THE MOTHER OF THE NATION
Dr François Durand: Department Zoology, Rand Afrikaans University. President of the South African Society for Amateur Palaeontologists PO Box 671, Silverton, 0127. Tel: 082 301-4085.
Robert Broom can be considered to be one on the people who made one of the biggest contributions to South African palaeontology. He discovered, named and described literally hundreds, if not thousands of fossils and was the first person who realised that it was possible to subdivide the sequence of geological strata of the Karoo by using the fossil record.
Regardless of the fashion of the day, this eccentric medical doctor always dressed in a three piece suit and turn-up collars. He delivered babies and collected fossils dressed like this. His dress sense was however one of the few modest characteristic he possessed. Doctor Broom did whatever he wanted, when he wanted and in whichever way he wanted and managed to achieve more than most active, intelligent people could.
At an age at which most other people would retire, the 68 year old Broom started a second career by accepting a post as a full time palaeontologist at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria in August 1934. His appointment was facilitated by Jan Hofmeyr (Minister of Internal Affairs, Public Health and Education) and Jan Smuts because they were convinced that it would be better if Broom could spend his remaining years in the service of science rather than to eke out an existence as country doctor in Makwassie.
Eighteen months after his appointment, Broom launched a search for more apeman fossils in an attempt to clear the cloud over Dart and the Taung Child. Professor Dart of the Medical School of WITS announced in 1925 that the fossil skull from the limestone mine at Taung was an example of the link between the great apes and humans (see Archimedes 40.1). Dart's theory that this skull belonged to a juvenile "Missing Link" specimen was rejected almost unanimously by the anthropological community - not to mention the general public. Broom, however, as one of Dart's staunchest supporters, was now preparing to set the record straight - by attempting to find those elusive adult apeman specimens.
Broom began by doing some inquiries about the limestone mines and caves in the vicinity of Pretoria and Johannesburg. His investigations soon bore fruit - he discovered that the famous American naturalist and explorer, Dr. Robert Lang, discovered fossiliferous breccia at an abandoned limestone mine south west of Pretoria. Broom visited this site, close to the Hennops River and within a few weeks managed to identify the fossils of six new species of extinct moles and rodents, a sabre-tooth cat and a giant baboon. By publishing an account of the discovery of these fossils in the newspaper, Broom drew the attention of two of Professor Dart's students. These students, Messrs G.W.H. Schepers and H. le Riche, took some of the fossils, which they in turn discovered at Sterkfontein Caves, to Broom.
At that stage the limestone deposits at Sterkfontein Caves in the Krugersdorp District had been mined extensively for decades already. The travertine, flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites and sometimes even the fossiliferous breccia were crushed and burned in the kilns to produce lime. Ironically, although the fossils of Sterkfontein Caves had been known for decades, no geologist or palaeontologist ever bothered to visit the site. This fossiliferous cave system had first been described in 1897 by Mr M.E. Frames. However, not a single geologist or palaeontologist from the Geological Survey in Pretoria, the Departments of Geology and Mining at WITS University or the Johannesburg Technical College visited the site between then and 1935, while fossils were destroyed in their thousands in the lime kilns.
Broom and his two young friends Schepers and le Riche visited Sterkfontein on Sunday 9 August 1936. Here they met Mr G.W. Barlow who acted as quarry foreman during the week and caretaker over the weekends when the site was open to the public. Broom soon established that Barlow previously worked at Taung and that he had actually come across fossils at Sterkfontein similar to those which had been discovered at Taung (see Archimedes 40.1). Barlow took them to a rondavel which served as a tea room, to show them a collection of fossils on a big table inside. Initially Broom was under the impression that this was a sort of site museum, but on the following Monday, he noticed to his dismay that some of the fossils were missing. When he asked Barlow about this, he merely replied that he did not know who got it but that if Broom wanted any of the fossils, he should have picked it up when he had the chance. Many irreplaceable, invaluable fossils were probably lost this way.
During the lecture that ensued, Broom managed to convince Barlow that more was at stake than a bit of pocket money on the side. Broom explained to Barlow that he was urgently looking for apeman fossils such as the one which was found at Taung. On Monday 17 August 1936, Barlow handed Broom a fossil endocast (cast of the inside of a braincase) which had been blasted out that morning. Broom immediately realised that the endocast, which filled the anterior two-thirds of the braincase, could only have belonged to a great ape or apeman. Broom hunted through the rubble for hours but could only find the impression of the top of an apeman skull.
Broom was a man who gave a new meaning to the word perseverance, the next day he returned with Dr Herbert Lang, Mr FitzSimons, Mr White and three labourers from the Transvaal Museum - and then they really got stuck in. Robert Broom himself discovered several pieces of the apeman skull in the rubble that day. Broom's unparalleled skill and tenacity led him to unearth the first adult apeman skull within three months after the onset of his quest and within nine days of work at Sterkfontein!
Reports of the discovery were published in The Illustrated London News and the scientific journal Nature on 19 September 1936. Broom originally named this apeman fossil Australopithecus transvaalensis, but later changed it to Plesianthropus transvaalensis. However, in the light of many subsequent discoveries a convincing argument could be made that these genera were actually the same. Plesianthropus transvaalensis was therefore sank in favour of the older synonym Australopithecus africanus.
Broom visited Sterkfontein at least once or twice a week for months on end and seldomly returned to Pretoria without some fossils. He also started to build up a collection of fossils of the fauna found associated with the apeman fossils. In a short while he had the fossils of a sabertooth cat, a golden mole, baboons, jackals and rodents. At the same time he started excavations at Bolt's Farm, approximately two kilometres to the west of Sterkfontein. Here he discovered a variety of fossils of several animals but could not find any apemen. These fossils, which included the remains of a second type of sabertooth cat, and another species of golden mole and a giant pig, led him to believe that this cave deposit was set down at a different time period than that of Sterkfontein.
In January 1937, Broom departed for an overseas lecture tour and an honorary doctors degree. Before he left for America Broom gave a lecture on his fossil discoveries to the Zoological Society of London. On 20 March 1937, Broom, as guest speaker, presented a lecture to a congress in Philadelphia where the foremost anthropologists of America, Europe and Asia were present. He spent April in New York and visited i.a. Harvard, New Haven and Amhurst, afterwards he left on a lecture tour which was arranged for him to Chicago, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Lincoln and Cleveland. As he was under the impression that the Americans were generally anti evolution (see Archimedes 39.4), he was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of his audiences, in New York he even lectured to an audience of 2000 people. On top of this he was awarded an honorary DSc degree by Columbia University in June that year.
>From August 1936 to 1938 Broom worked at Sterkfontein and other sites in Krugersdorp District and in the process unearthed many remains of apemen and hundreds of animal fossils. In 1938 work had to be stopped at the sites due to the outbreak of World War II. In this period Broom made a restoration of the first apeman skull which he discovered in 1936. The cleaning and description of the mammal fossils discovered in Krugersdorp District were also done during this time. As if he was not busy enough, Sidney Rubidge of the Graaff Reinet District sent him a pile of Karoo reptile fossils which he had to study. And just to make sure that he had something to do during those quiet moments he worked with G.W.H. Schepers (by now a medical doctor himself) on a book entitled: The South African Fossil Ape-Men - the Australopithecinae from 1944 to 1945.
This book, which was published on 31 January 1946, was the first breeze of a wind of change that swept through palaeoanthropology in favour of Broom and Dart. Sir Arthur Keith (one of the original four anthropology experts who shot down Dart's theory that he found the Missing Link, see Archimedes 40.1) wrote to Broom on 12 March 1946:"I now agree with you that piece of humerus, the lower end of the femur, the astralagus, metacarpal ... are parts of Paranthropus and Plesianthropus; that the teeth have all the characters of human teeth, that the hands were free and that the posture was bipedal; and yet I call even Paranthropus a man but an anthropoid. Whatever theory one holds of human evolution, man as we know him, must have passed through such a stage as is represented by the Australopets! I agree they [may] be direct descendants of such a stage." In a following letter Keith wrote: "No doubt the South African anthropoids are much more human than I had originally supposed".
General Jan Smuts, a scientist in his own right, was keenly interested in evolution (he authored the book, Holism and Evolution (1926)) and strongly supported the search for the ancestors of humankind. He also agreed to write the foreword to The South African Fossil Ape-Men. Shortly before his departure for the UN meeting in New York in August 1946, he called Broom to his office to tell him that it was imperative that he continued the search for more examples of apemen. According to Smuts, Broom's anthropological research was of utmost importance not only for the advancement of universal knowledge but specifically to boost South African science. Smuts had arranged with Jan Hofmeyr, the acting Prime Minister, that the Government would provide any funds Broom needed for this research.
Back in those years the Historical Monuments Commission (the forerunner of the present National Monuments Council) was already functional. The main objective of this body is to ensure that the South African historical, archaeological and palaeontological heritage is preserved for posterity. Ultimately the NMC decides who may work where and on what. If you do not possess at least an Honours degree in Archaeology it would be virtually impossible to obtain a permit to work on an archaeological site. Unfortunately this bureaucratic red tape occasionally results in damage to, or even total destruction of a site before a permit is awarded to somebody with the right qualifications.
Just when Broom was ready to return to the site to continue his excavations, the Monuments Commission put a halt to it. While fossils were being destroyed at an enormous rate due to the mining activities, the Historical Monuments Commission had the audacity to order Broom not to continue with excavations until a "Competent Field Geologist" could accompany him. The situation was ridiculous, on the one hand we have Broom who recognised the full potential of Sterkfontein, who did his best to save the fossils from destruction, who collected more fossils in his lifetime than any of his peers, who did more for the development of South African palaeontology than anybody else, who was medallist in Geology at Glasgow University and who was Professor in Geology at Stellenbosch University for seven years - and yet the Monuments Commission was convinced that he did not have the right qualifications to do the job! On the other hand there were the professional geologists - who knew for decades about the site, but to whom it meant so little that they never visited it while immeasurable damage was being done to our fossil heritage due to the mining activities. Yet the Monuments Commission decided that one of them would be the ideal minder for Broom!
Broom viewed the Monuments Commission's decree as an insult and continued with the excavation of fossils at Sterkfontein regardless of their threats. The situation became so tense however, that Broom arranged with a barrister to defend him in court when it became necessary. Eventually Broom even decided to appeal to General Smuts to try and get him to defuse the situation.
Pressure from inter alia the Board of the Transvaal Museum forced Broom to turn his attention elsewhere and he started with excavations on a farm named Kromdraai approximately a kilometre from Sterkfontein. When the National Monuments Commission learned about this, they sent Broom a permit to inform him that he may continue his work on Kromdraai - without any mention of a supervising geologist, but they still refused him permission to work on Sterkfontein.
In defiance to the Monuments Commission's ruling Broom resumed excavating fossils at Sterkfontein on 1 April 1947, of course without the necessary permit. Broom was in his element, especially with trouble breathing down his neck - within a few days he discovered apeman fossils again. On 18 April 1947, Broom blasted a big block of breccia about one metre below the level where they discovered the first apeman skull fragments in 1936. Eventually, after the dust settled, he found that the blast had split the rock, and a skull inside, in two. The top part of the skull was embedded in the loose rock and the bottom part was still situated in the rock face. Broom realised the importance of his find and decided that the best way to document this find would be to firstly photograph it in situ. Since they did not have a camera with them and they were situated 48km from Johannesburg and 64km from Pretoria, they had to drive to a neighbouring farm to phone The Star to send a photographer to come and take the photographs. These photographs, together with some of Broom's drawings appeared in The Star, Nature, Illustrated London News and in the American Museum's magazine, Natural History.
Afterwards Broom carefully removed the chunk of rock in which the lower part of the skull was embedded and took both parts to the Transvaal Museum where he prepared it. This time consuming cleaning process exposed the first undistorted, almost perfect apeman skull ever discovered. He was of the opinion that it belonged to a female - which led to the nickname "Mrs Ples". Broom realised that it was one of the most important scientific discoveries ever in the history of mankind.
A chain reaction of events in the scientific, social and religious spheres followed this discovery. Dart's juvenile Taung skull and Broom's earlier skull fragments could possibly be ignored as annoying anomalies, but now Broom had the irrefutable proof of the existence of apemen. The skeleton fragments which he had been excavating for a decade suddenly took on new meaning for many, and people from all walks of life were confronted with a new fact they had to fit somewhere in their world view. .
Broom's discoveries finally sank the myth of the "Piltdown Man" and put a whole generation of dogmatic anthropologists in their place. The old man's discoveries finally avenged Dart's reputation. Joseph Birdsell writes in his book, Human Evolution (1972), that Dart's findings were initially shot down "by four of the most eminent authorities in the English-speaking world, and for some years his find remained in a suspense account...[in] time Dart was able to prove that his original judgement was entirely correct and that the jury of experts was totally wrong".
Without embroidering on the negative reaction from certain sectors of society, I would rather mention the fact that the Reformed Ecumenical Synod of 1949 accepted evolution as a valid scientific theory not in conflict with the Bible. For the first time this church body publicly embraced evolution instead of denouncing it - unfortunately this decision was not often propagated from the pulpits. It is my contention that the discovery of Mrs Ples triggered this paradigm shift in the International Reformed Church Organisation.
Alas, the National Monuments Commission was not happy, they were furious actually. Regardless of Broom's international reputation, his major scientific breakthroughs, his tenacity, his vision - he broke the law by not subjecting himself to their decrees. At a full meeting, the Monuments Commission unanimously condemned Broom and sent a strong deputation to lay a complaint with Jan Smuts. Their argument was mainly that Broom did not pay any attention to the stratigraphy (the sequence of geological strata) of the deposit. By doing so, they claimed, he destroyed valuable evidence which could be used for the dating of the layers and the fossils. Broom denied these charges. The Monuments Commission refused to issue him with a permit anyway until a survey of the site had been done. Professor Lombaard of the University of Pretoria was sent to do this investigation. In his report he mentions that there was no stratigraphy discernable whatever at the site where Broom had been working and that he had not been doing any harm. The National Monuments Commission eventually gave up and issued Broom with a permit to work at Sterkfontein.
Broom made the following profound statement in his book, Finding the Missing Link (1950): "The public, it seems to me, should know what is going on, and as a rule they are only too delighted to be of assistance. When we remember that the majority of palaeontological discoveries are made by amateurs, and it must always be so, then it is much better to have the public educated and interested than kept in ignorance, or to treat them as possible criminals".
Since the discovery of the Taung-skull in 1924, fossils of more than 500 apeman and primitive human individuals had been discovered and new discoveries are constantly added to this number. Most of these fossils come from Sterkfontein, Makapansgat, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, Drimolen and other sites in South Africa and East Africa.
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