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Rise of the Prometheus

- Wits University

In the second episode of Professor Lee Berger’s series of lectures on human origin, he delves into his favourite hominid-bearing site, Makapansgat.

Prometheus, the Greek hero, who stole fire from the Gods. This is the name chosen for the new species of hominin, discovered in 1947 in the lime-quaries at Makapansgat in Limpopo, South Africa. The description of Australopithecus Prometheus in 19481 by Professor Raymond Dart of Wits University, proved to be another controversial find in the field of Palaeoanthropology2.

Inspired by the black colouring on the fossils, the types of fossils found and damage on some of the bones, Dart not only hypothesised that the black markings was signs that the bones were burnt, but he also came up with one of the most astounding ideas to come out of the science of anthropology – that humans in their deep ancestry were innately violent. One of the fossils – the lower jaw of a younger hominin was fractured by a blow that could well have led to his death. Was this the oldest case of murder in the world?

Dart’s theory of the osteodontokeratic culture, that early human ancestors developed bone tools and weapons, and that his discovery was the first evidence of violence in human nature was later proven to be false. However, his ideas inspired a number of fictional works, including the iconic opening scene of Stanley Kubric’s cult-classic, 2001 Space Odyssey. It also inspired a whole new science, called taphonomy and contributed to the study of human and primate behavioural sciences. It was the new science of taphonomy – the study of the grave – that showed Dart’s theories to be false, demonstrating that the markings on the Makapansgat fossils were naturally formed by the normal consumptive behaviours of animals like hyenas and other predators and scavengers that gnawed on the bones, and insects that had drilled holes in them.  But Dart’s hypotheses help found these sciences3.

Watch the first video in the series on Visiting the Taung child.

  1. Dart, R. A. (1948). The Makapansgat proto‐human Australopithecus prometheus. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 6(3), 259-284.
  2. Berger, L.R. and Hawks, J., 2019. Australopithecus prometheus is a nomen nudumAmerican journal of physical anthropology168(2), pp.383-387.
  3. Brain, C.K., 1997. The contribution of Raymond Dart to the development of cave taphonomy. Palaeontologia Africana33, pp.81-83.