"Status of Australopithecines"

On the Zoological Position and the Evolutionary

Significance of Australopithecines 1

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 2

New York Academy of Sciences Transactions February 14, 1953

[208] During a recent trip to South Africa, 3 I was able, with the help of my colleagues there, to estimate at first hand the importance to science of the Australopithecines, as compared with the Far Eastern Pithecanthropines. I should like to take this opportunity to report on certain points which seem to me most significant in connection with their group.

1. The Zoological Importance of the Australopithecines. Before the last investigations made by Broom, Dart and Robinson, we were still able to believe that the Australopithecines were nothing more than a rare zoological curiosity. Now, however, it has become clear that they represent an important population, once widely disseminated over a large portion of South Africa. From Taung (in the Kimberley area‚ to Makap-?? (North of Pretoria), passing through the Sterifontein ??? region (near Johannesburg), the Australopithecines-bearing breccias extend for about 33 miles from south to north. Furthermore, everything leads us to believe that they will all soon be discovered in Angola, to the west, as well as much further north across Rhodesia and into Tanganyika, where two upper premolars have been found. // ?? A. Remane has recently referred these to the genus Meganthropus of Java but, in my opinion, they should rather be classed with the Australopithecines than with the Pithecanthropines.

2. The Morphological Autonomy of the Australopithecines. Even if we take into account their high individual variability and their strong sexual dimorphism, the Australopithecines seem to have been an extremely polymorphous group. And yet they share a common, easily recognizable, fundamental pattern, proving that in their case (just as with the Pithecanthropines) we are dealing not with a composite collection of forms, but with a single natural group, caught in a phase of rapid evolution.

[209] Essentially this common pattern, readily recognizable by the palaeontologist, consists of the following characteristics: crowns of molars very broad and complicated (distinctly more so than in Man); lower anterior premolar non sectorial, molarized; small canines and incisors; markedly straight mandibular symphysis; shape of the pelvis indicating, in all cases (e.g., Australopithecus, Pithecanthropus, Paranthropus ), an erect posture.

Figure 1. Hypothetical structure of the human phylum, as suggested by the Australopithecines and the Pithecanthropines. Key: H.Rh., Rhodesian Man; H.Nd., Neanderthal Man; H.St., Steinheim Man; H.Sw., Swanscombe Man; H.Pal., Palestine Man; H.Sc., Saccopastore Man; Eo., Eoanthropus ; H.Sol., Solo Man; Sin., Sinanthropus ; Pith., Pithecanthropus group (and Meganthropus ); Modj., Modjokerto Man; Tel., Telanthropus ; Austral., Australopithecines. O is the presumed point of human origin. In H. sapiens , the originally diverging elements composing the human phylum are decidedly converging under the pressure of forces of socialization.

Due to these various osteological features, 4 the Australopithecines differ from all living and fossil Apes known so far, and they are strongly hominoid ("hominoid" however does not mean "human"). In any case, until now, neither in their brain capacity, nor by the reduction of their face, nor by any association of their bones with any trace of fire or any true implements can the Australopithecines (in contrast to the Pithecanthropines) be considered as a zoological group which, at any time, crossed the divide between Ape and Man. But they seem to form an autonomous group which, to some extent, bridges the two.

3. The Geological Age of the Australopithecines. In Africa, as is well known, the conservative nature of the fauna and the absence of major Villafran[210]chian tectonic movements make the definition of a limit between the Tertiary and the Quaternary particularly difficult. On the other hand no indisputable sequence has yet been recognised either in the deposits or in the fauna of the Australopithecines-bearing fissures.

Under these circumstances, all that we can definitely affirm at this time, with regard to the geologic age of the Australopithecines, can be reduced to the following points:

a. The mammalian fauna found associated with the Australopithecines, in spite of its high content of extinct types, does not appear to differ essentially from the remarkably archaic fauna associated with the first human industries, both in the stratified series of Kenya and in the Vaal gravels.

b. Until now, in the fossiliferous fissures of South Africa, the Australopithecines-bearing breccias and the human industry-bearing deposits have been mutually exclusive. So far, the two types of formations have never been found unequivocally associated in the same site.

c. No breccia has yet been identified in South Africa which can be attributed to a third and older system of fossiliferous fissures.

All these facts are in perfect agreement with one another if we look upon the Australopithecines as a widely spread group of large, especially progressive Apes, which was in possession of South Africa just before Man appeared in his turn to displace and replace them on their own ground.

4. The Significance of the Australopithecines with Regard to the Origin and Structure of the Human Group. From the preceding observation, it becomes evident that as a result of their combined infra-human and para-human characteristics, Australopithecines cannot he considered the direct ancestors of Man.

Nevertheless, in so far as the initial position and composition of the human phylum is concerned, a study of their group supplies us with important data from three different lines of approach.

a. Systematically. As I observed above, the Australopithecines represent a zoological type of a remarkably intercalary nature, which almost brings Man and the Ape to the point of morphological contact.

b. Geographically. Their late-tertiary (?) recurrence in Africa (the main center of Primitive evolution) offers an additional argument for the thesis that this continent was the main birthplace for the human group.

c. Phyletically. The curiously symmetrical position held by their branch (as compared with that of the Pithecanthropines, Figure 1) in relation to the presumed point of human origin, confirms in us the idea that the human group exhibited, originally, the same ramified structure which palaeontology is gradually detecting in every large animal phylum. All this, despite the fact that this complexity and divergency (due to action of Speciation) is obscured today in Homo sapiens by the great converging forces of Socialization.


1 This paper, illustrated with lantern slides, was presented at the meeting of the Section of Anthropology on February 25, 1952.

2 Academy of Sciences, Paris, France.

3 A journey sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation of New York.

4 And also because of the high degree of instinctivity which such a defenseless animal must have possessed in order not only to survive, but to thrive, in a highly competitive environment.