Raymond Dart and the Danger of Mentors

Article excerpt

Archaeology, like all scientific and scholarly disciplines, requires the transmission of knowledge and ideas. This commonly involves the influence of mentors and role models: figures who can at times take on the role of gurus. But adherence to mentors has its dangers. That is shown in the career of Raymond Dart, whose professional work was deeply flawed by the adherence he paid to his mentor Grafton Elliot Smith. His status has been maintained by his dedicated disciple, the great physical anthropologist Phillip Tobias, but critical assessment of the corpus of Dart's work (Dubow 1996; Derricourt 2009) contrasts with his selective reputation.

In the first part of 1925, Dart--then a youthful professor of anatomy in Johannesburg--published in quick succession two papers in the pre-eminent British science journal Nature. One (on the discovery of Australopithecus with the announcement and interpretation of the Taung fossil cranium) would become a landmark document in the history of palaeoanthropology and prehistory (Dart 1925a). The other is a classic example of the approaches which would later be seen as belonging in the lunatic fringe of archaeology. Dart would continue publishing on both themes throughout his long and productive life (from his birth in Australia in 1893 to death in Johannesburg in 1988).

The paper entitled 'The historical succession of cultural impacts upon South Africa' (Dart 1925b) presented a framework for African prehistory that stood quite at odds with emerging scientific knowledge. Only two years later Cambridge archaeologist Miles Burkitt would travel through South Africa and publish a summary of the scientific understanding of the region's prehistory (Burkitt 1928), followed by a detailed survey from South Africa's own pioneer prehistorians (Goodwin & van Riet Lowe 1929). By contrast, Dart's study of southern Africa was of 'untold numbers of invaders at successive historical epochs' (Dart 1925b: 429). He argued that "the whole of the eastern portion of the African continent ... was exploited by the old colonists [who] visited these territories and carried off their denizens, particularly their women, but also ... settled down among them' and that there was 'unassailable evidence of the impact of ancient civilisatiom of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamian areas upon a Bushman South Africa' (Dart 1925b: 426). Those whose culture impacted on Southern and Central African prehistory included Phoenicians, Sabaeans, Phrygians, Indians, Chinese, early Europeans, Babylonians and ancient Egyptians. The selective evidence for these external influences included stone monuments, phallic objects, rock paintings of people wearing strange cloaks, Egyptian style headdress worn by a Zulu woman, an 'ancient galley' near Cape Town, wild occurrence of Asian cultivars, Chinese pottery, chance finds of ancient coins, Semitic facial characteristics, and African place names resembling those of the Semitic Middle East, India or even Japan.

Such an approach was not a one-off aberration of a distinguished scholar writing outside his expert field (in Dart's case human anatomy). Dart would go on to write scores of papers (M. Dart 1968), and give numerous lectures, pursuing the vision of the exotic invaders from the ancient world or the distant north or east. His enthusiasm led to claims for ancient--even very ancient--mining by alien peoples visiting Southern Africa, in papers from the 1920s to the early 1970s.

Dart's professional shift from medicai interests to those of physical anthropology led him to claim evidence from this sub-field to support his archaeological arguments. If archaeology was a small professional field in Southern Africa, physical anthropology was smaller still: this left Dart with few peers against whom to test his ideas and few to criticise them openly. Trained in a period that emphasised the categorisation of mankind into pure races, Dart then struggled to fit the anatomical evidence into this model. …