Ninety Years Later

In 1925, Raymond Dart sent a cast of the first australopithecine from South Africa to the British Colonial Exhibition at Wembley as a key specimen from the Transvaal.  This fossil, the Taung Child, and its exhibit created quite a stir among scientific circles in part because Dart argued the fossil to be a human ancestor  And in part because other prominent members of the paleo-intelligentsia were made to parade through the public exhibit to examine the specimen, rather than get a special viewing on their own.  The Taung Child’s casts became the “everyman’s fossil” and a great equalizing object as expert and amateur fossil enthusiasts saw the first fossil casts together in a space that did not differentiate the privilege of education and expertise.

Since Dart’s original publication of the Taung Child, paleoanthropological sites in the Cradle of Humankind have provided hundreds of specimens, representing a myriad of human ancestors.  (As well as fossil clues for the hominins’ paleoenvironments...)

Fast forward ninety years, and the latest paleoanthropological expedition in the region, the Rising Star Expedition, continues to champion that same open dialog and intellectual space of “doing science” originally put forward by Dart.  The expedition (#risingstarexpedition), directed by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand and chronicled by paleoanthropologist John Hawks and National Geographic writer Andrew Howley, stands in contrast to many paleoanthropological projects and many fossil discoveries. 

In 1925, the Wembley Commission pointed out “all who wanted could acquire” a cast of the Taungs skull (more or less) for the cost of £15.  Thanks to live tweets and National Geographic blog posts, the cost of admission to the Rising Star Expedition is an internet connection. 

Letter from the Wembley Commission to Raymond Dart, 1925.  The exhibit of the Taung cast at Wembley was a huge success -- Dart and the casting company filled international orders for decades.  (photo: L. Pyne, courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand.)

Letter from the Wembley Commission to Raymond Dart, 1925.  The exhibit of the Taung cast at Wembley was a huge success -- Dart and the casting company filled international orders for decades.  (photo: L. Pyne, courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand.)