Saturday 22 December 2012

The Taung Child

Dr. Nicola Carrara, curator of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Padua, sent us a note on the Taung project which we willingly share:
The Paleoanthropology is littered with nicknames assigned to various discovered hominin fossils: Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), Mrs Ples (Australopithecus africanus), Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), Twiggy (Homo habilis), the Turkana Boy (Homo ergaster), The Hobbit (Homo floresiensis), the old man of Cro-Magnon man (Homo sapiens) are some of the most famous examples.
Naming the living beings is one of the tasks of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Giving a name to someone is the first way to know him, take him into our circle and, somehow, pigeonholing him.
But the name alone is not enough. To know someone, we also need to see his face. Name and Face are an inseparable pair to frame a person, so much that you go often in crisis when someone greets us, and we identify his face, but we can not remember the associated name.
Or, when you go back with memories, you feel uncomfortable with the fact that we remember the name of some people but not the features. Incidents of this type are common and show a fundamental process of our brain: we are better when we know a person's name and his aspect!
The Taung child (Australopithecus africanus) is a fundamental fossil in the history of Paleoanthropology. Discovered by Raymond Dart at Taung, South Africa, in 1924, the find consisted of the entire face, including teeth and jaws, and the endocranial cast of the brain. Dated between 2 and 3 million of years ago, the child was about 3 years old and had a cranial capacity of 410 cc, which would have been 440 cc in adulthood.
The fossil surprised the discoverer for the modernity of some of its features: the large and "rounded" brain, the small canines, different from those of apes, and especially the relatively advanced position of the foramen magnum compatible with bipedalism.
The cast of this fossil is in many museums around the world, and it's the evidence of the evolutionary history of our species. The Museum of Anthropology at the University of Padua keeps three copies of this find, along with those of many other Hominins.
When I was approached to join the "Taung" project, the first feeling was that of curiosity: I could finally know how the face of the child looked like, whose fossilized skull was in the closet behind my desk!
The curiosity was fueled by the various progresses of the work of Arc-Team that reached me through dr. Moreno Tiziani. Since a few weeks, the strictly scientific work of the team gave a face to the Taung child.
As an anthropologist and a curator of a museum, this result is very important. All the museography linked to human evolution is moving for some time to make our ancestors more human, taking away from the head the mistaken belief of the oneness of our humanity. There were many ways of being "human" and there have been many attempts to reach humanity. The Taung child is fully embedded in this story.
The times when the French paleontologist Marcellin Boule, between 1911 and 1913, reconstructing erroneously the skeleton of the Neanderthal of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, removed him from humanity because incapable, because of its anatomy, to "raise his eyes to heaven", are really far.
Today, thanks to the dedicated work of many scholars such as Arc-Team, when I open the closet behind my desk it's nice to see a familiar face.

Padua, december 4, 2012
Nicola Carrara
Translation: Moreno Tiziani

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