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DOES THE BROOM ROOM HAVE ANY BROOMS?

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DOES THE BROOM ROOM HAVE ANY BROOMS?

By: Lazarus Kgasi, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

The Broom Room (Fig.1) at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History (DNMNH) is a room/vault named after Dr Robert Broom, a flamboyant South African Palaeontologist (1866-1951), and houses the earliest finds from the Cradle of Humankind site, which was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999. The Cradle of Humankind represents an assemblage of 22 palaeontological and archaeological sites, the most famous being probably Sterkfontein cave which yielded an important collection of Australopithecines and other hominins since 1936. Most of the sites are remnants of mining activities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Plio-Pleistocene Palaeontology collection in the Broom Room includes early hominids, carnivores, rodents, bovids, suids and non-hominid primates from sites like Swartkrans, Bolt’s farm, Sterkfontein, Kromdraai, Cooper’s Cave, Hoogland and Haasgat Cave just to name a few. The study of this preserved fossils offers a unique window on evolution millions of years ago.

Every creature on earth has a traceable ancestor, and DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History houses the ancestors of many of the creatures that live today. Notable our distant ancestors in the Plio-Pleistocene Section include the famous “Mrs Ples”, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus. Dr Broom and Dr Robinson discovered the majority of these fossils at the well-known Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai hominid sites in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage area near Krugersdorp. The mandible of Paranthropus robustus (Fig.2) distinguishes them from the gracile Australopithecines due to their size and badly damaged teeth. Broom decided that the Australopithecine fossils he discovered in South Africa represented two separate forms: a “gracile” species now known as A. africanus and a more “robust” variant designated Paranthropus robustus in 1938. The fossils discovered at Swarkrans are consistent with this latter kind, with the most complete cranium being SK 48, discovered by Broom and Robinson and believed to be between 1.5 to 2 million years old. It is important to mention that the term “robustus” does not refer to body size, but rather to specific skull characteristics such as a more prominent sagittal crest in males, greater variation in body size between sexes, and strong zygomatics and mandible with large, thickly enamelled post canine teeth (as seen in Fig.2)

Additional to skulls, the collection contains other cranial fossils. Endocranial casts (see Fig 6) were discovered in the same deposits as the craniums. These casts contain a volume of 428 cubic centimetres, which is almost the same as that of Mrs Ples’, Australopithecus africanus’ brain capacity.

Given that our historical sites produced a considerable collection of non-hominid primates (see Fig. 3), such as the superbly preserved skulls of Parapapio broomi, Parapapio whitei, Papio jonesi, Cercopithecoides williamsi, Papio izodi, Papio angusticeps and Gorgopithecus major, you might question why these names are significant and amusing. Mrs Ples, did you believe it was an elderly woman sitting in a rocking chair somewhere in the Museum?

 

Figure 1. Broom Room cabinets with fossils.

 

Figure 2. Paranthropus robustus mandible.

 

Figure 3. Non-hominid primate Parapapio broomi from Sterkfontein.

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In 1935, Trevor Jones, a student of Professor Raymond Dart, the head of the Department of Anatomy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, described a partial cranium of a Plio-Pleistocene baboon (Sts 564) from the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind and named it Parapapio broomi (like the one in Fig 3), a new genus and species in honour of Dr Robert Broom. Jones pushed for Dr Broom to excavate at Sterkfontein after discovering fossil baboons similar to those found at Taung, where the holotype of Australopithecus africanus (Taung child) was discovered in 1924.

When Trevor Jones first accompanied Robert Broom to Sterkfontein about 80 years ago, Broom picked up the relatively small baboon cranium now catalogued as Sts 565. Almost immediately (after making a cursory examination of the specimen, still encased in breccia), he said something along the following lines: “Well Jones, thank you for describing a fossil after me. I will return the compliment, and I will name this new baboon after you” (P. jonesi) (personal communication, Jones to Thackeray, circa 1994). When Jones described Sts 564 as a new genus and species in 1937, he did so with a sample of only one specimen (attributed to P.broomi).

It is worth noting that apes and humans share certain percent of DNA, as well as some elements of our human story including the decent from the treetops to life on the forest ground.

As illustrated in Fig. 4 life on the ground was more dangerous for these primates as it was home to large predators like the dinofelis. Fortunately, what they lack in strength and size they made up in intelligence and large families.

 

Figure 4. Dinofelis Barlowi from Bolt’s Farm.

Two million years ago, the Cradle of Humankind was a different place to what we see today, and sabre-tooth cats (dinofelis) a lethal predator at the time roamed the Cradle of Humankind, and as we all know, the fundamental principle that drive existence mandates that the best adapted will always dominate. Dinofelis is thought to have preferred forest habitats and palaeontologists believe that because of its massive body, the dinofelis was not a speedy animal. It would have used its exceptional night vision and stealth to track and ambush its target. The Broom Room houses two types of dinofelis species, namely dinofelis barlowi (Fig 4) and dinofelis piveteaui from the Kromdraai hominid site just a stone’s throw away from the famous Sterkfontein.

One of the most intriguing findings was the discovery of a well-preserved skull (Fig 4) at Bolt’s Farm, Paleokarst, between 1947 and 1948. Because there are no traces of skins or soft tissue, no one knows exactly what dinofeli’s coat looked like, which is why so many artists have created their own theories. Dinofelis is commonly portrayed in Africa as a leopard or cheetah with spots.

 

Figure 5. Micro mammals including Mylomygale spiersi discovered by Dr Broom.

The holotype of Mylomygale spiersi (Fig. 5) was discovered in a breccia block at Norlim Limeworks (a 

small cave about half a mile north of the Taung hominid site) and sent to Broom by Spiers (the cave’s 

discoverer).

Broom describes it in his monograph, which includes an illustration of the item, as “a very important 

discovery made recently, is a lower jaw from Spiers’ Cave.”

It’s the mandible of a completely new species of primitive but specialized Elephant Shrew. According to Broom and Schepers (1946), it represents a new Menotyphla family.

The type specimen consists of a tooth-bearing part of the left jaw, with three nicely preserved grinding teeth, and the sockets of the anterior teeth.

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Figure 6. Brain case of Australopithecus africanus.

The DITSONG National Museum of Natural History’s Plio-Pleistocene Palaeontology Section’s Digital Archive was made publicly available in 2015 as a joint effort between asociate professor Justin W Adams and the Museum, and hosted on the MorphoSource (www.morphosource.org) platform sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Duke University. The Archive, which includes both research-quality full colour 3D surface scans and computerised tomography (CT) and microCT datasets, represents an open access repository of type, paratype, and key faunal specimens from the Plio-Pleistocene Palaeontology Section. The Archive is accessible through the MorphoSource portal, where anyone can add datasets from the archive into a ‘Cart’ to ‘Checkout’; once a Digital Data Agreement is completed and authorised by the Plio-Pleistocene Section (to record basic information about the user, data download, and purpose) the dataset is made available to download. Further details on the Archive can be found at the Archive webpage (https://sapalaeo.com/dnmnh-archive) and in publication in PLOS One (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0139800).  Another microtomographic archive contains scans (and various associated digital derivatives) of fossil and extant primate bone and teeth produced through collaborations between the Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, DITSONG: Museums of South Africa (DMSA) and various international institutions. The conditions for the use of scans (and derivatives) vary by collection and by clicking on the button below users agree to respect these conditions. Furthermore, all scans (and derivatives) are to be used for research and educational purposes only. No commercial use of these data and no distribution to a third party is permitted (http://paleo.eva.mpg.de)

The DMSA Plio-Pleistocene Collection is also available on many different sites, as well as the late C.K. Brain’s book The Hunters or the Hunted?, many published articles, and Professor Darryl J. de Ruiter’s 2001 thesis, “A Methodological Analysis of the Relative Abundance of Hominids and Other Micromammals from the Site of Swartkrans, South Africa, which was submitted to the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Science,.

Through our Education Department, the public may book a visit to the Broom Room, affording a 

unique opportunity for all visitors to experience.

Imagine yourself staring at Mrs Ples and attempting to comprehend her existence millions of years ago by travelling through time.

References

1. Adams, J.W., Olah, A., McCurry, M.R. & Potze, S. 2015. Surface model and tomographic archive of fossil primate and other mammal holotype and paratype specimens of the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History, Pretoria, South Africa. PLoS One 10(10): e0139800.

2. Skinner, M.M., Kivell, T.L., Potze, S. & Hublin, J-J. 2013. Microtomographic archive of fossil hominin specimens from Kromdraai B, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 64 (5): 434-447. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.01.007

3. Senut, B., Sénégas, F., Gommery, D., Vilakazi, N., Kgasi, L., Pickford, M. Mylomygale (Macroscelidea, Macroscelididae) from the Pliocene of South Africa, Journal of African Earth Sciences, Volume 196, 2022, 104668, ISSN 1464-343X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jafrearsci.2022.104668.

4. Sørensen, E.F., Harris, R.A., Zhang, L., Raveendran, M., Kuderna, L.F.K., Walker, J.A., Storer, J.M., Kuhlwilm, M., Fontsere, C., Seshadri, L., Bergey, C.M., Burrell. A.S., Bergmann, J., Phillips-Conroy, J.E., Shiferaw, F., Chiou, K.L., Chuma, I.S., Keyyu, J.D., Fischer, J., Gingras, M.C., Salvi, S., Doddapaneni, H., Schierup, M.H., Batzer, M.A., Jolly, C.J., Knauf, S., Zinner, D., Farh, K.K., Marques-Bonet, T., Munch, K., Roos, C., Rogers, J. Genome-wide coancestry reveals details of ancient and recent male-driven reticulation in baboons. Science, 2023; 380 (6648) DOI: 10.1126/science.abn8153

5. Jones T. R. 1937.  A new fossil primate from Sterkfontein, Krugersdorp, Transvaal. South African Journal of Science 33: 709-728.

6. Brain C. K. 1958. — The Transvaal Ape-Man-Bearing Cave Deposits. Transvaal Museum, Pretoria, 131 p. (Transvaal Museum Memoir; 11).

7. Cooke H. B. S. 1991. — Dinofelis barlowi (Mammalia, Carnivora, Felidae) cranial material from Bolt’s Farm, collected by the University of California African Expedition. Palaeontologia Africana 28: 9-21. http://hdl.handle.net/10539/16164

8. Brain C. K. 1981. The Hunters or the Hunted? An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 365 p.

9. Thackeray, J.F., Dumoncel, J., Gommery, D., Kgasi, L., Tawane, G.M., De Beer, F.C., Hoffman, J.W. 2019. Morphometric comparison of semicircular canals of the holotypes of Parapapio broomi and P. jonesi from Sterkfontein, South Africa.  South African Journal of Science. 115 (1/2): 1-2. https://doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2019/a0303

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