Cutting to the bone of origins

2011-09-24 21:22

From a hill opposite the Sterkfontein Caves, northwest of Johannesburg, Professor Francis Thackeray points to the site of what was likely the world’s earliest braai.

It was here, in an excavated cave at Swartkrans, that our hominid ancestors first began to cook meat, giving them an edge in the battle for survival.

“Tests showed that bones we found were burned at the temperature you get from a controlled fire in a confined area,” Thackeray explains.

The director of the Institute of Human Evolution at Wits University is a man of dramatic pauses, a teller of stories.

He himself dug at this site as a teenager doing a gap year at the Transvaal Museum. He points to a tree above the collapsed cave roof.

“One day, more than a million years ago, a leopard killed a hominid here, an Australopithecus robustus. It took it up a tree, likely a Stinkwood, probably to get away from hyenas.

“The hominid’s bones fell into the cave and were cemented in limestone ... CK Brain found a skull here with two mysterious holes in it. They matched the teeth of a leopard.”We tour the site and he points out other riddles that modern forensic methods have helped to solve. For a start, millennia before robustus, this entire area was once a shallow inland sea.

There were three Australopithecus hominid species living around here, all close in time.Over at Sterkfontein, Robert Broom found the famous Mrs Ples in 1947, a well-preserved skull of Australopithecus africanus. Except, as we’ve since learnt, Mrs Ples wasn’t a woman after all.“As it happens, through CAT scans, we’ve recognised that Mrs Ples is in fact an adolescent and was probably male.” Mrs Ples – or Master Ples – was the jewel in South Africa’s paleontology crown until the recent announcement of the discovery of Australopithecus sediba at Malapa by Professor Lee Berger.“So actually, there was a third Australopithecus hominid.

“It lived about 1.8 million years ago. With sediba we have two astonishingly complete skeletons to work with.“Most astonishing though is that sediba is transitional between Australopithecus and the genus Homo.”

Because of these finds, the idea of a “missing link” has become the internet joke of paleontology.“In fact, they are no longer missing now that we have them, and we have this evidence for more of a continuum than a link.”

Today, the team at Wits are quite literally rock stars in the world of paleontology. But it wasn’t always so. South Africa’s contribution should have been hailed with the description of the first africanus skull from Taung by Raymond Dart in 1925.

“There is a mystery there too. What killed the Taung Child? By studying markings on the skull, we believe that the little three-year-old child was snatched and carried to an eagle’s nest two and a half million years ago. Perhaps a black eagle.”

The Taung Child was all but ignored in light of a 1912 find in Britain – the Piltdown Man. But the Piltdown Man was a hoax and Thackeray was determined to prove who was behind it. After years on the case, his findings have been published. In Piltdown, a little village in Sussex, England, a number of interesting fossils were discovered between 1908 and 1912. These included a human skull with a separate jaw that was astonishingly ape-like. It was only in the late 1940s, when chemical testing could first be done, that the truth came out. “Somebody was playing a joke on scientists. What they had taken was the jaw of an ape – an orangutan – and filed the teeth down to make them look human and stained them to make them look old – the skull too.”

When Piltdown was discovered, the British Museum of Natural History’s Dr Arthur Woodward declared it genuine.

“He made an announcement in London amid a lot of fanfare. Here was the earliest Englishman.” And here, at last, was the missing link – and it had a bigger brain than the eagle child (Taung) of Africa.“The irony is that the fossils found with the skull to make it look authentic really were around 2 million years old. But many had been collected from North Africa.”

In his research, Thackeray scoured the papers and letters of those involved with the find and has pointed a finger at some prime suspects, including jokers. They were an amateur archaeologist, Charles Dawson, a French priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Martin Hinton from the Natural History Museum.But at the time, it was the Taung Child that was dismissed as a crank.

“Many people rejected Dart and criticised him very seriously. One person who didn’t was Broom, who went on to find Mrs Ples.”

Piltdown Man was exposed around the same time as Mrs Ples was discovered and South Africa finally became the centre of attention. “Experts flocked here – including Teilhard de Chardin who visited the sites, saw Broom, met Dart, Revil Mason, Phillip Tobias ...”

Walking back to the car, I am treated to more stories. About the sympathetic hunting rituals of the San (where the hunter, dressed in buckskin, represents the hunted); how Shakespeare’s peers smoked dagga; and, a favourite of mine, about the time a young Thackeray tried to win a car, became a finalist in a cake-baking competition and got a kiss from guest judge Miss South Africa.

His Drakensberg Cake never won him the car, but with his cash prize he bought a ticket to Kenya and Tanzania to see for himself the fossils that Richard Leakey had discovered.

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