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Patrick Randolph-Quinney and Anthony Sinclair

The Osteodontokeratic (ODK for short) is a technological and cultural hypothesis first proposed by Raymond A. Dart in 1957, based on fossils recovered from the South African cave site of Makapansgat. Dart proposed that the extinct hominin species Australopithecus prometheus were predatory, cannibalistic meat eaters, and specialized hunters. He suggested that they manufactured and used a toolkit based on the bones (osteo), teeth (donto), and horns (keratic) of prey animals, and that these first tools were evidence for the “predatory transition from ape to man” as a distinct stage in human evolutionary development. Dart based his hypothesis on the analysis of bones of fossil ungulates and other prey species found at Makapansgat. The parts of the skeleton recovered from the cave were biased toward the skull and limb bones, whilst the thorax, pelvis, and tail were largely absent, indicating a selection agent at work. The bones also exhibited evidence of damage, which Dart suggested could only have been caused by intentional violence. Many of the bones were blackened, which he suggested was due to burning or charring in a controlled fire. In his mind, the hominins of Makapansgat were prodigious hunters who used organic tools to kill their prey, whereupon they cooked and ate the meat, discarding waste bone but utilizing some of the skeletal material to make new tools. Dart developed a detailed typology of complete or modified bones that he indicated could be used as clubs, projectiles, daggers, picks, saws, scoops, and cups—in doing so, he confused form with function. Dart and the ODK were championed by the American playwright Robert Ardrey across four hugely successful popular science books starting with African Genesis in 1961. Following Dart, these books portrayed our early ancestors as aggressive hunters killing prey and each other, driven by a need to protect their territory. This concept infiltrated popular culture through the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey released in 1968, making the ODK perhaps the most famous scientific claim for an original form of human technology. Dart’s hypothesis was not widely accepted by contemporary scientists such as Kenneth Oakley, Sherburn Washburn, John Robinson, and C. K. “Bob” Brain, and led Brain to conduct his own field research on the agents of fossil accumulation and site formation processes in South Africa. Brain later demonstrated that the pattern of bone damage and skeletal part representation recorded by Dart at Makapansgat was the result of nonhuman modification, particularly accumulation and dietary processing of ungulate carcasses by large carnivores such as leopard or hyena. Furthermore, the blackening of bone was caused by manganese mineral staining. In testing and falsifying the ODK hypothesis, Brain and fellow researchers laid the experimental groundwork for the discipline of vertebrate taphonomy (the laws of burial and postmortem processes) which is now a cornerstone in paleolithic archaeology and the study of early human origins. It is debatable whether this scientific specialism would exist in its present form without Dart’s claims for the ODK.