Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Enigma of Raymond Dart

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Enigma of Raymond Dart

Article excerpt


Raymond Dart (1893-1988) is famous for the 1925 discovery of the Taung cranium from South Africa he named Australopithecus africanus, and its identification as the first support for Darwin's hypothesis of the African ancestry of mankind. Dart's claims, first rejected, were later seen as one of the great scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. This formed one surviving part of a substantial corpus of wild claims made in Dart's writings. These included the taming of fire; the osteodontokeratic; cannibalism and the killer ape; Boskop man; work on racial origins; on exotic invaders into southern Africa from the ancient Near East, the Mediterranean, and China; on phallic symbols; and Stone Age miners.

Dart's career and work presents the intriguing circumstance of a scientist and writer who challenged science with a daring proposal which was considered false and was later fully accepted as scientifically valid, and used his reputation to forward numerous arguments which could not stand up to scientific scrutiny.1

Almost every survey of world prehistory, the "origins of mankind," or the history of paleoanthropology and archaeology includes Dart's 1925 achievement. Through this discovery, Dart has entered the literature as one of the great scholar-scientists of the era.

Dart's claims were described later that year in Nature by a leader in the field, Sir Arthur Keith, as "preposterous,"2 a view echoed by other researchers. It would take until after the discovery of the Transvaal Australopithecines in the later 1930s before the scientific community began to acknowledge the brilliance and accuracy of Dart's claim, and it was the mid 1940s before the major critics stepped back. But already by that date Dart had become a hero in South Africa, and the boldness and originality of his work built his reputation as one of the great figures in interpreting the human record. The conventional image in print is of a scientist ahead of his time, with a major breakthrough that took two decades for the world to recognize.

It is therefore ironic that in a very productive career of writing, together with numerous public presentations, the majority of themes and arguments that Dart pursued in archaeology and physical anthropology could indeed be described as "preposterous"-clearly so in terms of today's knowledge, but many running directly against the methodology, knowledge, and scientific understanding of his own time. While Dart's description of Australopithecus seems methodologically scientific, his analysis was one of many interpretations in his body of work made with less than strictly scientific methodology, but one that proved sustainable through the later scientific research of others.

Most current references to Dart's role are brief and reverential.3 This paper seeks to interpret the enigma of a scientist who doggedly pursued numerous lines of argument seen as false and misguided, but one of which- the identification of Australopithecus africanus-has created his lasting reputation. The career of Raymond Dart, and the fate of his views, raise questions about the nature of science in early twentieth-century "colonial" culture and the particular world of white South Africa's emerging ideologies. We argue that the phenomena of Dart's broad-ranging hypotheses in archaeology, biological anthropology and beyond do not have a single cause. They reflect the intersection of his personality, his own non-metropolitan background, his eccentric influences, and the interpretative models of the inter-war period (especially on race), with a white South Africa that embraced the opportunity for a new role in world science alongside specific ideological needs to reinforce its social structure and identity. They also serve to raise questions about the boundary between science and pseudoscience.

"Man of Grit"

Raymond Dart was born in Brisbane, Australia- dramatically so, during the flooding of the town in 1893. …

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