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Ray­mond Dart (Source: Wikicommons)

Pro­fes­sor Ray­mond Dart and Dr Robert Broom were the fathers of palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gy in South Africa. They both believed – after Dart had found the Taung Skull in 1924 – that humankind was born in Africa. It was an unpop­u­lar view at the time, but they were even­tu­al­ly proved right, as more and more fos­sils came to light.

Ray­mond Dart

Ray­mond Dart was born in Aus­tralia and stud­ied in Eng­land before com­ing to South Africa as a young man to head the Depart­ment of Anato­my at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Witwatersrand.

One Sat­ur­day in 1924, Dart received two large wood­en box­es con­tain­ing fos­sils at the door of his house, just as he was prepar­ing to attend a wedding.

The fos­sils had been sent by his geo­log­i­cal col­league, Pro­fes­sor RB Young, from the Bux­ton Lime­works in the small town of Taung, in what is now the North West Province. In 2005, Taung was declared part of the Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site.

When Dart removed the lid from the sec­ond box, he was amazed to see the fos­silised cast of a small brain on top of the pile. It belonged to the Taung Child, and was to become one of the most remark­able sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies ever made. He found anoth­er block con­tained traces of bone against which he could fit the brain cast.

He spent three months metic­u­lous­ly free­ing the face and low­er jaw from the rock that enclosed it, with his wife’s steel knit­ting nee­dles, which he sharp­ened. When Dart described Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus, he was vil­i­fied by most sci­en­tists for dar­ing to sug­gest humankind had orig­i­nat­ed in Africa – con­ven­tion­al sci­ence of the day antic­i­pat­ed an Asian or Euro­pean cra­dle of humankind”.

But Dart was lat­er proved cor­rect through the dis­cov­ery of many more hominid fos­sils in Africa.

Robert Broom

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A bust of Robert Broom at Sterk­fontein Caves

Robert Broom dis­cov­ered the first adult Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus cra­ni­um at Sterk­fontein in 1936, which was

per­haps his most impor­tant find, since it was the first adult Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus ever found, and the

skull had teeth. His con­tin­ued efforts were reward­ed by a spec­tac­u­lar dis­cov­ery at the same site in 1947 – the skull of Mrs Ples”.

Mrs Ples” remains the best exam­ple of a cra­ni­um of an adult Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus yet found. Broom also iden­ti­fied the world’s first Paran­thro­pus fos­sil, found by a school­boy, Gert Terblanche, at Krom­draai in 1938.

Born into a hum­ble fam­i­ly in Scot­land in 1866, Broom qual­i­fied as a doc­tor. But his pas­sion was nat­ur­al his­to­ry and fossils.

Broom was an eccen­tric, wear­ing a for­mal suit when out in the field, except when it was very hot – in which case, leg­end has it, he would strip naked. Broom report­ed­ly often said he would wear out, not rust out”.

In 1951, writ­ing the clos­ing lines of his impor­tant mono­graph on hominid fos­sils from Swartkrans, anoth­er fos­sil site in the Cra­dle of Humankind, he sup­pos­ed­ly whis­pered Now that’s fin­ished … and so am I.” Moments lat­er he died. He was 85.

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