Taung Child

African Origins

When this 3-year-old child's skull was found in 1924, it was among the first early human fossils to be found in Africa -- and the first early human fossil discovery to draw major attention to this region as a place of origin of the human family tree. Still, it took over 20 years after that before scientists accepted the importance of Africa as a major source of human evolution.

The Taung Child’s fossilized anatomy represented the first time researchers saw evidence of early human upright, two-legged  (bipedal) walking. The evidence was the position of the Taung Child’s foramen magnum, or the hole through which the spinal cord connects with the brain. This spinal cord hole is positioned toward the front of the Taung Child’s skull, a characteristic associated with bipedal locomotion. This bipedal adaptation allows the head to balance atop of the neck; while contrastingly, a four-legged ape has its foramen magnum positioned toward the rear of the head to keep its eyes facing forward (and not down) when it moves.

 

How do we know how old the Taung Child was at death?

The Taung Child’s first molars had only just begun to erupt through the gum and become visible as teeth, indicating that the fossilized jaw belongs to a child. Closer analysis of dental development, crown formation, and root length has estimated the child’s age at death at 3.3 years.

 

How do we know how the Taung Child died?

The Taung Child is thought have been attacked and killed by an eagle. Scientists suspect an eagle killed the Taung Child because puncture marks were found at the bottom of the 3-year-old’s eye sockets (see close-up photo below). These marks resemble those made by a modern eagle’s sharp talons and beak when they attack monkeys in Africa today. Other evidence for the eagle kill hypothesis includes the presence of eggshells at the site and an unusual mixture of animals bones found alongside the Taung Child’s skull. Most of the bones found are from small animals (including hyrax, rodents, tortoises, lizards, crabs, small antelopes, and small baboons), which is uncommon compared with animal bones at other early human sites. Many of these small animal bones also have damage resembling that made by modern birds of prey.

Image of "Taung Child", skull, right 3/4 view
Image of "Taung Child", skull, front view
Image of "Taung Child", skull, close-up of trauma
Taung Child
Exhibit item
Site: 
Taung, Republic of South Africa
Date of discovery: 
1924
Discovered by: 
Raymond Dart (via local quarrymen)
Age: 
About 2.8 million years old
Text: 
<bold>African origins</bold> This is the first early human skull ever discovered in Africa. It was found in 1924, but it took about another 25 years before scientists accepted the importance of Africa as a major source of human evolution.