Being Human # 1: Taung Child – The Missing Link

Today’s post is by Michelle from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about archaeology at Manchester, please visit the Curator’s blogAncient Worlds.

Being Human

In anticipation of Manchester Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Humans in Ancient Britain: Rediscovering Neanderthals, this is the first in a series of posts exploring what it means to be human, and how this is imagined and represented in the museum. The series begins with a look at the evolving ideas around human evolution.

Being Human # 1: Taung Child – The Missing Link

In modern Europe, the popular understanding of what it was to be human, at least until the mid-nineteenth century, was very much conditioned by a biblical interpretation of creation, together with the idea of human superiority that can be traced back to the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.

Early modern museums were often philanthropic, looking to publically exhibit and share their collections as an encyclopaedic knowledge, privileging completism and chronology. And by the mid nineteenth century, this complimented the emerging academic disciplines of zoology, botany, numismatics and archaeology, in which things could be named, dated, listed and compartmentalised. In terms of modernity and museum classification, it was the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859 all of a sudden allowed humanity to be likewise studied and labelled.

If humans evolved, where did we come from?

In 1924, the discovery of a tiny fossilised skull prompted a conclusion that was a surprise to many contemporary anthropologists, that a major branch of the human family tree originated in Africa.

The skull of this early human, who has been classified as of the species Australopithecus africanus (meaning “southern ape of Africa) was found in Tuang, in the Republic of South Africa, by Raymond Dart of the University of Witwatersrand (via local quarrymen). Currently on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, USA, this diminutive figure has been given the familiar name ‘Taung Child’.

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Cast of skull of ‘Australopithecus africicanus’ (A.2345.1), in the ‘Humans’ case, Living Worlds, Manchester Museum (Photo: Sarah Scott)

This is the skull of a child of just 3 years old, and has been dated to about 2.8 million years ago. Contrary to an ape, this was the first time that researchers could detect the possibility of upright, two-legged walking; determined, in the absence of a body, by the way that the spinal cord connects with the brain, characteristic of bipedal locomotion, this is in direct contrast with the attachment in apes, which allows forward vision while walking on four legs. The teeth are also distinctly hominid, while subsequent discoveries of fossilised Australopithecus africanus remains indicate that nevertheless, there were still some ape-like features.

No two skulls are identical, just like a fingerprint, the skull is a physical storage of identity, and even dating back nearly 3 million years, can still act an agent of the memories of life and of death.

An artist’s impression of the Taung Child with skin and muscles. Cicero Moraes/Wikimedia Commons.

Taung Child’s teeth tell the poignant story of a life barely lived; dental development and root development place death at just 3.3 years. And the damage to the skull at the point of death, along with the other animal remains at its findspot, through modern forensic comparison with monkeys in Africa, points a fatal attack by an eagle’s sharp talons and claws.

Professor Raymond Dart’s assertion of the humanity of this skull was met by the scepticism of an intellectual elite who were eager to position human origins in Europe or Asia, even though Darwin’s 1871 publication The Descent of Man had considered it “probable” that Africa was the cradle of humanity. It was not until 20 years on, and the discovery of the adult Australopithecus africicanus, “Mrs Ples”, that his theory that Dart’s theory was given its deserved attention.

Raymond Dart recalls his moment of discovery;

“No diamond cutter ever worked more lovingly or with such care on a precious jewel – nor, I am sure, with such inadequate tools. But on the seventy-third day, December 23, the rock parted. I could view the face from the front, although the right side was still imbedded … What emerged was a baby’s face, an infant with a full set of milk teeth and its permanent molars just in the process of erupting. I doubt if there was any parent prouder of his offspring than I was of my Taung baby on that Christmas.” – Professor Raymond Dart, 1924

Even in the face of scientific discovery, we seem to have an instinct to humanise our experiences and the world around us. We grieve for the loss of a life at the ripping beak and talons of an eagle, and perhaps question if that upright-walking child, at 3 years old was mourned in the same way 2.8 million years ago? And descended from the family tree of little Taung Child, perhaps it is this curiosity, the very act or trying to understand who we, and where we came from, that makes us human?

Michelle Scott

Further Reading:

For more about archaeology at Manchester, please visit the Curator’s blogAncient Worlds.

Read more of Michelle‘s Stories from the Museum Floor:

The Gods and Their Makers
Murder in Mesopotamia?
From Shrunken Heads to Collective Conversations
Encountering Corpses


5 thoughts on “Being Human # 1: Taung Child – The Missing Link

  1. In relation to humankind Darwin was extremely cautious in what he said about evolution. In On the Origin of Species (1859) he simply wrote ‘Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.’ It was simply too controversial for him to pursue at that time. In his Descent of Man (1871) he pointed towards Africa as the place were humans had evolved: ‘In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.’ So maybe the anthropologists should not have been so dismissive. But a long time before 1920s, there was already the discovery at Neanderthal in 1856 to which to refer in the debate about human evolution. The skeleton was similar to that of modern humans but Darwin did not see this as a human ancestor. DNA research by Svante Paabo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has shown we share 99% of our DNA with Neanderthals. But we appear to be cousins, descended from the same common ancestor who lived hundreds of thousands of years earlier. And to return to your theme, one of the Svante Paabo’s ambitions in reassembling the Neanderthal genome, was to compare it with that of modern humans, to see where the differences were, in order to show the differences that make us human. That Neanderthals could show human kindness and compassion is a topic for another day…

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