All things bleak and bare beneath a brazen sky: practice and place in the analysis of Australopithecus

  • Paige MadisonEmail author
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Shaping the History of the Paleosciences


The fossilized primate skull known as the Taungs Baby, discovered in South Africa, was put forward in 1925 as a controversial ‘missing link’ between humans and apes. This essay examines the controversy generated by the fossil, with a focus on practice and the circulation of material objects. Viewing the Taungs story from this perspective provides a new outlook on debates, one that suggests that attention to the importance of place, particularly the ways that specific localities shape scientific practices, is crucial to understanding such controversies. During the 1920s, the fossil itself did not move or circulate from its South African location, a fact that raised methodological concerns in understanding its significance and drew immense criticism from a range of experts. Examining the criticisms regarding the fossil’s failure to circulate draws attention to the importance of centers of accumulation in the analysis of hominid fossils. Diverging from existing histories that primarily emphasize the role of theory in paleoanthropological debates, then, this article argues that scientific practice played an important role in the Taungs fossil controversy. Examining this dimension of the debates has broader implications for revealing the underlying imperial assumptions that guided hominid paleontology during the early twentieth century.


Paleoanthropology Human evolution Fossils South Africa 



This research was funded by the John Templeton Foundation as well as the Center for Biology and Society, Arizona State University. Special thanks to Jane Maienschein, William Kimbel, and Michael Reidy for their guidance and feedback on various drafts. I am indebted to the editors of this issue, Kate MacCord and Elizabeth Dobson-Jones, for their comments, as well as to Christopher Dean for our thought-provoking discussions. Lastly, thank you to the reviewers for making this paper immeasurably better.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Arizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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