Down in South Africa is a region known as the “Cradle of Humankind” not far from the city of Johannesburg. It is called by this name because more fossils of early human ancestors have been found there more than anywhere else. This is the very place where Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger found Australopithecus sediba in 2008 and Homo naledi in 2015.
This is also the place where in a fossilized human partial skull and brain were found back in 1924 by Raymond Dart of the Department of Anatomy at Witwatersand University. This find was and still is incredibly rare! This fossil is believed to be from the hominid species Au. africanus and it took a long while for it to be accepted by academia as an ancient human ancestor because at the time of the find Piltdown Man ruled the roost in Paleontology. It was only after Piltdown Man was exposed as a HOAX that academics began to take Dart and his find seriously.
The fossilized partial skull and brain belong to an individual hominid nicknamed “Taung Child.” (sometimes referred to as Taung Baby). This specimen is believed to have been a very young Au. africanus and the fossil has been called the most important anthropological find of teh 20th century. Taung Child is believed to have lived somewhere between 2.8-3.3 mya. Dart and other colleagues such as Dr. Robert Bloom believed Au. africanus was a “transitional species” of ancient hominid between apes and modern humans.
This is not a large skull. In fact you can almost hold it in the palm of your hand. It has been postulated the Taung Child may have been killed by an eagle or other large predatory bird and this is based on damage to the skull and eye sockets. Paleoanthropologists estimate that this specimen stood about 105 cm (3 1/2 ft tall) and weighed between 9-11 kilograms (20-24 lbs). Its cranial capacity was between 400-500 cc. It is believed to have lived mostly in a Savannah environment in Africa. It is also believed to have been a Omnivore. This skull was actually dug up by quarrymen working in Taung, South Africa and it along with other fossils were sent to Dart for his examination.
Australopithecus africanus was once considered a “killer ape” because its fossils are often found alongside animal bones but today we know that predators also preyed on this species of ancient hominid. It’s also believed this species lived together in groups for protection. Not only is Taung Child a member of this species but so is “Mrs. Ples.” Au. africanus should not be confused with Au. afarensis which is the famous “Lucy” species.
Even though this is an old find I think it is fascinating! To have a fossilized brain is incredible enough but to have one this ancient is really incredible!
Something else truly fascinating found in the area known as the “Cradle of Humankind” is that it was also at this site that Paleoanthropologists found the first hair and skin from an early hominid dated at 2 myr. These were found at the Malapa Cave site in the area. And another thing that is amazing about this cave site along with the Rising Star cave site is that most fossils have been found atop the cave floor and, thus, not buried! To have samples of hair and skin from an ancient hominid is incredible but the fact that so many fossils have been found in this area on top of cave floors is also amazing!
At one time Paleoanthropologists almost abandoned this area because nothing was being found and funding was drying up. That was the situation when Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger made his first fossil discovery at the Gladysvle Cave in the same area and it turned out to be the first major discovery in that area in 40 years. Since then exploration is continuing in this area and Berger has found around 1700 fossil remains there. It’s a good thing this site was not abandoned or these recent finds may have never been found.
Personally, I think Au. africanus may well have been a transitional species between modern human ancestors and Ardipithecus. We can see features in these specimens that are clearly archaic yet we can also see features of modern human ancestors such as hands that look somewhat modern. Of course, if we take the Hybrid Theory we could say this species is a hybrid between Ardipithecus and some other hominid possibly H. habilis. Whatever the case the finds here have been nothing short of astounding and I’m sure there will be more. And what really gets me is that these fossils are found on the cave floors instead of being buried! But, then again, many fossils elsewhere have also been found in the same way.