(Best) forgotten tales of paleoanthropology, 1

The New York Times has given over free access to its e-archives, normally behind the "Times Select" paywall. It is a great opportunity to institute a new series, "(Best) forgotten tales of paleoanthropology," where I link to great (or not-so-great) moments in the field.

For my first installment, here's an osteodontokeratic flashback from 1948:

Baboon Killers' Method 1,000,000 Years Ago Traced in Recent Tactics of African Tribe
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Dec. 24 -- For those who like their mystery stories steeped in the ages, we present a plot that may be 1,000,000 years old: "Who bashed the baboons of ancient Africa, and how?"
Baboon skulls have been found in abundance in the rocks and fill of South Africa's ancient caves, and the great majority of these skulls are found to be fractured as if by a blow on the top of the head. The fracture is usually neat and distinct, indicating that whoever gave the blow did so expertly and with an instrument suited to killing baboons with speed and efficiency.
Prof. Charles L. Camp and Dr. Frank Peabody of the University of California expedition now working in South Africa have uncovered a large number of baboon skulls at Taungs, finding six fine specimens in a single chunk of rock less than two feet across its largest dimension. All showed the same evidence of a sudden and violent end -- and a neat fracture about an inch and a half in diameter. Many others have been unearthed by Dr. Robert Broom at Sterkfontein and still others have been found at Makapoans [sic], generally showing the same neat fracture.

At this point the story discusses Dart's well-known view that australopithecines had killed the baboons with clubs. And then:

New evidence was uncovered by Professor Camp during his recent trip to South-West Africa. He discovered that the Klip Kaffir tribesmen, or Bergdaramas, who live in the Waterberg region, once hunted baboons with clubs. According to his aged native informant, a "knob-kerrie," or light stick about half as long as a walking stick and with a knob head was used.

As far as I can tell, the "neat fracture" argument never returned in print.

For a recent discussion of the accumulating agents for the South African caves (focused on Swartkrans), I suggest my colleague Travis Pickering's paper, "Beyond leopards: tooth marks and the contribution of multiple carnivore taxa to the accumulation of the Swartkrans Member 3 fossil assemblage". Berger and Clarke (1995) discuss the hypothesis that eagles were involved in the accumulation of the Taung fauna, including those baboons.


Pickering TR, Domínguez-Rodrigo M, Egeland CP, Brain CK. 2004. Beyond leopards: tooth marks and the contribution of multiple carnivore taxa to the accumulation of the Swartkrans Member 3 fossil assemblage. J Humn Evol 46:595-604. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2004.03.002

Berger LR, Clarke RJ. 1995. Eagle involvement in the accumulation of the Taung child fauna. J Hum Evol 29:275-299.