reasons. These people protested mightily, and Dart even received some threats.

Over the following decades, though, paleoanthropologists did come to accept Dart's claims, and today the Taung Child is considered a humanoid, the evolutionary ancestor of human beings.

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