Writing About Fossils Found By Men

I think it was Raymond Dart’s autobiography, Adventures With the Missing Link, that pushed me over the edge.

In Adventures, anatomist and early 20th century paleoanthropologist Dr. Raymond Dart recounts his discovery of the famous Taung Child hominin fossil. He tells the story with flourish and panache – he and his wife were hosting a friend’s wedding in Johannesburg in the fall of 1924, a crate of fossils arrived just before the ceremony was supposed to start, and Dart, the best man, starts rummaging through them, finding the Taung Child crania and endocast. He was ecstatic. As Dart tells it, he spent this beautiful moment of scientific discovery daydreaming about being an “instrument in Darwin’s hands” to bring the focus of human origins research to Africa. Back on planet Earth, however, the poor groom was a short step away from having a stroke trying to find his distracted groomsman and dragged Dart away from the fossils, just as the bride arrived.

But it’s the conversation that Dart recounted between himself and his wife, Dora, that made me fling Adventures across my desk in disgust. According to Dart, when the crate of fossils arrived, Dora, his wife, was none too pleased:

“I suppose those are the fossils you’ve been expecting. Why on earth did they have to arrive today of all days? Now, Raymond, the guests will start arriving shortly and you can’t go delving in all that rubble until the wedding’s over and everybody has left. I know how important the fossils are to you, but please leave them until tomorrow.”

I found Raymond Dart’s description of this exchange to be unspeakably patronizing -- his account of the conversation actually goes on for three more pages. Really? She spoke to you like an errant schoolboy, chastising you over the fossils? It was like we had to take Raymond at his word that Dora was as dippy as she appeared in print. My eyes couldn’t roll themselves back in my head far enough.

It’s hard to know more about Dora than what Raymond gives us, however, because Adventures With the Missing Link is the only printed record of that conversation. Dora Dart doesn’t have any journals, papers, or photographs that are part of the archives at the University of the Witwatersrand, and letters that do mention her only do so in passing.  A search of other newspapers outside of Dart’s legacy collection led me to conclude that Dora Dart didn’t leave much of a footprint in the archives.

Like so many women in the early days of paleoanthropology, Dora was undeniably part of the Taung Child’s life history, but her participation in the social life of the fossil is decidedly unmarked by history. When Raymond discovered the fossil in the crate, Dora contributed knitting needles and enthusiasm as Dart worked to free the fossil from its rock matrix; she traveled with Raymond to London with the fossil; and, when the Darts accidently left it in a London taxi, she was the one who tracked the fossil down to a police station. But she doesn’t ever seem to have a voice of her own in the Taung Child’s story, other than “Dart’s wife”, in large part because she wasn’t involved with the fossil’s formal scientific study.

For most of its history, paleoanthropology, the study of human origins, has been dominated by men. Men finding fossils, men publishing their fossils, men writing to other men to congratulate – or snipe at – each other about finding and publishing their fossils. Consequently, the history and mythos of paleoanthropology has been monopolized by these stories about men and their fossils.

Women who show up in the 20th century’s early days of human origins research are usually wives of famous scientists or they are fossil enthusiasts, employed as technicians, secretaries, or students. Mary Leakey is, of course, the big exception, with her decades of excavations in Tanzania’s Oldulvai Gorge in the mid-20th century and work with the Zinjanthropus skull. Moreover, the history of paleoanthropology is generally written through the lens of discovery – narratives that hinge on a new species or an exciting fossil. Most popular histories about paleoanthropology focus on the discovery of the fossil and inexorably link a fossil with its discoverer, like Raymond Dart and the Taung Child in 1925, Donald Johanson and Lucy in 1974, etc.

Interestingly, women who show up in early paleoanthropology generally come from different background disciplines than do their male counterparts. Women tended to come to paleoanthropology from archaeology or anthropology, rather than from anatomy or paleontology – sciences that were less about spectacular discoveries of “things” (fossils) and more about understanding processes. But those sorts of research questions are hard to canonize in a science’s historical mythos. The discovery of some really cool fossil, traditional science storytelling goes, is so much more exciting to read and write about.

Accordingly, the traditional histories of paleoanthropology don’t have a whole lot of women in them. Dart’s student, Josephine Salmons, occasionally makes an appearance. Lady Smith Woodward shows up here and there in various stories of the Piltdown hoax, since her husband Sir Arthur Smith Woodward was so involved in Piltdown’s excavation and study. By and large, however, these women are ladies in the early fossil stories, not scientists. The big names in anthropological research, like Mary Leakey or Jaquetta Hawkes, tend to be researchers who focus more on the behaviors associated with early Homo than finding new hominin fossils. And this is pretty much the cannon of paleoanthropology’s history of science as it currently stands.

But how do observations like these actually influence how to write the history of paleoanthropology? When I started designing my book, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, I realized that I would be writing a book about fossils that would basically have no women in it – in that sense, it would be similar to other histories of paleoanthropology. Because focus of the book would be about the creation of celebrity fossils, I knew that I would find myself writing a lot about paleoanthropology’s early, formative decades as a scientific discipline and a time with very few women in the science. I went through several designs of Seven Skeletons where I included Mary Leakey; however, those designs didn’t fit with the book’s focus on celebrity fossils and, for thematic consistency, I cut the chapter every time I outlined or included it. But by doing that, I felt like I was somehow perpetuating the style, focus, and structure of how the history of paleoanthropology is written by not including more women. Combine that with readers’ expectations about how the history of the fossils “ought” to be told and it becomes difficult to offer alternatives to how to write about women in the early days of paleoanthropology.

My goal with Seven Skeletons was to write about the fossils as social, scientific objects – to distance the fossils from the dominant historical narrative that hinges on the genius of their male discoverers. Examining the social lives of fossils became a way to ensure that other voices would be incorporated into the fossils’ stories through interviews, archives, museum exhibits, and even fiction. This cacophony of other, new voices meant that the stories would at least be different than what had been written previously. But I worried – still worry! – that my decision about Seven Skeletons’ structure perpetrates the canonical way that the history of paleoanthropology is written, especially for popular audiences. It’s not “wrong” history, but I wonder if it’s particularly “right”?

Writing history is all about making choices. Choices about what stories to tell and what narratives to craft, choices about themes, about what to include – but also about what to leave out. Writing good history is all about all of those choices and finding a way to balance archival integrity with the aesthetics of narrative.

In writing Seven Skeletons, I realized that I wouldn’t be writing directly about women as scientists in paleoanthropology, but I could make sure that the women who did make an appearance were given their own details – a first name, a quote directly from them, a detail that humanized them outside of their identity as “so-and-so’s wife or student.” Introducing a plurality of nontraditional materials became a way for me to chose to incorporate more stories about the social lives of these fossils.

To that end, I included a few details about Dora Dart in Seven Skeletons and made sure that Lady Smith Woodward was Lady Maud Smith Woodward (for Pete’s sake, let her have her first name). After the Peking Man fossils disappeared, the paleo laboratory’s secretary, Claire Taschdjian, wrote a fictional account of their disappearance; it’s referenced in the Peking Man chapter. Rosemary Powers, the secretary for the Natural History Museum in London was responsible for keeping the cranks at bay once the Piltdown fossil was debunked; her letter from April 28, 1967 made me laugh out loud in the archives. “Dr. Oakley: Mr. Jessup brought in this correspondence he had with Scheuer, so that we might quash the blighter if he ever pops up again. He has not been heard from in 3 years, happily. I have appended the old file…” There was no question in my mind that the memo would go in my book.

Including these details doesn’t redress the question of gender imbalance in the history of paleoanthropology. But it does emphasize that the fossils are fundamentally social objects, with pull and cachet that transcend the way their stories are generally told.

[1] Raymond A., with Dennis Craig Dart, Adventures With the Missing Link (Harper & Brothers, NY, 1959), p 4.
[2] Rosemary Powers, “Memo to Dr. Oakley,” April 28, 1967, Piltdown Misc., Piltdown Collection, Natural History Museum, London.

Further Reading

Lorraine Code, What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Jon Kalb, Adventures in the Bone Trade: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression (New York: Copernicus, 2000).

R. Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Virginia Morell, Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings (New York: Touchstone, 1996).