How did Raymond Dart's discovery of the Taung Child convince him of its ancestral human link, and why did his attempt to prove this fail among paleoanthropologists?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial