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The South African fossil site of Taung is famous for the type specimen of an early hominin known as Australopithecus africanus, which first demonstrated hominin origins in Africa. The Taung child skull was blasted out of an ancient cave infill during quarry operations at the Buxton Limeworks, near the village of Taung.

 

With numerous early hominin sites now known from across Africa, Taung sticks out as an oddity and an enigmatic site. It is the southern-most Pliocene hominin site, and indeed has the greatest latitude of any such fossil site. Taung is the only hominin fossil site deposited in tufa caves, which are much smaller than other hominin-bearing cave sites of southern Africa. Moreover, the unique processes of deposition, as revealed by the peculiar fossil assemblage, has engendered some controversy in the realm of taphonomy. The singularity of the hominin fossil no others have been found at the site is also rare for such sites.

A modern tufa cave near the fossil site

 

The faunal assemblage accompanying the Taung child is unique in its composition, being dominated by extinct cercopithecids (mostly extinct baboon species) and other small animals. Most interpretations of the fauna indicate that the Taung environment was a relatively arid open savannah, in contrast to the growing evidence that early hominins tended to live in more wooded or forested environments. The relative aridity of Taung was the keystone of the long-held "savannah hypothesis" that hominins became bipedal as an adaptation to savannah environments. That hypothesis has now been largely abandoned; rather Taung shows us the adaptability of the early hominins, for they could live in a variety of environments.
From 1987 to 1994, Dr. Jeffrey K. McKee led a number of expeditions to Taung and directed six full field seasons. The fossils recovered included mostly cercopithecids (extinct baboon species), as well as fossil bovids, rodents, invertebrates, and plants. These fossils are encased in a sandstone matrix ('breccia') and require extensive preparation to remove them from the rock and reconstruct individual bones. Initial excavations concentrated on a quarry remnant known as the Hrdlika pinnacle, where five distinct deposits were detected. One of the main achievements was the recovery of enough material to assess a faunal age for the largest assemblage of 2.3 to 2.5 mya (million years ago).

Eventually new deposits were located by further excavations in areas based on careful interpretations of the historical records, closer to the recovery site of the Taung hominin. It has been estimated that these deposits, dubbed the 'Dart deposits' are 100 to 200 Kyr (thousand years) older than the Hrdlika deposits. These deposits were thoroughly excavated, save 'witness sections,' but yielded no new hominin fossils. The distinct nature of the deposits, as compared to the Hrdlika deposits, show a different taphonomic process was at work, in a different geological setting.  Descriptions of this have been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. (see reference below.)

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The excavations at Taung and their ecological implications are featured in The Riddled Chain.

Further research on the site will be made possible by the PEER fund.

Key References:

McKee, J.K. 1993  The Faunal Age of the Taung Hominid Deposit.  Journal of Human Evolution 25(5): 363-376.  

McKee, J.K. 1994  Catalogue of Fossil Sites at the Buxton Limeworks, Taung.  Palaeontologia Africana 31:  73-81.  

McKee, J.K., and P.V. Tobias 1994  Taung Stratigraphy and Taphonomy: Preliminary Results Based on the 1988-1993 Excavations.  South African Journal of Science 90(4): 233-235.

 McKee, J.K. 1999  The Autocatalytic Nature of Hominid Evolution in African Plio-Pleistocene Environments. In  African Biogeography, Climate Change, and Early Human Evolution, Eds. T.G. Bromage & F. Schrenk.  New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-67.

McKee, J.K. 2001  The Taung raptor hypothesis: Caveats and new evidence.  American Journal of Physical Anthropology Supp. 32: 107.

McKee, J.K. 2010.  Taphonomic Processes of Bone Distribution and Deposition in the Tufa Caves of Taung, South Africa.  Journal of Taphonomy 8: 203-213.

McKee, J.K., Kuykendall, K.L 2016  The Dart deposits of the Buxton Limeworks, Taung, South Africa, and the Context of the Taung Australopithecus fossil. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, e1054937. 

McKee, J.K. 2016  Brief Communication: Return to the Taung Cave Paradigm. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 159: 348-351.

 

Some of these articles are available here.

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