The Unimaginative Naming of an Ancestor

Raymond Dart, then, gave the name Australopithecus to the Taung Child, the type specimen of the genus, and we have been stuck with this depressingly unimaginative name for our ancestor ever since. It simply means 'southern ape'. Nothing to do with Australia, which just means 'southern country'. You'd think Dart might have thought of a more imaginative name for such an important genus. He might even have guessed that other members of the genus would later be discovered north of the equator.

Slightly older than the Taung Child, one of the most beautifully preserved skulls we have, although lacking a lower jaw, is called 'Mrs Ples'. Mrs Ples, who may actually have been a small male rather than a large female, obtained 'her' nickname because she was originally classified in the genus Plesianthropus. This means 'nearly human', which is a better name than 'southern ape'. One might have hoped that, when later taxonomists decided that Mrs Ples and her kind were really of the same genus as the Taung Child, Plesianthropus would have become the name for all of them. Unfortunately, the rules of zoological nomenclature are strict to the point of pedantry. Priority of naming takes precedence over sense and suitability. 'Southern ape' might be a lousy name but no matter: it predates the much more sensible Plesianthropus and we seem to be stuck with it, unless . . . I'm still mischievously hoping somebody will uncover, in a dusty drawer in a South African museum, a long-forgotten fossil, clearly the same kind as Mrs Ples and the Taung Child, but bearing the scrawled label, ' Hemianthropus type specimen, 1920'. At a stroke, all the museums in the world would immediately have to relabel their Australopithecus specimens and casts, and all books and articles on hominid prehistory would have to follow suit.


The name for Australopithecus is non-descriptive and unfortunate.

Folksonomies: science communication popularization

Taung Child (0.934347 (positive:0.243198)), Mrs Ples (0.815520 (positive:0.243198)), type specimen (0.660273 (neutral:0.000000)), beautifully preserved skulls (0.637113 (positive:0.369270)), Hemianthropus type specimen (0.583838 (neutral:0.000000)), Unimaginative Naming (0.552697 (negative:-0.821139)), Australopithecus specimens (0.507105 (neutral:0.000000)), Raymond Dart (0.501875 (neutral:0.000000)), genus Plesianthropus (0.494456 (neutral:0.000000)), 'Southern ape (0.487726 (neutral:0.000000)), lower jaw (0.480542 (negative:-0.408591)), later taxonomists (0.480009 (neutral:0.000000)), large female (0.479698 (neutral:0.000000)), zoological nomenclature (0.476859 (negative:-0.620936)), dusty drawer (0.475201 (negative:-0.218841)), hominid prehistory (0.470763 (neutral:0.000000)), sensible Plesianthropus (0.463577 (neutral:0.000000)), long-forgotten fossil (0.457402 (neutral:0.000000)), ancestor (0.401738 (negative:-0.768670)), kind (0.370447 (positive:0.243198)), equator (0.348042 (neutral:0.000000)), nickname (0.344153 (neutral:0.000000)), precedence (0.339162 (neutral:0.000000)), suitability (0.338531 (neutral:0.000000)), somebody (0.338169 (positive:0.507552)), Australia (0.336556 (negative:-0.412307)), Priority (0.336434 (positive:0.316453)), country (0.335629 (neutral:0.000000)), casts (0.334943 (neutral:0.000000)), genus. (0.334571 (neutral:0.000000))

Mrs Ples:Person (0.923269 (positive:0.243198)), Raymond Dart:Person (0.506251 (positive:0.305351)), Plesianthropus:Person (0.399205 (negative:-0.268915))

Human (0.951035): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Taxonomy (0.900601): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Biology (0.867257): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Nomenclature (0.864533): dbpedia
Australopithecus africanus (0.801815): website | dbpedia | freebase | yago
Zoological nomenclature (0.745571): dbpedia
International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (0.724364): dbpedia | freebase
Raymond Dart (0.722891): dbpedia | freebase | yago

 The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dawkins, Richard (2010-08-24), The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Free Press, Retrieved on 2011-05-19
Folksonomies: evolution science