Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "The Body Politic"
3 & 4 September 1996, Johannesburg, South Africa

Historical Note

Victor Nell

Director, Unisa Health Psychology Unit

There is a curious resonance between the theme of this conference and the building in which it was held. The theme of bodies-- "gendered bodies, racial bodies, virtual bodies, dead bodies" was presented in the great anatomy lecture hall of the old University of the Witwatersrand Medical School--now removed to a grey concrete monolith on Parktown Ridge--where one of the first professors of anatomy was Raymond Dart. In a series of publications in the 1950s, Dart argued that there had been a "predatory transition from ape to man" (1953).

Describing the Australopithecines who inhabited Makapansgat in the Northern Transvaal, he wrote that "these Amakapansgat protomen, like Nimrod long after them, were mighty hunters. They were also callous and brutal. The most shocking specimen was the fractured lower jaw of a 12-year old son of a man-like ape. The man had been killed by a violent blow delivered with calculated accuracy on the point of the chin, either by a smashing fist or a club. The bludgeon blow was so vicious that it had shattered the jaw on both sides of the face and knocked out all the front teeth. That dramatic specimen impelled me in 1948 and the seven years following to study further their murderous and cannibalistic way of life" (1956, pp. 325-236).

A frequent visitor to the Australopithecine sites at Makapansgat and the Swartkrans cave near Krugersdorp in the Western Transvaal was the American playwright Robert Ardrey. In African Genesis (1961), Ardrey tells

how in 1955, in Dart's laboratory in this Medical School building on an afternoon darkened by a Highveld thunderstorm, Dart showed him this shattered jawbone. Ardrey's verdict is immediate: "At some terrible moment in ancient times, murder had been done (p. 186). Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon" (p. 316).

Dart's thesis gave rise to a storm of controversy in the 1950s, dividing palaeontologists into factions around the issue of a hominid adaption for bloodthirstiness. By and large, the scientific world heaped scorn on Dart's thesis. The orthodox and altogether more optimistic view of human evolution was that of Richard Leakey, namely that early hominids were food-sharing foragers, and that violence emerged only "when we became psycho-social man probably 30 to 40 000 years ago (in White, 1985, p.7).

Dart's successor as chair of the Anatomy Department in this building was Philip Tobias, who explored similar large themes of evolution in relation to the birth of language and human spirituality.

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2nd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "The Body Politic"
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