New ‘home’ for Taung Child

  • August 04, 2009

The Taung Child, found in 1924 in what is now the North West province, recently received a new home. After living in a wooden box at Wits University for many years, the world-famous fossil now resides in a modern storage case.

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The Taung Child, so named because it is the fossilised skull of a child aged about three when it died, was first identified by Professor Raymond Dart of the University of the Witwatersrand. He gave the fossil, which is more than 2-million years old, the species name Australopithecus africanus, which means “southern ape of Africa”.

But Australopithecus africanus was not an ape at all. It was an upright-walking hominid with human-like teeth and hands and some ape-like features, such as a small brain, flattened nose and forward-projecting jaws.

Many fossils of Australopithecus have since been recovered from the Sterkfontein Caves and the Makapans Valley in South Africa, and from sites in East Africa.

According to Dr Bernhard Zipfel, the curator of collections at the University of the Witwatersrand who is in charge of looking after the famous fossil, the former box was “adequate” but not ideal. To view the fossil, each piece had to be carefully unwrapped from protective plastic.

Zipfel, who thought it was “strange” that such an important fossil was kept in such a simple box, spoke to Wits’ world-renowned palaeoanthropologist Professor Phillip Tobias in 2007 about “getting something more practical”.

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Designed and constructed by members of the Natural History Museum in Toulouse, France, the new storage case is a plastic box with an inert foam lining. The box cradles each piece of the fossil separately. Zipfel says: “I’m more comfortable now that the pieces are not in contact with each other. I’m quite pleased with the box. It’s essentially a receptacle for practical purposes. We’re likely to use a similar type of storage for other fossils.”

It’s important that the Taung Child is stored properly. Described by Zipfel as “an iconic fossil”, he says it is the most important hominid fossil in the Wits’ collection.

“The Taung Child is important because it was the very first early hominid discovered,” explains Zipfel. “It’s very important as people didn’t know where the Cradle of Humankind was.”

Africa is now almost unanimously considered the Cradle of Humankind as it is home to some of the world’s oldest hominid fossils. Before its discovery though, many believed humankind’s origins lay in Europe or Asia.

When asked whether he thought there is more to be discovered in the Cradle of Humankind, Zipfel replied: “Absolutely, there’s plenty!” The area is rich in fossils and has yielded many important finds such as “Little Foot”, an almost complete skeleton believed to be a species of Australopithecus, which is currently being excavated from the Sterkfontein Caves, and “Mrs Ples”, a perfect adult cranium of an Australopithecus africanus, the same species as the Taung Child.

The Taung Child, the holotype for Australopithecus africanus, will continue to be kept in a vault at Wits with other hominid fossils. There are no plans at present for public display, but Zipfel suggests this may be on the cards in future.

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