"The Work on the Taungs Material is Progressing..."

 Paleo lineup, ca. 1950.  Casts from R.F. Damon & Company.  Photo courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand archive.

Paleo lineup, ca. 1950.  Casts from R.F. Damon & Company.  Photo courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand archive.

Paleoanthropology is a science that depends on access.  Access to collections, access to measurements, access to methods, and, of course, access to hominin fossils, themselves.  The question of what “access” means and how that translates into “good science” – a trade-off of collaboration and control – has been asked and answered many times throughout paleoanthropology’s history.

 

For early twentieth century paleoanthropology, access to fossils came primarily through the creation and exchange of casts.  As shipping a rare, original fossil was undesirable, a cast of a fossil became a useful and important replica – a proxy that could be studied and measured in scientific circles and displayed in a museum.   

For most of the twentieth-century, a cast offered a way to circulate scientific data and to foster connections between researchers and museums.  Conversely, it meant that access to the fossil casts was controlled through both the fossil’s discoverer (by deciding whether or not to create a cast in the first place) and the casting company (by setting prices and creating accurate reproductions of it.) 

 Except from Mr. F.O. Barlow's correspondence to Dr. Raymond Dart, 1928.  Document courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand archive.

Except from Mr. F.O. Barlow's correspondence to Dr. Raymond Dart, 1928.  Document courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand archive.

Companies that created fossil casts functioned as a nexus for the exchange of fossil information. Although they made the exchange of scientific information easier, the casts represented a huge commitment of time, resource, and investment.

 Except from Mr. F.O. Barlow's correspondence to Dr. Raymond Dart, 1928.  Document courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand archive.

Except from Mr. F.O. Barlow's correspondence to Dr. Raymond Dart, 1928.  Document courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand archive.

R.F. Damon & Company, Makers of Anthropological and Palaeontological Casts and Models, was one such company.  Most of the famous hominin fossils of the twentieth-century were created and cast by R.F. Damon & Company – the Taung Child, Peking Man, Piltdown Man, and Pithecanthropus. 

 Advertisement for R.F. Damon & Company's fossil catalog.  Document courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand archive.

Advertisement for R.F. Damon & Company's fossil catalog.  Document courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand archive.

Look for the full history of R.F. Damon & Company and its fossil casts in an upcoming article in The Appendix!