Posted January 21, 2000 · Issue 70
Note: Inspired by findings of the University of the Witwatersrand's Palaeo-Anthropology Research Group, especially their reconstruction of the death of the Taung child. This account goes a little further.
The child huddled, whimpering, into her mother's side. She had been crying for hours. Now all that she could manage was to shiver and keen in a little high-pitched whine. Her mother petted her, worried and heartsick. The child had never behaved like this before, and, with her brother gone, she was all that was left to the family in its long, long flight from starvation. She had always been a different, inquisitive, bold child - and now she was a guilty child, gripped by a remorse foreign to her and her people.
The man of the family gazed stonily out of their refuge. He blamed the child, the mother knew, for what had happened. Blamed her for the childish act of viciousness that had caused the three-year-old to fall and be left behind long enough for the enemy to strike - and carry him away into the broken country so quickly that he could not be found. They had heard him calling for a while - but the cries had soon broken off, and then he was gone. The father had beaten his daughter then, and only stopped when the mother had thrown herself over the child to receive the blows herself. All that night, the child had sobbed with the pain, and with the knowledge of her guilt. All that night, the man had sat and watched out of the little cave mouth while the woman had tried to comfort the child.
Finally, the dawn came, creeping up out over the African hills, lighting the dry land with a false rosy glow. The man looked at his little family then for a long moment: the thin, haggard woman; the small girl; their few pathetic scraps of food held onto during their mad run for the cave. He snarled, threw up dust at them, and was gone.
For a long while, the woman lay with her daughter, dully aware that this was probably the end. Her man had gone, probably forever: he had been increasingly impatient, and increasingly desperate, as their endless trek had taken them away from the big, ugly, vicious invaders of their home country into a land that grew drier and drier as they moved through it. Now he had gone away from them when they needed him most.
Finally she stirred and thought to look for food, to survive a little longer. The cave entrance was narrow and masked with surprisingly green bushes given the dryness of the surroundings. While it was not the broken forest she was used to, there were some similarities, and she had learned the hard way where to look for food during their flight. There were some bulbs near the cave and many larger insects and grubs, even a lizard or two. She could hear monkeys chattering in the distance - they would not be here unless there was something to eat. Further prospecting, with the child clinging to her like death, turned up a damp patch between two big rock outcrops that yielded a muddy puddle when she scraped it out. There was water here, then. They might even live on a while yet - long enough, perhaps, to meet with and perhaps join the band of their people they had seen in the distance a few days previously, also heading this way.
The daughter seemed to have settled a bit, though still she clung, so the mother petted her roughly and got on with the business of staying alive.
The father did not fare well for very long. Fatigue, rage, and perhaps grief, made him careless, out in the open among the scattered rocky hills, and a leopard was pleased to take an alternative to his regular baboon.
The daughter and the mother, though, did well. After her surprisingly quick recovery from the shock and shame of her brother's disappearance, the girl proved to be a resolute and inventive scavenger, as if determined to make up for the losses her family had suffered. They met with another band of wanderers a few months later, when the rains had finally come, and were assimilated. The mother did not last long; she had lost too much, in flesh and spirit, during the flight from home. The girl, though, eventually took over the role of female organizer in the band. The first thing she instituted was an almost fanatical protection of the young, as well as ostracism by the group of men who strayed. She made other changes to the social order, too - some born of natural genius, some born of the guilt that still permeated her soul. All were useful and became part of the ways of the band. The little group survived and grew and moved on - in a time when many of their brethren perished due to drought, and to invasion and conflict.
The land and the climate changed, and with them the animals. The strong, vicious invaders turned out to be less adaptable than the people they had displaced, and they were soon gone. The people multiplied and spread and were soon everywhere - and they took with them the ethic instilled by the girl, who had become a mother in her turn, and then a matriarch, during her unusually long life.
The bones of the father were soon scattered from the tree under which they had dropped: hyenas and jackals and then the smaller rodents took care of that, converting them into fragments dispersed in the grass. The bones of the boy, however, had a different fate. The crowned eagle that had plucked him by the head from the game path on which he had sprawled had a great, untidy nest in a big tree next to a rocky outcrop. She ate her fill of the child, after flexing her talons into his little braincase, then dropped the remains out of the nest. They fell down, down, onto a steep, earthy, detritus-strewn slope and into the small cave beneath the hill. The stalactites above the slope dripped gently onto the remains, gradually cementing the material beneath them into a solid mass. The child's braincase was filled with limey seepage, which slowly hardened into a perfect impression of the inside of his skull. The ages passed, and the cave filled up, burying the child's little bones deeper and deeper. Waves of climatic change swept over the land, but the rocks and the cave system endured.
Finally, finally, men came there and found the child and gently dug him out. They marveled at his perfect little skull, his unblemished teeth, his unerupted molars. They traced arteries in his brain by the lime cast inside his skull. They compared him with other victims of the eagle that had lived above that cave so long ago. Eventually, they named him Taung - and they wondered if he had been part of their ancestry, but decided that they would never know.
But his sister could have told them. She probably still tells us - from the inside. . . .
Ed Rybicki is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Prehistoric Cultures - extensive links to information on Australopithecus and on the Taung child. From the University of Minnesota at Duluth.
Human Origins and Evolution in Africa - Jeanne Sept of the Anthropology Department at Indiana University at Bloomington keeps her page up to date on new developments in this field.
Journal of Human Evolution - a great resource covering all aspects of human evolution.
Fossil Hominids - a good
source of information about fossil specimens and species, with links to articles
and book reviews. From the Talk.Origins Archive.
University of California Museum of Paleontology - online exhibits on phylogeny, geology, evolution, and more. Reviewed by HMS Beagle in Windows into Paleontology.