To many scientists, the death of anthropologist and palaeontologist Raymond Dart in 1988 marked the passing of an evolutionist pioneer whose fossil discovery in South Africa almost 70 years ago made headlines around the world.
However, Dart’s discovery of a skull in lime works at Taung did not legitimize the evolution theory, but rather caused great debate among scientists of the day, raising questions which have yet to be answered.
More importantly, there has been no evidence to support Dart’s claims that the specimen commonly known as the ‘Taung Skull’ is a ‘missing link’ between ape and man in the supposed evolutionary time-chart.
Despite this, the Taung Skull’s standing as a ‘missing link’ has been included in almost all school textbooks since 1960.
While working in South Africa in 1924, Dart came into possession of a skull, which he made the type-specimen of a new genus and species—Australopithecus africanus (southern ape from Africa).
It was generally agreed the skull was that of a six-year-old creature, with rounded forehead, a full set of milk teeth, and the first molars just emerging.
The discovery sparked world-wide debate among experts, and although most of these supported the Darwinian theory of evolution, they could not (and since have been unable to) agree on where it belonged in the alleged evolutionary family tree.
Some scientists believed it was an ape-like creature. Others believed it was more closely related to modern man. And yet others wrote it off as an extinct species of ape.
It was noted at the time of discovery that the Taung Skull had many points of affinity with the gorilla and chimpanzee, and many scientists had no hesitation placing it in the living group of apes.
Other experts explained that juveniles and adults differed greatly in all primate species, with juveniles of different species in some cases resembling each other more than adults did. It was also well known among anatomists that the skulls of juvenile apes were all much more ‘human-looking’ than those of adults.
Either way, each camp changed its evolutionary theories to fit in with its interpretation of the find.
The biggest problem was the lack of evidence, which Dart himself admitted years later. At the time of his Taung discovery he was working with limited resources, without colleagues, a library for reference, or museum specimens for comparison.
Dart discovered the fossil in October of 1924, and by January the following year he had written a preliminary paper.
In the book Missing Links, evolutionist author John Reader had this to say about the paper: ‘Dart drew bold conclusions from his unavoidably limited observations’.
Using books he brought from England, which included drawings of skulls from infant chimpanzees and gorillas, Dart believed he saw enough evidence to convince him that his fossil differed from both the chimpanzee and gorilla as much as they differed from each other.
Bearing in mind that his evidence involved only teeth and a supposed ‘improved quality’ of brain (based on cranial size), Dart concluded from his limited information that the animal to which the skull belonged:
Dart claimed a creature with an ape-sized brain could have dental and postural characteristics approaching those of humans. However, this idea was met with scepticism, as it required ‘mosaic’ evolution (development of some characteristics in advance of others).
This differed sharply from the position of Elliot Smith, who said hominization began with an enlarged cranial capacity.
Commenting on Dart’s paper, which was published in the journal Nature, author Reader said: ‘In some respects [the paper] tended more towards inspirational interpretation than cool scientific appraisal, and occasionally Dart lapsed into a florid style not normally encountered in Nature’.
Nature then published reports of four experts who reviewed Dart’s paper. According to Reader—who referred to Dart’s new species and genus as ‘strange small-brained creatures which could be explained away as odd apes’—all four saw more immediate affinities with the apes than with man.
However, the reports were sympathetic. They all emphasized the difficulty of assessing a fossil, especially a juvenile, from a preliminary report and a few photographs.
Even though evolutionists could not identify the skull, or find a place for it in their evolutionary charts, they did not want to discard it altogether. (Dart was unable to produce data to contradict suggestions the skull was younger than claimed.)
While Dart continued to promote his findings in the press, expert opinion was steadily hardening towards the conclusion that Australopithecus africanus was a form of chimpanzee, with its man-like attributes due to the phenomenon of ‘parallel’ evolution, rather than because it was on the way to becoming man.
Dart made casts of the skull to silence the criticism regarding his lack of evidence. However, these efforts were widely considered as serving to edify the general public, rather than for appraisal by his senior colleagues.
When Dart visited London, and was invited to address the Zoological Society, he later admitted, ‘I realized the inadequacy of my material’ while facing an unresponsive audience.
Recently some evolutionists have shifted in their thinking as to whether any of the australopithecines (other fossils have been placed in this category) are legitimate human ancestors.
Surveying 100 years of paleoanthropology, Matt Cartmill (Duke University), David Pilbeam (Harvard University) and the late Glynn Isaac (Harvard University) observed: ‘The australopithecines are rapidly sinking back to the status of peculiarly specialized apes’.
Today, many authorities dismiss the Taung Skull as simply that of a young ape, which shares interesting, but irrelevant, features with man.
This evidence, or rather lack of it, re-enforces the foundation of Genesis which tells us quite clearly that man did not evolve from ape-like creatures, but that ‘God created man in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27).
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