May 15, 2014

The Skull

 

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.

 

 

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Speaker 2:

Wait. You're listen-

 

Speaker 7:

Okay.

 

Speaker 2:

All right.

 

Speaker 7:

Okay.

 

Speaker 2:

All right.

 

Speaker 7:

You are.

 

Speaker 2:

Listening to.

 

Speaker 7:

Radiolab.

 

Speaker 4:

Radiolab.

 

Speaker 5:

Shorts.

 

Speaker 7:

From.

 

Speaker 2:

WNYC.

 

Speaker 7:

And NPR.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is Radiolab, and today we're talking about...

 

Robert Krulwich:

Things.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

I don't think there'll ever be another specimen, that'll be exactly like this one.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Actually, our next podcast is a full hour about stories that grow out of particular objects, but today we have a preview.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yes.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Sort of.

 

Speaker 6:

So that's the place?

 

Bernard Zepfel:

This is the place.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's story about a thing.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

It's in this vault.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It lives inside a steel vault, inside this huge laboratory at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. We asked a professor there, Dr. Bernard Zepfel, to pull it out and show it to our reporter, Patricia Hume.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

And this is the original specimen. This is it. We have it right in front of us here. I handle this a lot, but I get gooseflesh every time I take this out.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The reason it gives him gooseflesh, or goosebumps, is because this object seems to completely upend two basic questions about human history.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

Amazing.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Where did we begin, and when we began, who was trying to take us out?

 

Bernard Zepfel:

[inaudible 00:02:01].

 

Robert Krulwich:

Producer Andy Mills takes the story from here.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Right. With thunder and vigor.

 

Robert Krulwich:

And gusto.

 

Jad Abumrad:

With gusto.

 

Andy Mills:

Yes. I'd like to with Gusto please.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Alright.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

It's one of those discoveries that almost didn't happen.

 

Andy Mills:

And here to help me tell you the story.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Okay. I'm professor Lee Berger...

 

Andy Mills:

Is Lee.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

I am a research professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and an explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society.

 

Robert Krulwich:

An explorer in residence. That's a weird title. It seems like you should be one or the other.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

It's almost an oxymoron, isn't it?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

 

Andy Mills:

Lee says that our story begins back in the 1920s in South Africa at a place called-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Taung.

 

Andy Mills:

Taung.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

It's T-A-N-U-G, Taung, is the proper name-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Taung.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

In Tswana. The western way of saying it is Taung. It's a desert area on the southern edge of the Kalahari escarpment-

 

Andy Mills:

Kind of like your stereotypical picture of Africa. Rocks, baobab trees, roaming gazelles.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

And back in the 1920s...

 

Andy Mills:

The place was crawling with Europeans, digging mines.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

You say we're blasting away with dynamite, drilling with big steam drills, and huge explosions would take place.

 

Andy Mills:

And one day these miners, they're blowing their way through a bit of this hillside, and as the rock falls away and the smoke clears, they realized that they've opened up this cave.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

An ancient cave. And inside of that cave-

 

Andy Mills:

They found dozens of these strange looking rocks, almost like animal bones. One of the miners, he takes those bones, gives them to a geologist.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Geologists box them up...

 

Andy Mills:

And sent them to this Australian guy who is living in Johannesburg named Raymond Dart.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

And that's probably the first miracle in this story. Raymond Dart was a neuroanatomist, a comparative neuroanatomist, one of the only ones in the world.

 

Andy Mills:

This was the guy who knew his fossils, and when this box arrived, he was actually wearing a three piece suit.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

He's going to be best man at a wedding, in fact, later that afternoon...

 

Andy Mills:

But he's like, "That can wait." So he reached into the box, shuffled through some antelope skulls.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

It was full of baboon skulls.

 

Andy Mills:

Monkey skulls... Until he got to this one rock. Now, to you or me, this would have just looked like a big chunk of limestone.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

But Raymond Dart immediately realized, he had something special. And he started... he actually went and got his wife's knitting needles, and started scratching away at this rock, much to his wife's disgust. He then spent the next several months-

 

Andy Mills:

Delicately chipping away at the limestone until...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

The rock literally popped free. And there, he stared into a perfect little face.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

You can see here, the face is quite flat and humanlike.

 

Andy Mills:

A lot like the face-

 

Bernard Zepfel:

Of a child.

 

Andy Mills:

A human child.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

But, humans have a larger brain.

 

Andy Mills:

According to Dr. Zepfel, this child's brain was smaller than a human child. It was closer to the size...

 

Bernard Zepfel:

Of a chimpanzee.

 

Andy Mills:

So, it had features of a human, it had a brain more like a chimpanzee. Stranger still, Dart who, remember, studied this sort of thing. He looked at the foramen magnum.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

That's the hole in the base of your skull where your spine goes in.

 

Andy Mills:

He knew that for creatures that walk on four legs, that hole-

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Is generally towards the back of the skull, so they can look forward.

 

Andy Mills:

But here, the hole's on the bottom. Which suggested to him that, this creature walked upright.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

It was not a monkey. It wasn't an ape as we know apes today. It was certainly not a modern human being.

 

Andy Mills:

This was something in between.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

If you were walking across a broken woodland, where little Taung Child might've lived, you would have seen a person off in the distance. As you approached though, you'd begin to see that something was wrong with the proportions. Arms were probably a little longer, legs, a little bit shorter. The head was too small.

 

Andy Mills:

And as you stepped closer, you'd see...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

The little Taung Child's body would have been covered in...

 

Andy Mills:

This thick hair.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Potentially, even fur, more like an ape than we have. But it'd be like no ape you've ever seen, because it would be standing there in very much the way you would be standing staring at it, on two legs.

 

Andy Mills:

So if this is a little bit human, and a little bit ape, kind of in the middle it seems, did he feel like this was the quote "missing link?"

 

Prof Lee Berger:

We don't use that term because evolution doesn't happen that way.

 

Andy Mills:

Sure.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

But certainly, Dart did. He in fact, wrote a book called Adventures With The Missing Link.

 

Andy Mills:

And right after he discovered the skull...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

He sent a paper off in amazing speed to the journal, Nature. It was published in February of 1925.

 

Andy Mills:

He thought that this was going to revolutionize everything.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

But he was wholeheartedly rejected, by the great scientific community of Europe. For two reasons.

 

Andy Mills:

First.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

We already knew that humans didn't evolve in Africa.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

Yeah. Africa was backward.

 

Andy Mills:

That was the belief, says Chris Stringer.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

I'm a research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London.

 

Andy Mills:

And he explained that back in the early 20th century...

 

Bernard Zepfel:

People of the time felt that if you look in Europe, you can see all this wonderful cave art, painted many thousands of years ago. They prefer to think that Europe or Asia were more likely centers of our origins, than Africa was.

 

Andy Mills:

Second, scientists already found a skull that they believed belonged to the quote unquote "missing link".

 

Bernard Zepfel:

There's something called Piltdown Man.

 

Andy Mills:

It was this ancient man, fossil, thing, that they found in a golf course, in England. So, in their minds it was the right place. And also...

 

Bernard Zepfel:

In Piltdown Man, you've got this very large brain and a brain case that looks really quite like a modern human one.

 

Andy Mills:

Which made sense to them. Clearly, European ancestors would have had big brains, because they're European.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

Yeah. The Taung individual had a small brain.

 

Andy Mills:

Way too small.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

This thing was too primitive. It didn't look right.

 

Andy Mills:

So Dart...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

He spent the next 20 plus years...

 

Andy Mills:

Arguing, "Look, people. This is our ancestor." And getting nowhere.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Until...

 

Bernard Zepfel:

In the late 1920s...

 

Andy Mills:

Other fossils started showing up.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

In China, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia.

 

Andy Mills:

And these other fossils, they were from roughly the same era as the Piltdown man. But their brains, their teeth, their bone structures, they were all totally different.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

So this was very weird. How do you explain that?

 

Andy Mills:

For decades...

 

Bernard Zepfel:

Nothing else like Piltdown man turns out from anywhere in the world.

 

Andy Mills:

So some forensic experts at the London Museum of Natural History, they decide, "Maybe we ought to go take a closer look at Piltdown man."

 

Bernard Zepfel:

They started looking at the material under microscopes.

 

Andy Mills:

And right off the bat...

 

Bernard Zepfel:

They found that one of the teeth clearly showed the marks of a metal file. That it had been filed down to look flat.

 

Andy Mills:

No.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Piltdown was a fraud. It was a fake.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

A forgery, a hoax.

 

Andy Mills:

And the hoaxers were never caught.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

There were questions in the Houses of Parliament, about the competence of the Natural History Museum. That its experts had been fooled for all this time.

 

Andy Mills:

Because this wasn't even a very good fake.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

They had taken the jawbone of an orangutan, they took some modern human skull pieces. They then stained that material dark brown, so it looked the same color-

 

Andy Mills:

No.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

Even fake stone tools.

 

Andy Mills:

And all of this time, right there in front of them was the Taung Child.

 

Speaker 3:

It is estimated, and it's purely an estimate, of being around 2 million, 2.2 million years old.

 

Andy Mills:

Which still today is the oldest, not quite yet human fossil that we have.

 

Speaker 3:

This would be, probably the greatest, or one of the greatest discoveries ever.

 

Andy Mills:

Been argued to be the most important single fossil ever discovered, in the history of humankind's search for ancestry because...

 

Speaker 3:

It brought to the fore, that humanity originated in Africa. That every human on earth is an African. We are all of African origin.

 

Andy Mills:

But, more than just where we came from, which I think is totally cool.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. Super interesting.

 

Andy Mills:

We can look at the skull and we can see things about what life was like, for this little version of us that lived so long ago. We look at the teeth, we can see what it was eating.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Was it eating what we eat?

 

Andy Mills:

Yeah. Its teeth are surprisingly similar to our teeth. So, yeah.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wow.

 

Andy Mills:

It wasn't hugely different from what we eat. But I think the most exciting thing that it can tell us is, not just about what our life was like, but what was lurking in the shadows waiting to take us out.

 

Speaker 3:

You can tell that from this skull-

 

Andy Mills:

Yeah. This skull is... It's kind of at the center of this murder mystery.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

I.e., who killed the Taung Child? At the time when Raymond Dart made that discovery...

 

Andy Mills:

He had this sort of gut feeling that, this Taung Child was killed by one of its own, because this is like 1924.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

We were between two wars. World War I had occurred with the horrible destruction.

 

Andy Mills:

Dart was actually a medic in that war, and he walked away convinced that humans were inherently evil creatures, that were inherently violent, and that we were probably a lot worse in the past.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

And in fact, the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 

Andy Mills:

Where you see the monkeys, kind of beating each other with the bones.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

It was based on Raymond Dart's theories of the violent origins on the continent of Africa.

 

Andy Mills:

So that was Dart's pet theory that maybe Taung got clubbed down, by his brother or his neighbor. But, that ignores one big thing. In that limestone mine, where the Taung's skull was found, there were also all these other skulls. Baboon skulls, monkey skulls, there was this little collection of bones. More what you would expect to find in a predator's den. So, not a Taung-like creature, but maybe a cat, big cat.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

At least a large mammalian predator, because that's perfectly acceptable. If we're tough, they're tough, it's okay to be killed by something mean and vicious.

 

Andy Mills:

So, that became the new theory.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Because what else do humans have to fear?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Now here's where, I think, maybe you come into this story. For some reason, when you arrive many, many, many years later, this idea that the cat did it seems to disturb you.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

I was addicted to that story as anyone else. I'd been brought up on it through my anthropology classes. Every book I ever read said that.

 

Andy Mills:

But, one day...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

In 1994...

 

Andy Mills:

He bumps into a completely new idea.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

In an almost Eureka moment. Because there I was at Gladysvale.

 

Andy Mills:

An excavation site in South Africa. Lee and his team were doing what they do, digging for fossils.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

I just finished excavation, all my team had left, and I was sitting there watching the sunset, and I looked up on the hillside and there was a troupe of vervet monkeys, they're a small gray monkey, and they were coming down to forage down the hill. And all of a sudden, I heard an alarm call. And I looked up in the sky and there came a huge eagle. The monkeys scattered as this eagle swooped around the edge of the hill, and as it came down around the edge of the hill, I realized it was a trap. Because coming around the other edge of the hill, was that eagle's mate. And it zoomed in and whacked one of those large monkeys right in front of me. And everything went silent. The other eagle landed, this eagle's sitting on top of a now, dead monkey, and the eagle's staring at me. I'm staring at it, probably with my mouth open. It looks at me for a moment, and then leaps off the edge of this cliff with this dead monkey, and flies away with it down the valley. And I had an idea.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

So I got into my car, I chased the direction it went. I knew where it was going, I knew where these black eagle nests were, they were up on a cliff face. I crawled up under... Crossing a river, crawled up under the nest, and there was this pile of bones, huge pile of bones. Hyraxes, little antelopes, a baboon skull, a baby baboon skull, and almost every one of the bones there, had these amazing marks on them. Keyhole-shaped cuts...

 

Andy Mills:

Where the eagles have driven their talons into the skulls.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

These big Eagles can have killing talons at five, six, seven inches long, if you can imagine that. I got in my car, back to the lab in Jo'berg.

 

Andy Mills:

He whips open the drawer that contains those skulls and bones that were found with the Taung Child skull and...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Exact same marks, couldn't believe it.

 

Andy Mills:

There's even like a little mark on the Taung Child's skull itself. A year later, 1995, he and a colleague, they publish a paper...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

That blamed eagles for the death of the Taung Child, and it was received like a smelly, wet blanket by the field.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Why? Why would they not say, "Oh, of course."

 

Prof Lee Berger:

Because it was entrenched idea.

 

Andy Mills:

Lee says, "Maybe subconsciously, they felt like our ancestors are being demoted again."

 

Prof Lee Berger:

That is that... we were not the masters of our universe.

 

Andy Mills:

Because cats just feel tougher than birds? I don't know, but according to Lee, the big cat scientists were like...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

It's been published. It's been published the leopard did it.

 

Andy Mills:

For 40 years.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

We even got into a debate in the hallowed pages of the journal, Nature. On the load lifting capacity of birds of prey, on whether or not birds of prey could lift something as large as the Taung Child.

 

Andy Mills:

And these debates, they went on for years. He couldn't convince people.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

We needed something more.

 

Andy Mills:

Until, one night.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

It was about 9:00 at night.

 

Andy Mills:

Years later.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

I was at home sitting in my little study.

 

Andy Mills:

He was reading an academic paper about eagles, and how eagles sometimes, when they kill little mammals, they'll reach into their eye sockets and pluck out their eyes.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

To get it... the nice juicy brain on the inside.

 

Andy Mills:

And in the paper...

 

Prof Lee Berger:

There was this really beautiful image. It's beautiful to people who study dead things, but a beautiful image of a skull of a primate, with the interior sockets of his eyes with these jagged marks in it.

 

Andy Mills:

These very particular scratch marks on the underside of the eye sockets.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

And I was staring at these images and I went, "Oh my goodness." Or something to that effect. I got into my car, drove down to the lab, opened up the safe, pulled out the Taung Child, turned the face over and there they were.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

On the base of the inside of the eye socket, were these jagged, rigid marks that you had to have done by reaching into the orbit. The exact same marks.

 

Bernard Zepfel:

You can see little squiggle marks, almost like little exclamation marks, little commas. No one had noticed that before.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

And imagine, I'm sitting in the middle of this anatomy department, in the middle of the night, in a vault containing million year old fossils. It was a magic moment, it was fantastic.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All right. So now you know a little bit about how this creature lived, and how it died. Beyond solving the murder mystery, what does that tell you?

 

Prof Lee Berger:

First to say, solving the murder mystery is kind of cool, and that's always a neat thing, and there's nothing wrong with just doing that. But, have you ever thought why? When you're standing out on a playground or standing out in an open field, and a shadow passes over you. Do you know that feeling that occurred? Whether it be from an airplane, or whatever? First, you get that tingly feel on the back of your neck, and then you yank your head up. You ever wondered why you do that?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

 

Prof Lee Berger:

You do that, because the little Taung Child died two and a half million years ago, because he didn't look up quick enough when that happened.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Producer Andy Mills.

 

Jad Abumrad:

One thing we should say, one very important thing we should say, is actually we did an experiment with the story. We hooked up with some people at MakerBot and some very nice folks at the Field Museum.

 

Robert Krulwich:

In Chicago.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And we had 3D scans made, of the Taung Child's skull. I'm actually holding one right now.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Me too. Mine's purple.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Mine's pink.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Why is yours pink?

 

Jad Abumrad:

I don't know, that was the color of the plastic-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

...They used. But these are amazing replicas of the Taung Child's skull. You could see all the ridges, you can feel the scratches, and the eyes.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Imagine if you could listen to the story you just heard, while holding the Taung Child in your hand.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's exactly the reason we did this.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Ah.

 

Jad Abumrad:

We have partnered with a museum called Mmuseumm. That's spelled with four Ms, two in the front, two in the back, Mmuseumm. It's this tiny little elevator shaft-sized place, here in Manhattan where they display all these sort of oddities, like little objects from Saddam Hussein's palace.

 

Andy Mills:

They have pool toys that were banned from Saudi Arabia.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Right. And they will also be displaying our 3D replica of the Taung skull. So if you go there, you can actually hold the skull, you dial in a little number, and you can hear part of the piece.

 

Robert Krulwich:

While you're standing there.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. And I got to tell you, it's a very different experience to listen to the story, while holding this thing. Not only that, if you have a 3D printer of your own, and you go to radiolab.org, you can download a scan, a 3D scan of the Taung skull, and you can print your own. Thanks again to MakerBot and to shootdigital for helping to make that happen. Props to Lynn Levy for conceiving of the whole idea. Go to our website, radiolab.org. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Thanks for listening.

 

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