As giant of human origins turns 100, Homo sapiens teeters on its most daunting edge

— By Tiara Walters —

While the astronomer Edwin Hubble was trudging up the mountains of Los Angeles exactly 100 years ago to rewrite humankind’s place in the cosmos, a fledgling medical school on Africa’s southern tip was preparing to take a giant leap into humankind’s past.

In 1919, the Department of Anatomy at the University of the Witwatersrand (“Wits”), which marks its centenary this year, had been lucky to stagger to life at all. Yet, it would come to seed a trove of some of the most important insights into the opening chapters of the human story, such as 3.67-million-year-old “Little Foot”, and the Taung child — just three and a half when its ignominious little life expired in an eagle’s lair some 2.8 million years ago.

“Anatomy lectures and demonstrations were given in a wood and iron shed,” recalls the late authority on human evolution Phillip Valentine Tobias in his typescript on the school, Anatomia Witwatersrandensis. The shed, tells Tobias, housed the founding anatomy chair, 13 students and “a single cadaver”.

‘The shed housed the founding anatomy chair, 13 students and “a single cadaver” ’

Under these circumstances, Tobias claims, the anatomy department — or the School of Anatomical Sciences, as it’s known today — pioneered the human body’s medical dissection for the first time between the Cape and Cairo. More famously, the anatomy school’s contributions to evolutionary science over the next century would show where humanity had taken its first tentative steps.

The academic institution that began life as a shed would transform human history, adding more than a third of fragments, bones and skeletons belonging to the great hominin clan. This is the branch on the tree of life that supports all human species and their human-like ancestors after we diverged from other great apes some eight million years ago.

By reading these bones, and exploring the past through the time machines of geochemistry, the science it forged would show that our species, Homo sapiens, is both suited and vulnerable to the demands of the Anthropocene.

From the past we learn that our ingenious brain is uniquely adapted to forging smart solutions in harsh environments: the stimulating, challenging African wilderness gave us bipedalism — but overly specialised diets like fossil fuels can kill us.

Palaeo climates may offer the biggest portent of all. Of all human species confronted by catastrophic versions of Earth, we’re the last ones standing.

No guts, no glory

The unassuming shed at Wits was, therefore, no small miracle of scientific fortitude, especially against Cape Town’s Union Government, Tobias writes. Had it been up to Minister of Education FS Malan, he would’ve wielded his powers under the Anatomy Act “to refuse to proclaim Witwatersrand as an area in which dissection of the human body could be carried out”.

But it’s these anomalous blips on the radar, as that shed would surely prove to be, that often surge into science’s greatest epiphanies.

‘These blips on the radar often surge into science’s greatest epiphanies’

In his own quest to understand the laboratory of life, the famously unprepossessing Hubble didn’t have an easy time of it either. Arriving at California’s Mount Wilson Observatory in September 1919, to reach his research station on a 1,800-metre peak, the junior astronomer had to first navigate the 15-kilometre ascent. (By contrast, Table Mountain as the only terrestrial feature to give its name to a constellation — Mensa — is little more than a piddling 1,000 metres high.) Unrecognised for decades, Harvard’s women astronomers had to be satisfied with the title “computers”, but it was their research into pulsating stars that helped give Hubble’s work the impetus to announce, in March 1929, that almost all galaxies seemed to be red-shifting away from Earth.

As the centre of the global economy in New York was about to contract and collapse in on itself, the universe was now appearing to do quite the opposite. It wasn’t only expanding.

Its growth beyond the Milky Way was the first proof that we were living in an evolving cosmos.

Released this year, this deep-time image captures a mosaic of the distant universe. Called the Hubble Legacy Field, it documents 16 years of observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It contains 200,000 galaxies that stretch back 13.3 billion years to just 500 million years after the Big Bang. © NASA, ESA, G Illingworth and D Magee (University of California, Santa Cruz), K Whitaker (University of Connecticut), R Bouwens (Leiden University), P Oesch (University of Geneva) and the Hubble Legacy Field team
One-horse Taung produces ‘missing link’

Hubble’s first significant excavation of the skies from his Mount Wilson perch had emerged about five years before in a small New York Times headline: page six of a November 1924 edition (so, it wasn’t exactly front page news). It said, “FINDS SPIRAL NEBULAE ARE STELLAR SYSTEMS; Dr. Hubbell Confirms View That They Are ‘Island Universes’ Similar to Our Own.”

These “island universes” were, in today’s terms, what we call galaxies. “Dr Hubbell” had shown that the gassy, dusty swirls that had puzzled scientists were very far away. So far away that they were, in fact, floating outside our own Milky Way. Our spiral galaxy, in other words, was not alone.

Just five days after the “Hubbell” announcement, two wooden crates brimming with rocks and fossils clattered onto an anatomy professor’s driveway on the other side of the world.

Like starlight travelling three million years to reach Planet Earth, the second crate held a messenger from the Pliocene. The professor, Australian-born Wits anatomy head Raymond Dart, had despatched a geologist colleague to investigate a cache of primate fossils from a lime quarry outside the otherwise entirely unremarkable town of Taung in today’s North West Province. There, the geologist would rescue a fossilised bone the quarry manager had resurrected as a paperweight. Then he gingerly sealed it into a crate and sent it on to Dart in Johannesburg. Sequestered into the impressions and curves of the fossil loot … a secret biography about to reroute history.

“As soon as I removed the lid a thrill of excitement shot through me. On the very top of the rock heap was what was undoubtedly an endocranial cast or mould of the interior of a skull …

“Was there, anywhere among this pile of rocks, a face to fit the brain?” asked Dart, who had a special interest in skull and brain morphology. He was working against the ticking clock. Dressed in “London-cut morning clothes”, Dart recalls in his book, Adventures with the Missing Link, he was about to host a wedding at his home — and he was best man. He “ransacked feverishly through the boxes”.

Death or glory for species on the ban wagon?
Death or glory for species on the ban wagon?
Professor Raymond Dart dotes over his Taung child (Australopithecus africanus), February 1925. Dating back 2.8 million years, the small skull is thought to have belonged to a 3.5-year-old hominin. © The University of the Witwatersrand

“My search was rewarded, for I found a large stone with a depression into which the cast fitted perfectly … I stood in the shade holding the brain as greedily as any miser hugs his gold … Here, I was certain, was one of the most significant finds ever made in the history of anthropology … These pleasant daydreams were interrupted by the bridegroom himself tugging at my sleeve. ‘My God, Ray,’ he said, striving to keep the nervous urgency out of his voice. “You’ve got to finish dressing.’ ”

Tobias writes that “as a teacher” Dart was “lively, unpredictable, often inspiring and histrionic. Nobody went through his hands untouched: some later denied they had ever learned any anatomy from him, but they had got to know a remarkable personality, a flamboyant renaissance man and one of the most memorable persons ever to grace” the anatomy school.

‘Two days before Christmas, Dart hit bull’s-eye’

This was the era before the airscribe, the modern excavator’s pneumatic pecking tool of choice. So, after the wedding Dart wasted no time setting to work with a hardware store chisel. Later he used his wife Dora’s steel knitting needle to liberate the bone fragments from their indurate breccia encasing. Three months of scoring flakes off the matrix with his small arsenal of alternative tools followed.

Two days before Christmas1924, Dart hit bull’s-eye.

Freed from the rocky time capsule through patient skill, was a blend of human-like and ape-like features. No member of our species had been lucky enough to behold such a sight through a magnifying glass of Raymond Dart’s anatomical acuity.

For 31-year-old Dart, a revised historical narrative of the human universe glimmered into view. “On the 73rd day, the rock parted,” he writes in Missing Link. “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.”

The half-ape, half-child skull also displayed a foramen magnum — the hole at the base of the skull — balancing neatly atop the spinal cord. In true apes, the foramen magnum is towards the rear. The child’s brain was small compared with standard measurements of today’s children. Dart took this as proof that the creature had relied on upright, bipedal locomotion before spawning a big brain. This observation subverted the universally accepted wisdom that it was the brain that had kindled the first flickers of humanity.

Dart knew that his “Man-Ape of South Africa”, which he named Australopithecus africanus, was not just unique. It was preposterous. With Dora’s heretical knitting needle, he’d cut down to size the role of the brain in the quintessential human identity.

“I doubt if there was any parent prouder of his offspring than I was of my ‘Taungs baby’ on that Christmas of 1924,” the besotted anatomist remembers.

Placing in perspective the extraordinary value — and unlikelihood — of Dart’s find, a world heritage dossier reveals that the “universal significance of the Taung skull fossil site is vested primarily in this single unique specimen”. It was also “sheer fluke that it found its way into the hands of Dart, who was perhaps one of only two or three people in the whole of South Africa who were able to appreciate and give expression to its uniqueness”.

An upclose view of the Taung skull, which fundamentally rewrote humanity’s understanding of its birthplace. Huge in historical stature, this tiny fossil fits into an adult human hand. Image courtesy of Didier Descouens / Ditsong National Museum of Natural History / Creative Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Here someone had uncovered for the first time a hominin who had, at some point on the path to becoming human, placed a bigger reliance on “feet as organs of progression”, as Dart puts it in his 1925 Nature article announcing the find.

By walking upright, africanus had freed up its hands as “instruments of growing intelligence” and “organs of offence and defence”, Dart suggests in the article, rather than the regrettable alternative of “developing massive canines and hideous features”.

Then, predating by 40 years primatologist Jane Goodall’s crucial observations on apes and implements, Dart highlights tool use among primates as an obvious fact. At least to himself — and to none other than the architect of natural selection.

‘The slender “Man-Ape of South Africa” thumbed its snout at Eurocentric views. This was his missing link’

“Even living baboons and anthropoid apes can and do use sticks and stones as implements and as weapons of offence,” Dart explains, referencing Charles Darwin’s 1871 book, Descent of Man. This, in turn, lists a litany of anecdotal tool studies on a variety of animals in their natural habitat. Darwin himself had witnessed a Cape of Good Hope baboon “preparing mud for the purpose” of throwing “any object at hand at a person who offends him”.

In his Nature article, Dart the showman punctuates his precision anatomicalese with droll flourishes.

He indicates that the early human, big-brained species Pithecanthropus, the now-defunct genus for Indonesia’s Homo erectus, was a “caricature of precocious hominid failure”. It was a poor comparison to his “Taungs baby”.

Nor could the easy pickings of Asia’s “luxuriant forests of the tropical belts” properly explain the relatively dramatic brain capacity suggested by the diminutive Taung skull.

“Southern Africa, by providing a vast open country with occasional wooded belts and a relative scarcity of water, together with a fierce and bitter mammalian competition, furnished a laboratory such as was essential to this penultimate phase of human evolution,” Dart writes.

The slender “Man-Ape of South Africa” thumbed its snout at Eurocentric views that Africa had given the science of human evolution nothing.

Before this insight, the only significant lineages known to prehistory detectives had been defined, by and large, by early human remains from Eurasia.

Dart’s real coup de grâce was that Africa, not Eurasia, had presented the bones in the opening credits of the proto-human biography. This was his missing link.

Robert Broom sweeps clean

Transitional humanity as a miscreant anthropoid with an awkward gait that preceded the curve of its unambitious forehead? From South Africa’s semi-dry backwaters no less? This was more than enough to set the teeth of European critics on edge. Largely steered by the English clique, European opposition dismissed africanus outright. It was nothing, they insisted, but a juvenile ape skull. They demanded comparative adult specimens if Dart’s baby had any chance of unseating their Piltdown man. Named Eoanthropus dawsoni after its describer Charles Dawson, Piltdown man was southern England’s answer to the hominin gold standard.

The icy reception shattered the nearly indefatigable Dart’s enthusiasm in his own fieldwork. However, as the charismatic professor of anatomy, he continued to foster a culture that “encouraged his students to be interested in human origins, development and culture”, anatomy school associate Ron Clarke told Daily Maverick. Clarke is the professor behind the beautifully complete Australopithecus skeleton, Little Foot.

A 2010 bird’s-eye view of the tear in the Earth outside Johannesburg where Little Foot had plunged into Silberberg Grotto, Sterkfontein Caves, some 37,000 centuries before. © Patrick Landman and Remi Benali. Image courtesy of Professor Ronald J Clarke

In 1936, more than a decade after Dart’s shunned Nature article, a neuroanatomist and a student from the anatomy school led the eccentric Transvaal Museum palaeontologist Robert Broom to the Sterkfontein Caves north of Johannesburg.

Here, in today’s Cradle of Humankind world heritage site, Broom received from a quarry site manager exactly the type of specimen the school’s decriers had been goading Dart to deliver. Feathers were ruffled. Some anatomy school insiders even insinuated that Broom — anatomy school lecturer as well as an ardent supporter of Dart’s Australopithecus claims — had hijacked their glory.

Nonetheless, this was the first adult Australopithecus cranium known to science, which Broom had predicted, in a Natural History article a decade before, as a discovery that was “not improbable”. He also underlined the possibility of someday sniffing out a “perfect skeleton” of africanus.

‘Broom had imposed on the European establishment a duty to accept Africa as humanity’s mother continent’

Broom was a Scot who made for a curious mix of teacher and spiritualist. Elected a Royal Society fellow in 1920, he was famous for his work in mammal-like reptiles. It is said he wore all or nothing out in the field: formal attire when the weather was tolerably cool, his birthday suit when it was not entirely. Apparently undeterred by the prevailing climate — whether this entailed inclement weather, intellectual opposition abroad or both — the emboldened Broom charted his way through the Cradle’s limework quarries. He did use precision tools for cleaning fossils from breccia, but at the early stage of an excavation one cannot always employ such delicate predilections as knitting needles. That’s where necessary evils like drilling and dynamite come in.

“Blasting was necessary to expose the fossils in the first place. Only afterward could they be cleaned with fine tools,” Clarke explained.

Broom blasted in two exactly the sort of bone he’d been keen to add to his armoury: Cradle rock star “Mrs Ples”. (Recent authoritative research suggests our “Mrs” was indeed a Mister.) As South Africa’s most complete africanus skull at that point, this 1947 discovery was an unwitting tribute to Broom’s obsessive productivity.

Robert Broom worked with “impelling enthusiasm” until his death in 1951. He was 84. His Nature obituary celebrated the octogenarian’s “most amazing collection of australopithecine material” from the Cradle area, involving “many more skulls, jaws, teeth and portions of the limb skeleton, including those of adults, adolescents and infants”.

Although the obituary hints at taxonomic disagreement, it endorses unequivocally, a quarter century after controversy first erupted about africanus in that publication, the fruits of Broom’s grit. “His work established clearly that the importance of these fossils lies in the remarkable combination of simian and hominid features which they present,” it reads. “It is true to say that this is now generally recognised.”

Broom had — by piling his massive Australopithecus collection on the doorstep of science — imposed on the European establishment a duty to accept Africa as humanity’s mother continent.

Dart’s and Broom’s most vocal critic, the British palaeoanthropologist Arthur Keith, recanted in 1947 in a show of such public remorse, or generosity some say, that he proposed renaming the Australopithecus genus as “Dartians”. It was an act of self-preservation just as well. A 1953 review by English palaeoanthropologists exposed the motley Piltdown assemblage as a 500-year-old human skull and a modified orangutan jaw.

Recent morphological thinking doubts that africanus evolved into our species, Homo sapiens. However, it does position the Australopithecus genus as the forerunner of big chiefs among hominin genera. One of these big chiefs is Homo, as well as our hominin cousins Paranthropus.

Featuring a braincase larger than Australopithecus, but some 40% smaller than those of modern humans, Paranthropus fossils are important for showing the multi-branched, messy complexity of the hotly contested hominin family tree. They, of almost inconveniently large tooth and apparently zero tool-making skills, lived at the same time as the Taung child.

None other than Broom described this twilight genus, re-emerging from its primordial hideout some 60 kilometres southwest of Pretoria in 1938, thanks to the clever eyes of schoolboy Gert Terblanche. As a vegetarian genus that may have been too specialised to become us, Paranthropus surrendered to oblivion about one million years ago.

Australopithecus sediba, far left, with other members of the greater human family. Second from left is Mrs Ples (Australopithecus africanus), followed by Paranthropus robustus and a Homo sapiens skull. Professor Lee Berger, palaeoanthropology chair at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, adds a human touch. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Brendan Croft)

Today science still considers Paranthropus a possible Australopithecus offshoot, and record-breaking discoveries continue to vindicate Dart’s 1925 description of africanus.

Unveiled in August, the first near-complete skull of our earliest-known Australopithecus ancestor — the tree-climbing anamensis — reveals that this species may have co-existed with, rather than going before, the more famous “Lucy” species (Australopithecus afarensis), sprouting the family tree’s branches into an ever-growing filigree of mirage and intrigue.

From ‘killer apes’ to hominauts

Corroborative finds between southern and eastern Africa from the Fifties onwards, including Ethiopia’s 3.2-million-year-old “Lucy”, would kill most lingering doubts. Fossil breakthroughs up to seven million years old would even indicate other regions, such as central Africa, as a possible hominin birthplace.

It is an extended run of equal parts luck and derring-do that would, however, help cement the Cradle’s reputation as the world’s richest site for hominin fossils. Finds such as early evidence of controlled fire going back 1.5 million years added meaning to the area’s claim as a crucible for humanity — as did powerful and competitive personalities such as Tobias, who spearheaded its 1999 world heritage campaign.

The Cradle would also unveil a fiendish ark of animal fossils: including evidence for extinct sabre-tooth cats (the “terrible cat” Dinofelis and its fearsome contemporary Megantereon). Then there is the goliath dassie; and the nearly three-metre-tall Chalicothere. An enormous and bizarre quadruped by today’s standards, Chalicothere resembled part lumbering horse, part knuckle-walking ape.

‘ “Man’s predecessors seized living quarries by violence, greedily devouring livid writhing flesh” ’

In the late Forties, expeditions to the Makapans limeworks tucked into a series of dolomite cliffs north of Johannesburg would refire Dart’s facility for reimagining the world. Some of these expeditions were led by Tobias. In Dart’s words in Missing Link, they were “responsible for thrusting me back into the maelstrom of man’s beginnings”.

Dart was titivated by a hominin skull bone unearthed by his associate, the legendary fossil collector James Kitching. To him, this bone fragment betrayed anatomical differences to africanus. He felt it justified a new Australopithecus species he called “prometheus — a homage to the gigantic mortal, a Titan, who steals fire from the gods and presents it to humanity to advance its evolution. What appeared to be the fire-blackened bones from Makapansgat, were to Dart a giveaway that prometheus had been at work in that unholy cavern, stoking up nefarious culinary pursuits like braaiing its rivals. No other tools had been found here — and, based on what Dart saw as vicious skull damage, the bones had been broken into murder weapons.

It was a fantastical conclusion that came with Dart’s dramatically named “Osteodontokeratic culture”. Literally translated, this concept was conceived to mean “bones, teeth and horns” as utensils and weapons. It inspired more of Dart’s signature writing.

“The blood-spattered, slaughter-gutted archives of human history from the earliest Egyptian and Sumerian records down to the most recent atrocities of the Second World War accord with early universal cannibalism,” Dart thundered in a stupendous number of papers between 1949 and 1965. He produced this work to argue his theory of a cannibalistic version of Australopithecus.

“Man’s predecessors differed from living apes in being confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.”

His concluding crescendo does not disappoint. It is “this common bloodlust differentiator, this predaceous habit, this mark of Cain that separates man dietetically from his anthropoidal relatives”.

Bob Brain, the respected South African palaeontologist who found fire evidence at Swartkrans in the Cradle, asked Dart “why he used such powerful prose in his serious scientific writing”.

Dart “replied simply: ‘That will get ’em talking.’ ”

Talking it did.

The Evolution of Man — A Popular Exposition of the Principal Points of Human Ontogeny and Phylogeny by Ernst Haeckel (New York, Fowle, 1896) / Creative Commons

Slim in authoritative data, Dart’s flights of fancy would echo down the generations, first in “Territorial Imperative” originator Robert Ardrey’s 1961 book on evolution, African Genesis. This builds on Dart’s killer-ape hypothesis. “What if I held in my hands the evidence of antique murder committed with a deadly weapon a quarter of a million years before the time of man?” the author intones. The book turned him into a cult figure.

‘Both tribes lay claim to a pathetic pool of mud in the dry hell of this earlier Africa’

Dart’s cannibalism ideas live on in the warring ape-like tribes of Stanley Kubrick’s enduring sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the opening scene of the film, a singing alien monolith bestows an eruption of intelligence on a tribe of ape-like underdogs fighting in a brutal territorial war over water. Both tribes — let’s call them the Davids and the Goliaths — attempt to lay claim to a pathetic pool of mud in the otherwise dry hell of this earlier Africa. The scene does not provide an explicit time stamp. It is, however, likely that these proto wastelands are set in the Miocene, that epoch several million years ago in which apes learn to walk.

Thanks to the alien monolith’s gift of supernatural intelligence, an intrepid individual from the underdog tribe, the Davids, learns how to recycle a carcass bone as a murderous weapon. And so it comes to pass that the hirsute little Davids of the Miocene, with their murderous weapons of bone in hand, send the Goliaths shrieking away from the source of conflict.

Here we have a confluence of Goldilocks factors inspired by natural selection in a creative mood — the Davids are in their infancy of learning to stand and waddle and even charge ahead when they get it right. Being able to move on two legs is a feat of evolution. This is the moment that the Davids advance from walking on all fours to having versatile hands that can grip weapons, slay the Goliaths and, as we see in one of cult cinema’s brightest moments, hurl a god-given bone into orbit where it morphs into a space station.

‘Hominins had been the hunted. Not the all-powerful assailants of Kubrick’s Africa’

But Dart’s colleagues are sceptical of his theory on our predecessors’ homicidal beginnings. This one-dimensional, blood-thirsty interpretation doesn’t sit comfortably with them. So they mount a campaign to try and disprove it. It works. It even gives birth to a whole new discipline — taphonomy, which involves a kind of autopsy that probes the effects of animals and natural forces such as water and sunlight on bones, often over millennia. Taphonomy also looks at how these bones accumulate.

Brain himself and Dart’s assistant Alun Hughes led the taphonomic charge. In his 1981 account The Hunters or the Hunted?, the result of two decades’ investigations into Dart’s Osteodontokeratic misadventures, Brain showed it was carnivores who had crushed and amassed the bones. Hominins had been the hunted. Not the all-powerful assailants of Kubrick’s Africa. The blackened bones and cavern-interior-as-kitchen? Darkened by manganese stains.

Unintentionally, “Dart’s ideas were a major catalyst in the birth of this new field,” Tobias, who had been immersed in the Makapansgat excavations, writes in Anatomia.

“As these alternative ideas emerged, I discussed them all with Dart,” Brain, the gentleman scientist, recollects. “To my great relief, he was delighted, saying: ‘This is wonderful — at last we are getting closer to the truth!’

“He immediately nominated me for an award.”

‘The boots that say, you know, ‘Africa’ ’

As if striding along in an unbroken chain of evolution, it was a single lineage of teachers and doctoral students from the anatomy school who would trigger some of our biggest inflection points in the search for human origins. Dart mentored triple Nobel-prize nominee Tobias who, in turn, would mentor his PhD students Clarke and Lee Berger. Both scientists are today at the anatomy school’s sister institution, the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), and would go on to make major discoveries in their own right. Many other ESI researchers have also done important work in the field.

A medical doctor by training, Tobias would head up the anatomy school for 30 years until 1990, and hold fast to the school’s work until his death in Johannesburg in 2012. Simply “PVT” to scientists and students, Tobias remains one of the respected figures of world palaeoanthropology, publishing prodigiously on fossil hominins and receiving 17 honorary doctorates. He led the founding anti-apartheid movement at Wits in 1948 and made rousing protest speeches. His clout — despite political criticism abroad — helped keep South African fossils in the spotlight.

A family affair: Professor Phillip Tobias in 2005, flanked by representations of Australopithecus africanus and a human skeleton, pictured on Tobias’s left. (Photo by Media24)

Tobias’s famous Olduvai Gorge work with the British palaeoanthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey in the Fifties and Sixties would put him on the map. This work gave the field his analysis of the “Dear Boy” cranium (today classified as Paranthropus boisei) — as well as his formal description of our earliest direct ancestor in the Homo genus, living between 1.5 and two million years ago. Together with Louis and Bigfoot author John Napier, Tobias called it Homo habilis, or “handy man”, a nod to its preference for flaked stone tools. This find was also a compass-swinging point on the journey to understanding ourselves. Until then, the oldest-known ambassador of our Homo genus had been erectus, from Asia.

The methodical excavations that Tobias co-led at the Cradle with a phalanx of bone excavators for more than 40 years would yield what is probably the world’s longest ongoing fossil dig. (One Wits palaeontology academic who did not want to be named said it was an open secret that Tobias “did not really get his hands dirty — he would just oversee these things”. However, “overseeing”, the academic said in the same breath, meant that Tobias nonetheless brought his monumental energy to the task of fulfilling his titanic vision for the Cradle as a world-important site of human origins. Hughes was Tobias’s right hand and director of Sterkfontein excavations. Clarke took over running things in 1991.)

These excavations produced many hundreds of Australopithecus fossils, as well as some habilis and ergaster fossils, plus a collection of the oldest-known stone tools in southern Africa dating back two million years.

Tobias didn’t seem much interested in a life of marriage and children, devoting his legacy instead to his work and his 10,000-odd students. (He was “once engaged, but broke it off because of lack of money and his studies at the time”, said Clarke).

His students were his children, Tobias joked. He was, according to someone who considered him an “unofficial mentor”, British human origins authority Bernard Wood, “as meticulous about his manners and dress as he was about his writing and lectures”.

When asked during his telephone interview to recollect his first meeting with Tobias, Clarke chuckled. He immediately excused himself. After rustling through his bookshelf, he returned to the phone with the 2013 second edition of the professor’s memoirs, Into the Past. Clarke had written the prologue.

“Where have I got it now … ah, yes! I found what I wrote in the book, I said … ” Clarke announced, signalling in his pointed southeast England lilt something of a performance to follow, set against his mid-Sixties Olduvai excavations with Louis (the young Clarke’s mentor and employer).

‘The man’s a fool!’

Clarke inhaled and began to sing the words, enunciating each letter. “Thus it was that I first met and worked with Phillip when he visited in early 1964 [in Nairobi] to study the newly discovered Olduvai fossils, as well as the magnificent Peninj mandible found by Kamoya Kimeu in January of that year. I was struck by the contrast between the rather erratically attired Louis, with wild white hair, tie reaching only halfway down his chest and weather-beaten Bata safari boots, advertised as the boots that say, you know, ‘Africa’.”

An ever-so-brief pause of import followed.

“And then the dapper Phillip, in well-tailored safari suit, of lightweight, short-sleeved jacket, shorts and long socks, together with highly polished shoes and neatly combed black hair … Their different dress and hairstyles matched their personalities. Louis was given to wild, sometimes erratic claims and hypotheses, and would relish the ensuing onslaught by critics, to be answered with a blunt, ‘The man’s a fool!’ or, ‘Rubbish!’

“Philip, however, delivered tailored, well-combed, polished presentations and was ever the stickler for convention and diplomacy. He did not look to do battle with critics, but instead hoped his findings would meet with approval and was dismayed when they did not … ”

The Leakeys, Clarke added, “plied Phillip with chocolate”. Clarke would also collaborate with Mary in Tanzania in the late Seventies on the 30-metre-long Laetoli footprint trails, preserved in volcanic ash. The 3.6-million-year-old tracks embrace about 70 early human footprints most likely pressed into the sediment by “heel-striking” members of afarensis, much in the way modern humans walk.

Professor Raymond Dart’s exuberant protégé, Professor Phillip Valentine “PVT” Tobias on 6 October 1976. Tobias shone the torch on African fossil discoveries for more than half a century. (Photo by Gallo Images / Avusa)
‘Nearly perfect’: Little Foot — Goddess of Fire

In the Nineties, Clarke had been rifling through the Sterkfontein laboratory looking for antelope bones. Instead, he recovered four conjoining left-foot bones and a tibia fragment belonging to an Australopithecus. In 1997, he would find a matching footbone and a tibia stuffed into a box of monkey fossils at the anatomy school. This was a remarkable find because a full three years had lapsed since Clarke had found the original fragments at the Sterkfontein laboratory — and the anatomy school was miles away in Johannesburg. In July of 1997, after turning up more specimens at Sterkfontein, Clarke sent assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe into the bowels of the nearby Silberberg Grotto. A day and a half’s search later, Motsumi and Molefe had isolated more complementary pieces of sheared tibia, peeking out of the stony breccia.

This is exactly where the rest of the skeleton seemed to be buried in the rock — it had been cut off from the small foot and tibia fragments during a lime blast 60 years before.

From left to right, excavation assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe in July 1997, at the position where they’d just found Little Foot entombed in Silberberg’s breccia, Sterkfontein Caves. Professor Ron Clarke leans into the slope, with the late geologist André Keyser behind him. This was a moment of reckoning: the team knew a multiyear excavation now lay ahead of them to remove with precision the oldest and most complete hominin skeleton known to humanity. © Professor Kathleen Kuman. Image courtesy of Professor Kathleen Kuman and Professor Ronald J Clarke

Between the late-Nineties and 2011, the excavation team would double down in Silberberg’s black dankness. They fortified themselves with “always basic” equipment: a small hand-held lamp, a couple rechargeable battery lamps, hammers and chisels. But the delicate nature of working on tantalisingly soft bone compelled Clarke to rely on a compressor-powered airscribe for much of the work. It was a striking departure from the crude drilling, breaking and dynamite of earlier years — making the operation the first of its kind using surgical patience to free such a comprehensive human-like ancestor from a rock tomb.

“I decided to excavate it very carefully in position, which ensured the complete preservation, of every bone and every little fragment,” Clarke told Daily Maverick. Just as they were convinced of isolating the full skeleton, however, the cruel twist of antiquity would force them to chisel ever deeper into the flowstone labyrinth. Month upon month, year upon year.

In 2011, the team finally lifted a block holding the Australopithecus female’s final beguiling remnants — her femurs — where she had rested for millennia.

Little Foot (Australopithecus prometheus) in her near-complete splendour, as she was unveiled to the public in December 2018. This neat arrangement of bones was not how the skeleton was found. Clarke and his team spent the better part of 20 years fully excavating Little Foot, which today remains unparalleled for her sheer age and totality. Filmmaker Paul John Myburgh documented the excavation. © Paul John Myburgh

She was a “nearly perfect” representation, as Clarke described her to Daily Maverick —introducing herself to Anthropocene humans some seven decades after Broom had first raised the possibility of tracking down something like her. She remains the most detailed early hominin skeleton yet found.

Clarke spent the next several years reconstructing Little Foot. Her name was a tribute to the small, taunting foot bones that had initially alerted him to the idea of her existence. He suggests in his results that she might have foraged for figs or other fruit in a tree near the shaft entrance. Maybe she had been arguing with the owner of a large male monkey skeleton (found naturally interred with her body), before both slipped and plunged into a “natural death trap”.

‘She remains the most detailed early hominin skeleton yet found’

Little Foot’s peer-reviewed results first appeared in the Journal of Human Evolution this year, with five more papers now published in the special issue and others “nearing completion”, Clarke said. The research unlocks in high resolution how mummification, gravity, rock, water and decay inexorably broke, crushed and displaced Little Foot’s skeleton across nearly 37,000 centuries. It’s an unforgettable timelapse of the forces of nature acting upon her life in purgatory.

Based on Clarke’s investigations into “many” Sterkfontein specimens showing similarities to the Makapansgat collection, the scientist assigned the 1.30cm-tall Little Foot as Australopithecus prometheus. Apart from taking inspiration from its behavioural characteristics, Clarke said, Dart named this species on the back of a Makapansgat braincase that was noticeably bigger than Mrs Ples — then the africanus benchmark equivalent. According to Clarke, prometheus also has bigger teeth than africanus, revealing “low, bulbous cusps”; its face is “flatter and longer”; and its forward-thrust cheekbones give it a “slightly hollowed” profile. While africanus was an omnivore, prometheus ate plants and strode with longer legs than some of her Australopithecus predecessors, he said.

The pelvis, among a few other anatomical hints, “indicated that Little Foot was probably female”.

Prometheus and africanus roamed the Sterkfontein and Makapansgat areas at the same time, Clarke said, much like two Homo species, Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal, sharing prehistoric France.

Having disputed Clarke’s species classification of prometheus in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Berger has claimed that prometheus emphasises, instead, very africanus-like traits.

In his interview, Clarke took a philosophical view on the heated debate (which is nothing new within the famous and not-so-famous rivalries of evolutionary finds).

“In the future, with more research and fossils coming to light, it may be necessary to make a different species. But, for now, I think it’s most logical to put Little Foot into a known species from that area, which is prometheus.”

For Clarke’s part, there’s “absolutely no doubt that there were two Australopithecus species in these areas,” and that “prometheus is the correct name for Little Foot.”

‘Extraordinary discoveries are coming’
Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Professor Lee Berger reveal Homo naledi at the Cradle of Humankind, September 2015. Naledi was dug up in a hard-to-reach chamber in the Rising Star Cave. This led scientists to the conclusion that these hominins had understood the finality of death. Displaying a unique mix of primitive and modern features, Naledi was defined by a tiny brain the size of an orange, a slender body and unusually curved fingers. (Photo by Gallo Images / Beeld / Denzil Maregele)

Berger is the American-born palaeoanthropology chair at Wits known for his influential Indiana Jones-style celebrity as much as he is for his publicly accessible, some say fast and flamboyant, brand of science. His hominin discoveries, together with Clarke’s Little Foot, have done much to build on Wits’s fossil legacy. By digging up fossils that enchant the public and sustain scientific interest, both Berger and Clarke have helped ensure that the world keeps talking about evolutionary science at Wits. (Although it’s known that Tobias’s most famous students have different philosophies on science and don’t get along).

In 2013, a tip-off by cavers inspired Berger to source six slender women scientists on Facebook. Then he sent these so-called “underground astronauts” into tiny subterranean passages at the Cradle’s “Rising Star” caves. He gave these impossibly small corridors jazzy names like “Superman’s Crawl” and “Dragon’s Back”.

Two years later, Berger and his crew declared a new early relative contemporary with modern sapiensHomo naledi. This small-bodied early human was represented by skeletal remains of 15 individuals — the “largest assemblage of a single species of hominin yet discovered in Africa”, Berger’s paper announced through eLife, an open-access platform. His ethos “on how science should be done”, Berger told Daily Maverick, chimed with eLife’s. This involved publishing “authoritative, rigorous, insightful, enlightening or just beautiful” peer-reviewed research — the sort that is “freely available to all readers without delay”.

His “initial idea” was to introduce naledi to the world through a pedigree journal; one with a stratospheric “impact factor”. (This is the metric that captures how many citations a journal attracts in a year.)

“But certain individuals in that club,” he said, “attempted to force us to alter the way we were publishing, which included reducing the quality and accessibility of our papers so that they would pander to an existing narrative. But there was no existing narrative Homo naledi was going to fit within. It was truly a remarkably different creature.”

Several naledi papers, Berger added, had been accepted into his original publication of choice — but, to him and his research associates, eLife was emerging at the same time as an important player in the “rise of remarkable, mega open-access” journals.

“I’ll bet you that, by going to eLife, and making the data freely downloadable, those original naledi papers are potentially among the most-read scientific papers in history,” he said. “One of the problems of science? It’s kept part of its processes in a black box … [but] our transparency, the number of scientists we engage very openly — in particular early-career scientists with the most current and best data sets and techniques — make better science.”

Berger’s current research team, he pointed out, numbered just shy of 160 multi-disciplinary scientists.

As the naledi team would have it, the species lived in the Cradle until relatively recently, around 250,000 years ago, give or take some millennia, and buried its dead. If these claims stand the test of time, plus the fiery nature of fossil deliberations, naledi may prove something very intriguing — metaphysical thought in a seemingly primitive hominin.

Five years before, Berger had announced Australopithecus sediba, the two partial skeletons from the Cradle’s Malapa cave, who were alive when the earliest manifestations of Homo arose two million years ago. The paper stakes an ambitious claim — the Malapa fossils “share more derived features with early Homo than any other australopith species”. This means sediba could, in fact, “help reveal the ancestor of that genus”.

Berger flew the priceless naledi and sediba specimens, Neo and Karabo, out of Africa for the first time in late 2019 to delight the American public in Dallas at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science — making Neo and Karabo some of the most well-travelled proto-humans in all history.

These are irreplaceable fossils, so the trip was something of a gamble. But that’s a Berger trademark: granting access to data and fossils in ways that challenge the status quo. Naledi files are downloadable online, which gives fossil aficionados from all walks of life the chance to 3D print, probe and even replicate the science that this ancestor offers.

Professor Lee Berger lays his hands on precious cargo — the skull of Australopithecus sediba at the Evolutionary Studies Institute’s fossil vault, Wits University. Both sediba and Homo naledi went on display for international audiences for the first time in late 2019. They are on exhibit at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science until March 2020. © The University of the Witwatersrand

“It was terrifying transporting Neo and Karabo overseas, sure—” His voice stopped abruptly, like words falling off a page.

But taking these fossils to Dallas “wasn’t a risk, it was an obligation,” he countered. As the “authentic thing”, they’re “world treasures … They’re ambassadors who can inspire young people to pursue these esteemed subjects in their own studies. I want these fossils that have journeyed through time to join us to make a difference in the world.”

There’s also the not-so-trifling educational factor that the US is “having difficulty with these discussions, specifically with evolutionary sciences”. He “wanted to make a point”.

“That’s where there are climate change sceptics or people who say, ‘I don’t believe in evolution’ ”

“I chose one of the largest metro areas in the American South,” he said. “That’s where there are climate change sceptics or people who say, ‘I don’t believe in evolution.’ Want to make a change? Go where it’ll be most effective.”

Neo and Karabo are in Dallas until late March 2020 and, so far, they’ve had a less ignoble time of it than the Taung child in London. During its 1931 publicity tour to the English capital city, Dora Dart supposedly forgot the skull in a cab one night. Probably not even the toughest test for cab drivers, The Knowledge of London, would have been able to prep the driver on how to troubleshoot the discovery of a child skull on the back seat. So the driver did what any thinking human would: shuttle the world’s oldest toddler straight to the nearest police station.

“Actually, I think it was Raymond Dart who left the child in the cab, but he blamed his wife,” Berger quipped. “We were, perhaps, taking a few more precautions than dear Professor Dart. Today, these fossils are seen as treasures. We were escorted from Wits with provincial police officers, taking diplomatic lanes. We were treated that way in Dubai and we were certainly treated that way in the US.”

Little Foot, sediba and naledi are “huge discoveries in the three decades’ since Tobias’s retirement”, Bruce Rubidge, of the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences at Wits, told Daily Maverick. Like Broom, Rubidge is a rare species who can print “world authority in mammal-like reptiles from the Karoo” on his business card. He pointed out that the South African fossil record tended to be “quite fragmentary” up until the Nineties, because it was represented by fossils that carnivores carried into caves. “Post-1990 gave us momentous strides, because now you have heads and bodies together.”

Spellbound schoolchildren in the presence of Homo naledi, Cradle of Humankind, October 2015. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy)

In the new year, Berger said, the story of human evolution may prove even more complex than before. He wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics of his latest research — not even when Daily Maverick suggested that this may serve his accessibility narrative.

“Believe it or not, despite my critics, I do science the old-fashioned way — I peer review everything,” was just about all he would let slip.

“What I can tell you is that there are new sites. We didn’t stop exploring. Turns out these things aren’t as rare as we thought. We’re working on material that will shed new light on Homo naledi’s behaviour in striking and dramatic ways … 2020 is going to be a very exciting year for palaeoanthropology in South Africa.”

Cracking a primordial whodunit

The circumstances surrounding the Taung child’s death would remain one of the great detective mysteries of deep time, until Clarke and Berger worked together to help solve it. In the mid-Nineties, they had joined forces on the hypothesis that an eagle had swept off the Taung baby and killed it where it would be found millions of years later among prey fossils, such as baboon and dassie bones.

The child was the only africanus ever found at Taung. Marks on its skull and associated monkey skulls at the kill site were typical of eagle damage, indicating that it must have flown in the claws of a powerful raptor to get there. The animal fossils were small — consistent with eagle predation. In 2007, Berger co-wrote a paper not involving Clarke to present further taphonomic clues of eagle predation.

“At the age of three and a half the Taung child was eaten by an eagle. The evidence is that damage marks to the eye sockets of the fossil are identical to marks made by modern eagles on modern monkeys as they rip out their eyes,” muses evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which sets out the case for evolution.

But for Dawkins the crime is not the hapless little hominin’s brutal end.

He appears to be more concerned about unseemly nomenclature — the “depressingly unimaginative” name “Australopithecus africanus”. (Daily Maverick’s spot survey showed that not everyone, including Rubidge, agreed with Dawkins on this score.)

‘His would prove some of our species’ greatest leaps into the mental unknown’

“Poor little Taung Child, shrieking on the wind as you were borne aloft by the aquiline fury, you would have found no comfort in your destined fame, two and a half million years on, as the type specimen of Australopithecus africanus. Poor Taung mother, weeping in the Pliocene.”

For decades it was the School of Anatomical Science’s teachers, associates and apprentices who coaxed together the forensics of humanity’s deep history among the dolomite lime quarries, caves and cliffs of the northern South African interior, despite non-acceptance by some.

Dart’s Australopithecus, through a century of subsequent discoveries, would time and again add clarity and nuance to the family tree, and in some way or another inform many other finds in the search for our beginnings.

His would prove some of our species’ greatest leaps into the mental unknown, even madder and wilder to our imaginings than the planet Charles Darwin had set out to explore aboard The Beagle a century before.

Possible futures

These days, fossil scrutiny falls to the ESI, the new incarnation of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, responsible for generations of critical science at Dart’s behest. While the anatomy school under biological anthropologist Maryna Steyn builds on deep research in morphological anatomy, structural biology and biological anthropology, ESI oversees one of the largest fossil collections in the southern hemisphere.

More than 90% of these specimens were collected by James Kitching, who “walked many thousands of kilometres, often in the blistering heat of the parched Karoo … of the 53½ years that Kitching served the Institute, 215 months (just short of 18 years) were spent in the field collecting fossils”, notes Rubidge in a co-written document.

However, far from simply delivering escapist nostalgia of a primitive Africa, palaeo histories lend as much perspective to the far past and daunting present as they do to sapiens’ possible futures.

‘Palaeo histories lend much perspective to sapiens’ possible futures’

The tale of our times is that sapiens-induced climate change is happening much faster than anything weathered by our hominin forebears, said Wits alumna Robyn Pickering, now director of the University of Cape Town’s new Human Evolution Research Institute.

Pickering is known for recently breaking ground in flowstone dating, indicating, among others, that Cradle hominins experienced profound climate change, from wetter to drier conditions, at least six times between around one million and three million years ago. A controversial new study that proposes modern humans come from the sprawling wetlands of the Makgadikgadi-Okavango region in Botswana also teases apart climate migrations.

“After doing really well and surviving for a long time,” Pickering said, africanus simply wafts like a ghost from the record on the other side of “this huge wet phase”, some two million years ago.

Although it had much more time than 21st-century sapiens to adapt to its own climate crises (which took place over a couple million years), even “poor old africanus went extinct”.

“So have 99% of all species that have ever lived,” Rubidge remarked. Life, as far as we know from this limited view here on Planet Earth, is not the norm. It’s a freak occurrence.

That Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin is the only living member among all of sapiens with a mental record of life as a biped beyond Earth, is almost not of material concern. Tobias told this writer during a radio interview 20 years ago that human evolution would reduce its physical responses to natural selection in the domesticated, medicated civilisation unrecognisably altering immense swathes of this planet.

Our next imperative, Tobias said, was mental.

For the more quixotic among us, this imperative may even be an artificially driven, post-biological release from the limits of the human body.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu left an imprint of his foot as an honorary tribute at the Cradle of Humankind, 2013. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Bongiwe Gumede)

As a species who can imagine such beautiful abstractions, sapiens has emerged at an extraordinary moment in our narrative. Despite malice in our genes, we’re shaped by complex sentience.

From evolving out of micro-organisms that billions of years ago could not see light, you — the reader of these words — can stand in front of a mirror today, look back at yourself and know there are more atoms in your eyes than stars in the observable universe.

Yet, this is also a moment of terrifying wonder and privilege — we’ve honed an almost clairvoyant power to analyse much more than the climate conditions that altered the fate of hominins thousands of centuries ago.

Our magnificent, big brain can also peer into the future, and see that we’re on the cusp of a world about to transform under climate forces more awful than anything that may have killed other human species.

That is, before they could become something like us. A species who — for now — still has a cosmos at its feet. DM