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The Skull

Thursday, May 15, 2014 - 03:58 PM

Today, the story of one little thing that has radically changed what we know about humanity’s humble beginnings and the kinds of creatures that were out to get us way back when.

Wits University Professor Lee Berger and Dr. Chris Stringer from London’s Natural History Museum explain how a child’s skull, found in an ancient cave, eventually helped answer one of our oldest questions: Where do we come from? Then Lee takes us on a journey to answer a somewhat smaller question: how did that child die? Along the way, we visit Dr. Bernhard Zipfel at Wits University in Johannesburg to actually hold the skull itself.

We wanted to give you a chance to hold the skull, too. So we did a little experiment: we made a 3D scan of it. If you visit our page on Thingiverse, you’ll see the results. Anyone with access to a 3D printer can print their own copy of the skull. (We printed a bunch, with help from our friends at MakerBot—there’s even a purple one with sparkles.)

We also collaborated with the folks at Mmuseumm, a tiny (really tiny, it’s in an elevator shaft) museum in Manhattan. You can visit them to see the 3D printed skull, along with the other wonderful things in their collection: mosquitoes swatted mid-bite, toothpaste tubes from around the world, and much more.

Thanks to JP Brown, Emily Graslie and Robert Martin at the Field Museum in Chicago for scanning the skull. Thanks to Curtis Schmitt and shootdigital for refining the scan. Thanks to Bre Pettis and Jenifer Howard at MakerBot for guiding us through the world of 3D printing.



Lee Berger, Chris Stringer and Dr. Berhard Zipfel


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Comments [60]

EK from Virginia

I love your show! However the last "Sî" of the intro, with the woman saying "Sî?" with the inflection of a question at the end, is very annoying. It makes me cringe every time that I hear your intro. I've discussed this with others who also are disturbed by this noise. Just wanted to let you know, perhaps this "Si" can be removed! Thank you!

Mar. 27 2017 10:33 AM
Carol from Alaska

This story brings to mind my mother-in-law's caution to me more twenty years ago as a new mother living in Southeast Alaska, "Don't ever leave your baby outside alone even for a minute to run inside for something because an eagle could carry him off." I honor her love by telling the same to new mothers when I can. The lesson of the Taung child lives on.

Dec. 04 2016 12:56 AM
Mark W.

Here is a recent story in Australia where an eagle tried to carry off a young child during a bird show.

Jul. 13 2016 07:06 PM
Lucy Laffitte from Raleigh, NC

LOVED your show today! I wanted to share my Oct 1 publication--another version of the history of everything.

See Origins Volume 5, page 21


Origins Volume 10, page 23

Sep. 27 2015 05:28 PM
Sir Lancelot from my desk

I am always impressed by these podcasts. The speaker does such a great job leading to the next part of the story. However, on another note the revolutionary skull in the history of humanity. Yet, the scratch marks being on the skull from a bird is almost ridiculous at first thought. I believe much more research needs to be done before this can be concluded.

Feb. 09 2015 11:49 PM
Huxley T Wilder

I always love to hear about evolution and the origin of human species. It makes me laugh a little that Europe and Asia didn't think we came from Africa because it just didn't 'sound right.' It's also very ironic that no one payed attention to the fossil that turned out to be the most important one in the history of human kind. It's really cool that the professor figured out what killed the tanug child after two and a half million years. That's what makes science awesome.

Feb. 09 2015 09:05 PM
Catniss S. Vonnegut from Oviedo

This podcast was kind of boring and it took a lot of time for it to get around to talking about what its actually about. The actual main part of the podcast is interesting as evolution and such always is. It is frustrating to think that social darwinism and European superiority could have severely stunted the development of evolutionary studies. Overall it is an ok podcast but I wouldn't really recommend it.

Feb. 09 2015 08:46 PM
ALice A. Keats from Florida

Its always amazing to hear about new scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. Its also amazing how fossils, millions of years old can still remain in tact and are tangible enough for study. I remember learning about evolution in human geography and was explained to that all humans hailed from Africa. Depending on where each colony from Africa migrated to, their skin color would change and exploration would expand, creating the diverse and kaleidoscopic world we live in today. It's also amazing how fossils can tell stories depending on what damage happened to a creature in its lifetime.

Feb. 09 2015 08:34 PM
Kathleen from Richmond, VA

As infants, both of my girls were fascinated by planes and birds in the sky. I liked to think that they were bringing my attention back to something I long ago filtered out. Something very important in their pure little minds. Now I know. Thank you, Radiolab.

Jan. 22 2015 11:17 AM
Harriet S. from United States

Its always interesting to hear about the weird quirks humans have because of the need for survival. Flinching because of shadows overheard seems like a disadvantage but it was actually helping an ancestor many years ago. The study of the gradual change over time to be something better makes for an interesting science.

Jan. 19 2015 11:27 PM
Jakob Sedig from United States

Just got around to listening to this episode. Overall, I think you do a good job explaining the Piltdown hoax and how Taung helped us understand human evolution. However, I find the conclusion a bit problematic. Death by bird seems to ignore the archaeological concept of taphonomy, or site formation processes. Its entirely possible that Taung was scooped up by an eagle. However, scratches on the eye orbits alone can't prove this story. We don't know the site formation processes that resulted in the final deposition of Taung, especially given the poor context from crude "excavation"--the bones were collected by miners and given to Dart. While it seems that Taung was deposited in a nest (which is somewhat questionable from the lack of controlled, precise excavation) due to the high presence of other animal bones, it is also possible that Taung died from other causes (disease, infection, violence, lack of food/water, etc, etc), and was later scavenged by an eagle or other bird or animal and brought to its nest. Overall, the exact cause of Taung's death is a somewhat minor detail--what Taung tells us on a larger scale about human evolution is much more important. I just think its important to consider all possible explanations from available data before sounding too conclusive about Taung's demise.

Jan. 03 2015 11:12 PM
matt from Michigan

we are not as far removed from that child as we would like to believe,d.aWw

Dec. 04 2014 04:50 AM
Anna Morrison from Florida, USA

This podcast was very interesting and thought-provoking. I have always found the topic of evolution very interesting. I have, however, always been a bit perplexed in my classes in biology as to how the ape-like Neanderthal transformed in so many ways to create today's human being. This podcast has vividly and very interestingly described the "missing link" between the two. Additionally, I never knew that scientists had proposed the idea that humans arose from Africa, rather than Europe, in all its supposed vast superiority, so early on in history. I guess it's just that back in the 19th and early 20th century, most published scientists, as well as the general public, did not want to believe in that theory, and hence, it was not talked about. Society seems to have a way of doing that...

Nov. 10 2014 08:52 PM
Lorelei M. Coleridge

This is a fascinating story of scientific discovery. Learning detailed history like this is a lot more engaging than a sentence or two in a textbook. I never realized that the "Out of Africa" theory of human evolution was actually proposed in the 19th century. I had heard of the Piltdown Man hoax before, but didn't know it had such an effect on science, which certainly illustrates the perceptual set of the Europeans at the time (expecting to see European origins of humans)! The changes in theories about threats to early hominids is a great example of the proper working of science: the revision of theories in the face of new evidence alongside the making of new discoveries in moments of intuition, as well as demonstrating how blurry the line is between the great enemy to science, close-mindedness, and its driving forces, skepticism and critical thinking. Also, 3D printing is awesome.

Oct. 30 2014 07:33 PM
Alice Harvishim from Oviedo, FL

This podcast is fairly interesting; it is a brief summary about the history of the tanug child. Which a skull of the head of a little human that was estimated two million years old that had been discovered. Lee Burger, a professor at the University of Johannesburg discovered the skull in 1920 in South Africa. He later then called Raymond Dart which was an Australian anthropologist to analyze the skull that was once encapsulated inside of a limestone rock that he slowly chipped away at. When Dart attempted to present his findings to the European science community his theories were strongly rejected. Chris Stringer who works at the Natural history museum of London reinforced that our start of human creation begin in European based areas such as London, which that museum had ancient bones and skulls to back that information up. As Dart strongly believed that the tanug child was the beginning of human evolution he then spent twenty long years to prove his theory correct. As years went on these tanug looking skulls began to be discovered around the world but all a slight bit different then the other. Which got people in Europe to pay closer attention and re evaluate their standings of where the human came from. After having been closely analyzed the skull in the museum of Europe was discovered to be a hoax. Raymond Dart was then recognized as the man who has discovered one of the most important human fossils ever in history. The skull can be dated back to two million years old. This was a fascinating piece which made me think about all that could come from a skull and the stories they can tell.

Oct. 27 2014 10:32 PM
Frank Strobl from Fl

I like how it discussed the different stages of evolution leading up to modern man. Explaining that before the discovery there was a missing link in the evolutionary history allows the reader to understand the importance of the discovery. I thought it was amazing how they explained in detail the appearance of the skull and how many things they look for in order to determine the history behind a skull. I also thought it was amazing that they could tell from the skull that the person was killed by a bird.

Oct. 27 2014 10:04 PM
fitzgerald gatsby from florida

This is very interesting because at first it contested the idea that we all originated from africa but then when we found out that the skull that was found on a gulf course in Ireland was a fake we gave the taung child skull some more validity. This skull is a very important piece of our history it is the missing link of our evolutionary scale and shows a transition of human evolution. This piece helps scientists because it may validate the theory of evolution.

Oct. 27 2014 08:32 PM
Harriet Emerson from FL

How humans came to be is also a questionable and interesting subject. The description of the where the skull originated was detailed and was cool to hear about how they determined the child was killed by a bird. I was taken back by the hoax skull in Europe and the lengths people will go to, to prove they are superior. The vivid imagery used in the beginning to describe the skull really got me hooked and was able to shit everything else out and listen. To find the "missing link" or an animal that is somewhat in the transition stage of becoming an human is a huge discovery in the scientific field.

Oct. 26 2014 04:34 PM
Aldous T. Chrinchton

I think this i sambaing because this explains a lot about evolution. It definitely is a missing link in human evolution. It shows that we indeed came from apes.

Oct. 20 2014 10:09 PM
Emily Marte from Florida

This podcast was very intriguing and I am glad I listened to it. I have always been interested in where humans originated and how we evolved, and this podcast discussed it in great detail. The imagery the narrators used in describing the discoveries of new skulls was amazing because I felt like I could see what they were talking about and it helped me better understand the topic. I like how they were specific in details and in tracing every step back to find our origin. To be honest, it was almost like I was at the edge of my seat in listening to all the discoveries they made, but then finding out that one of the fossils they found was fake and a hoax. I am happy that they specified how similar or different the fossils were to humans and primates, like describing their skull and spinal cord placement, and teeth.

Oct. 20 2014 08:38 PM
Keats A. Dunbar from Orlando

Honestly, I was very intrigued by this podcast. I shut everything out and just listened to it in it's entirety and it was wonderful. The diction used literally painted pictures in my head of what all these archeologists saw. Even for me to just imagine what it would've been like to be the one who discovered these things gave me goosebumps. The tone of voice and use of strong, strong pathos kept me listening all the way until the end.

Oct. 20 2014 06:44 PM
Upton D. Wilder

Throughout the podcast, the speaker moves towards a climatic conclusion by bringing in different inferences and information about the topic. The skull found in South Africa marks a historic finding. It could possibly be the oldest found fossil of the "missing link" in human evolution. The Speaker goes on to explain how the previous oldest human-like is gone back and looked at. It if found to be a fraud. This event hooks the listener and makes one want to find what happens next in this scandalous fossil excavation. The speaker then brings in evidence of other species of bones found at the site where this new skull was found. At first we are not sure what to make of this, but we keep on listening to hear what the verdict may be. The Speaker then explains that scratch marks are found on the various bones in the cave, including the skull. Scratch and claw marks of bird. Could the speaker really be concluding the incredible? That the "missing link" to human existence was killed by a bird? On the surface, this story seems to be about the excavation of a rare fossil, but if reveals itself to be the not just a finding of an old rock, but the conclusion that a creature that we see in our every day lives, very much may be an original predator of Homo-sapiens.

Oct. 19 2014 12:36 PM
Art In The Age Of from New York, NY

You can now own a Taung Child of your very own:

Oct. 13 2014 04:47 PM
Jess from The Field Museum

So proud to have been part of the lab that produced this scan!

Oct. 04 2014 05:12 PM

This story made me think that a good way for scientists to really know their evidence(the/skull) would be to draw it. You really have to look when you draw, and that way come to see all the details. Maybe we depend on technology to see for us too much, as in the 3d printing, and so don't experience the information ourselves.

Jul. 17 2014 03:41 PM
Ann Oliva from Maui

Are transcripts available for this episode? I'd love to use it for class and "print" the skull. Talk about a wonderful visualization of a story.

Jul. 13 2014 03:40 AM
Matte from Singapore

I recently listened to an episode of the "Criminal" podcast and found this one to be eerily similar - in the best way possible.

Jul. 07 2014 12:44 PM
Chris Boynton from New York, NY

If you like 3D scanned and printed skulls you should go see We make beautiful miniature skull replicas using 3D scanning and printing!

Jun. 26 2014 12:45 PM

I'm a primatologist at Penn State university, and I'm pretty sure this podcast uses chimp calls when talking about vervets! That's a mistake that should be correctly, like talking about horses while using a pig soundtrack. Please fix, radiolab! You guys are so great- don't make such a mistake :)

Jun. 22 2014 11:20 AM
Maureen from California

But isn't it also possible that the bird that left the marks in the eye socket was not the predator actually responsible, but rather a scavenger cleaning the carcass?

Jun. 21 2014 11:34 PM
shawn Dean from Arcata, Ca

I love this article i just 3d printed me one just now!!!!

Matthew Nevins from Marshalltown, Iowa see my facebook page to get help getting your hands on one too !!!

Jun. 12 2014 10:33 PM

Matthew Nevins & Melissa from Stoughton, MA — please shoot me a quick email at We can send you pricing for your very own Taung Child skull.

Jun. 09 2014 01:33 PM
Matthew Nevins from Marshalltown, Iowa

I love all of your podcasts. I was wondering if you know of any web pages that would take a scan and print the 3D scan of your choice and send it to you for a price. I am a teacher and I think that getting the skull for my class room could emphizize the importance of birds and their prey. Thank you,

Matthew Nevins
Marshalltown, IA

Jun. 05 2014 05:08 PM

What is the song that starts playing at around 6:50? The one with the piano and cello. I've been going crazy trying to figure it out.

Jun. 03 2014 01:59 AM
Melissa from Stoughton, MA

Thanks guys for turning so many on to the Taung child. She's a truly amazing fossil find. Taung played a large part in my master's thesis, specifically her natural endocast. I love the fossil so much I even have her tattooed on my hip! I would love to get my hands on a 3D replica.

Jun. 01 2014 09:02 PM
kz from London Ont, Canada

Just found radiolab. Thank you for sharing this knowledge and understanding of the worlds history to all of us. Incredibly enriching and important information being transmitted. love and respect!

Is there a podcast pertaining to Gobekli Tepe?

May. 28 2014 05:50 PM
Brad from Minneapolis

I uploaded to my Shapeways account. I didn't add any cost to this (I'm not making any money from it).
Depending on the material used, it can get pricey!

May. 27 2014 02:53 PM


May. 27 2014 01:55 PM
Jay Turberville from Fountain Hills, AZ

The video of the golden eagle attempting to snatch the child is fabricated. It is the product of the work and imaginations of some graphic art/animation students in (I believe) Canada - an exercise in their craft.

May. 26 2014 06:43 PM
Patrice Showers Corneli from Salt Lake City

In 1978, I conducted a summer long study of pronghorn fawn mortality on the National Bison Range in Montana for my MS in Wildlife Biology under Bart O'Gara's supervision. Every one of the 93% of all fawns there that year were killed by predators - most by coyotes, a few by bobcats and four by eagles. The marks on the dead fawns are very very different among the three predators.

The talon marks on the eagle-killed fawns were unmistakable on the back of the fawns on either side of the spine. One of my undergraduate field assistants observed one of the eagle kills and described the flight of the eagle with the fawn in it's talons.

Of course carrying off these kills was made possible by the ridge top updrafts on the small mountains on the BR. This made it easy for the eagles to get the prey to their nests.

The eagles in Africa are a lot bigger than golden eagles so it is not at all surprising to me that a small human could be carried away.

I am puzzled why as late as the 90's, anyone felt it necessary to test the capability of an eagle to perform this feat. Too little communication across the disciplines?

May. 23 2014 06:42 PM

Anyone manage to price this out with Shapeways?

May. 23 2014 06:03 PM

I don't usually do this, but can someone please tell what is the melody in the background that starts at 14:45? It's just one of those clicks...

May. 23 2014 11:22 AM
Verrol Adams from San Jose, CA

For anyone interested, Treofab ( offers 3D printing and customize service for just about 3d model. Full disclosure, I am associated with Treofab. We offer easy and quick price quotes too. Have a 3d model? See where you can get it printed cheapest for the materials you want. We also have patent pending technology to print in color on virtually any 3D printed material.

Do check us out or email us at

May. 22 2014 09:01 PM

Couldn't resist leaving another comment.
Still today a bird considers us fair game.

May. 21 2014 10:01 AM
Prof. Lee Berger from South Afrca

Do you want a 3D scan of sediba for the same purpose?

May. 20 2014 02:05 PM
Keya Mukherjee from Australia

My whole life people have mocked my fear of birds calling it "irrational" - good to know there is reason behind it! Read more about my experience on my blog:

May. 19 2014 08:20 PM
Curtis Schmitt from New York, NY

For anyone interested in buying a replica of the Taung Child skull, please contact me — We're the company that refined the 3d scan and we offer the highest-end 3d printing service. You'll see two photos of what our 3d print of the skull looks like under the "makes" section of Radiolab's Thingiverse page at We can ship it to you within 24–48 hours! See more of our work at 3d scanning and 3d printing work (of skulls and so much more) at If you're in the NYC area, please feel free to stop by. :)

May. 19 2014 11:17 AM

As to "Cats just feel tougher than birds" at 14:50...

It depends on what birds you are talking about... For instance...

This bastard bird from hell here..

I've had trouble finding exactly when Phorusrhacidae went extinct officially, but they were definitely around during the last ice age... And probably recent enough to have gutted some of our earliest ancestors... And, apparently, it's bones have been found in the same area as the remains of early South American humans...Not an expert so don't quote me on that last part. The oldest human remains in south america which I am aware of are only 22,000 years old, and the species was suppose to have died out much earlier...

Just to give proper scale... think about 30% larger than an ostrich, and carnivorous in nature. They were a thing of nightmares... Which is likely where they get the name "Terror Birds".

Another bird which could easily have dined on humans would be Haast's Eagle. A bird with a 10 foot wing span, which fed on defenseless Mua birds....

How ever, there is a bird alive and well today that still poses a threat to modern human beings. With a wingspan of up to 7 feet.. It is called the African Crowned Eagle, and sometimes "The leopard of the sky". It is capable of preying on animals up to 64 pounds, and the bulk of it's diet is primates and other mammals, and if you are wondering, yes, human children 9 years old and younger are included in the "primates" category. Just the bird happens to be endangered and it's hard for conservationists to get people on board to "save the baby eating eagles". A Crowned Eagle is likely what killed the humanoid child in the story above.

If you don't think birds are "tough", you've never looked a bird of prey in the eye.

May. 19 2014 03:51 AM
Christian from Santa Barbara, CA

The first nightmares I ever remember having as a toddler was a repeating theme of a mother bird wanting or threatening to get me and feed me to it's offspring. The bird actually talked to me and would tell me "I'm going to get you!" It was oddly sexually arousing at the same time. Very strange.

May. 18 2014 05:40 PM
Owen from ann arbor mi

John, our 3D Printing service, thingsmiths, is Michigan based and printing one as I write. We're in Ann Arbor, you're always welcome to come check it out!

May. 18 2014 02:05 PM
Matt from Newcastle, Australia

This makes me think about what it would be like to be caught by an eagle. Are you conscious as it carries you away, can you struggle? When exactly does it kill you? I can't help feel a little empathy for my long distant ancestor.

May. 17 2014 07:41 PM
Philip from Berlin

John, you can just upload the 3D file of the skull to any 3D printing service (e.g. Shapeways) and they will print it in your desired size and material and mail it to you.

May. 17 2014 03:54 PM
John Linstrom from South Haven, MI

Can we purchase a 3D-printed replica from Radiolab?

May. 17 2014 10:08 AM
Alden Rogers from Denver CO.

It's sad to me that so many 'rational' scientists seem to want to ignore new factual revelations about things they like to pretend to be experts on like was mentioned here with the eagles having been the ones perpetrating the kill instead of 'theory' of large cats. That behavior is the opposite of what science is about.

May. 16 2014 08:10 PM
Scott Little from LA

Anyone know when birds first started making nests? Did any birds live in caves?

May. 16 2014 06:37 PM
mark from Marin, CA

I tweeted, I loved it.
Best @RadioLab story yet. There is an arc to this story that is simply elegant. Kudos!

This story will turn a lot of kids onto science.
The shadow KNOWS

May. 16 2014 05:25 PM
Justin Hubbell from Rochester, NY

I would have loved it if the acknowledgment of Europe's racist denial of human origins in Africa had gone beyond the few sentences in this episode.

May. 16 2014 04:00 PM
Sam from Chicago

Is it weird that I want my own printed replica? Without a doubt, one of the coolest stories I've ever heard.

May. 16 2014 03:16 PM
Mohamed from Santa Cruz

I got goosebumps when you talked about that feeling you get when you see a shadow on the ground.

May. 16 2014 01:20 PM
Josh from Grand Rapids

Stories like this are the reason I support this amazing show. Thanks guys.

May. 16 2014 07:43 AM

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