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Taung Child Skull
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The RadioLab podcast on the Taung Child
In 1924, quarrymen working a mine in Taung, South Africa discovered some fossilised skulls and they showed them to their boss, E.G. Izod. Mr Izod. took a particular liking to one skull and gave it to his son Pat to display over his mantle piece. Pat’s friend Josephine Salmons recognised the skull as an extinct primate and immediately asked if she could show it to her mentor, the Australian anatomist and anthropologist, Raymond Dart.
Dart recognised the significance of the skull and asked Izod’s company to bring any more interesting discoveries directly to him. Later, Dart received a crate of discoveries and began sifting through the fossils, he found one skull that seemed like no other. Because of the way the skull would have been positioned on the spine, Dart realised that this creature must have walked upright, after further examination Dart declared this as a new species of Australopithecus, and claimed Africa to be the home of the origins of man.
His claims were ignored, mainly due to the fact the British were enamoured with their own discovery, Piltdown Man. The idea that man came from Africa in 1925 was seen as absurd, Piltdown Man was the missing link, Taung Child was nothing more than an extinct ape. That was until 1953 when Piltdown Man was discovered to be a hoax and Taung Child took some further investigating.
After the initial celebrations of the discovery being recognised, another mystery began to unfold. What killed Taung Child and why was it with the bones of so many other victims? Signs pointed to Taung being the prey of a big cat, though Dart believed Taung Child was killed by one of his own. He later published a thesis on the violence of man in the continent of Africa, which was used as the basis for the opening scenes in Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In 1994, Professor Lee Berger was digging for fossils in South Africa when he witnessed an incredible force of nature, that spawned an idea on the death of Taung. Two eagles, working in unison ambushed a Vervet Monkey, kill it and fly off with the monkey in the clutches of its talons. Berger jumped in his car and followed the eagle to its nest, he climbed the rocks and discovered a huge pile of bones from antelopes to baboons. The bones all had one same feature, marks from where the eagles had driven their talons into the skull.
Berger became convinced that the Taung Child may have suffered the same fate, he went to examine the bones that were found with the Taung Child, and all contained the exact same marks. He published a paper saying that eagles were to blame for the death of Taung Child in 1995 and much like Dart, was laughed out of town; a bird of prey could never have lifted something as heavy as a Taung Child they said, a leopard did it.
Not one to accept that he was in the wrong Berger read up further on Eagles and discovered that when they kill mammals they often pluck out the eyes to get to the delicious, juicy brain. The talons leave distinctive scratch marks on the under side of the eye socket, he got into his car, drove down to the lab, got out the Taung Child skull and there they where, in all their gory glory; the talon marks.
In 2006, some 82 years after the initial discovery, it was confirmed that Taung Child and the mass grave of fossils gathered next to him were all the victims of eagles, approximately 2.5 million years ago.
Now, ‘what has all of that got to do with 3D printing?’ I hear you enquire. Well, RadioLab, one of the world’s leading science radio shows have teamed up with shootdigital to make a 3D scan of the oldest not yet human fossil ever discovered. RadioLab also paired up with MakerBot to 3D print the skull in all array of colours and the scan is now available for you to download from thingiverse.
Though RadioLab have their taung firmly placed in their cheek when they talk about “purple sparkly” 3D prints of the Taung Child. There is an important benefit of 3D printing to think about here. What if Professor Lee Berger didn’t have access to the skull? What if he was on the other side of the world? What if he wasn’t considered enough of an academic to be granted access? We’d still wrongly have a leopard pinned down for the murder.
The 3D printed replica contains all those scratches that gave Berger his breakthrough, had he have been a student in a university in Toronto and come up with this theory he could have proved it without ever having to see the skull. This use of the technology could mean that precious objects around the world could remain untouched yet examined on a worldwide scale. 3D printing could unlock some of the most important discoveries on earth.