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Raymond Arthur Dart (1893–1988)

by Phillip V. Tobias

This article was published:

Raymond Arthur Dart (1893-1988), anatomist and anthropologist, was born on 4 February 1893 at Toowong, Brisbane, fifth of nine children of Samuel Dart, a Queensland-born storekeeper, and his wife Eliza Ann, née Brimblecombe, who was born in New South Wales. Raised mainly on a dairy farm near Laidley, Raymond attended Toowong and Blenheim State and Ipswich Grammar schools. He graduated from the University of Queensland (B.Sc., 1914; M.Sc., 1916) with first-class honours in biology, and studied medicine at the University of Sydney (Ch.M., MB, 1917; MD, 1927), where he came under the influence of James Wilson. Resident in St Andrew’s College, he was acting vice-principal in 1917. He was a medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital; as a captain (1918-19) in the Australian Army Medical Corps, he served in England and France but saw no action.

Demobilised in England, Dart took a post at University College, London, as senior demonstrator in anatomy, under (Sir) Grafton Elliot Smith. He spent a year (1920-21) on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in the United States of America, mostly at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri. On 3 September 1921 at Woods Hole, Falmouth, Massachusetts, he married with Congregational forms Dora Tyree, an instructor in anatomy, and a divorcee. He worked for eighteen months at University College, London, before moving in January 1923 to South Africa, as professor of anatomy, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Helping to build up the infant medical school, he served (1925-43) as dean of the faculty.

In November 1924 Dart was handed a fossil skull that had recently been discovered at Taungs (later Taung), 100 miles (160 km) north of Kimberley. He extracted the fossil from the hard matrix and found that the skull was that of a child possessing a mixture of apish and human features. The child had held its head on a nearly vertical spinal column; its teeth, especially its little canines, were human-like. Although the brain was small, like that of an ape, its form seemed to be hominoid. Thinking that its blend of traits might characterise the supposed missing link between humans and non-human animals on the old notion of a chain of being, Dart named the species Australopithecus africanus and published his findings in Nature in February 1925.

For over twenty years most scholars rejected Dart’s claims. Critics asserted that the Taung child was on the wrong continent, was too young at death to make predictions about its likely adult form, and belonged to a geological epoch too recent. With its apish small brain and human-like posture and teeth, the skull belonged to a form antithetical to the kind of ancestor many theoreticians had envisaged, namely one in which the brain enlarged early in human emergence, and the posture and teeth `humanised’ later. Some held that Dart was too inexperienced for his arguments to be taken seriously; others disliked the name Australopithecus, because it was a hybrid of Latin (australis) and Greek (pithecus). In time more fossilised hominid remains were found in Africa, and Dart’s theory was generally accepted. The palaeontologist Robert Broom considered that Dart had made `one of the greatest discoveries in the world’s history’.

Another of Dart’s research contributions had major consequences for evolutionary science. From Makapansgat, an archaeological site 174 miles (280 km) north of Johannesburg, there emerged a few dozen fossil remains of Australopithecus, and tens of thousands of broken animal bones. In thirty-nine papers, published between 1949 and 1965, and in his book The Osteodontokeratic Culture of Australopithecus Prometheus (1957), Dart developed his hypothesis that some of the bones had been wilfully shaped by the ape-men and used, with teeth and horn-cores, to kill animals for eating. A fierce debate ensued as opponents advanced other possible reasons for the collections of modified bones, horn-cores and teeth. His ideas gave impetus to a new branch of science, taphonomy, the study of the impact upon bones of physical and biotic agencies.

Fair haired and blue eyed, with firm and richly modulated speech, and kindly and forthright in manner, Dart had a charismatic personality. He stimulated many students to pursue careers in biomedical science before his retirement, as emeritus professor, in 1958. His other interests included swimming and music and, with Dennis Craig, he wrote an autobiography, Adventures with the Missing Link (1959). He was elected (1930) a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Natal (1956) and the Witwatersrand (1965). In 1966-86 he spent six months each year teaching and researching at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Divorced in 1934, on 28 November 1936 he had married Marjorie Gordon Frew, a librarian, at her parents’ home in Johannesburg. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 22 November 1988 in Johannesburg and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • C. K. Brain, The Hunters or the Hunted? (1981)
  • F. Wheelhouse and K. S. Smithford, Dart (2001)
  • P. V. Tobias, Dart, Taung and the `Missing Link’ (1984)
  • P. V. Tobias, `In Memory of Raymond Arthur Dart FRSSAf’, Nature, vol 337, no 6204, 1989, p 211
  • Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, vol 48, part 1, 1992, p 183.

Citation details

Phillip V. Tobias, 'Dart, Raymond Arthur (1893–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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