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AIR's Taung Child Load Limerick Competition

From the Annals of Improbable Research


One of my guilty pleasures is the Annals of Improbable Research, a journal aimed at making serious fun of all kinds of science, written by scientists for scientists. I admit to sneaking down to my local university library to get a peek at whatever editor Marc Abrahams and staff have in their warped minds every other month; but in the meantime, I also subscribe to the electronic newsletter, called Mini-AIR.

Recently, I was delighted to find a limerick contest in Mini-AIR that came close to home. Subscribers had been invited to enter "the first and last annual Taung Child Load Limerick Competition," for the best newly composed limerick that elucidated the following research report:

"The Load of the Taung Child," L.R. Berger and R.J. Clarke, Nature, vol. 379, no. 29, 1996, p. 778. The report reads in part:

"Following our recent suggestion that a large bird of prey collected the Taung child and associated fauna, Hedenstrom suggested that the load-lifting capacity of a crowned eagle, one of several candidate species of African raptor that may have acted as the accumulator, would have been inadequate for lifting the estimated mass of the Taung infant. He therefore suggested that the Taung child must have been dismembered before transport to the nest. We... cannot be certain whether the Taung child was carried during an eagle's 'short anaerobic sprint' from the surrounding area, or whether it was carried over a 'considerable distance'...."

For those with fuzzy memories (like me), the Taung baby was one of the first recognized fossil hominids, a juvenile recovered in 1924 from a cave in the Transvaal and named Australopithecus africanus by Raymond Dart. The skull included a puncture wound, which has variously been intepreted as having been inflicted by a baboon with a sharp stone and a nasty temper (ala 2001, A Space Odyssey) or the teeth of a hungry leopard. The latest theory (not, of course, accepted by everyone) is that the puncture wound is the result of eagle talons.

And the winners of this grisly contest were:

An African species of raptor
To the Taung child said, "I'll be your captor
In small pieces you'd best
Come away to my nest."
And that's how the raptor kidnapped her.

Quipped the eagle, "What fun it is when you
Notice that this poor child's change of venue
Marked the first human flight --
And to doubly delight:
It's our first night with man in the menu"

The question is whether it's legal
For a raptor (perhaps a crowned eagle?)
To collect as a toll
A child who is whole
Or in pieces the size of a sea gull.

Hedenstrom's on the right track
In giving this theory a whack.
No -- no single, large eagle,
(No matter how regal)
Could carry out such an attack.

Hedenstrom says we are wrong:
A crowned eagle is not all that strong.
We suggest that a mate
helped distribute the weight
To carry off poor kiddy Taung.

But, of course, I couldn't let this go by, so here's my (too late) entry:
A gluttonous eagle from Taung
Sampled a child in a throng
Of hominid beasts
In an impromptu feast:
With sushi one cannot go wrong.

And surely somebody out there can do worse (er, better)?


On the heels of the latest publishing of news about the Taung baby and raptors, reader Robert Odum sends his contributions:

Eagles are noted for size
and the marvelous strength of their eyes,
but to fly off for dinner
with a human beginner
seems more than a mild surprise!

For an eagle, be-crested or not,
to fly off with a 'pithecus tot
seems as nearly pre-poserous
as to see a rhinoceros
cook a gnu in a boiling pot.

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