RIP Philip Tobias

If you haven’t heard of Philip Tobias—and you should if you know a bit about human evolution—you will have heard of the Sterkfontein Caves, a World Heritage Site excavated by Tobias, a paleoanthropologist who spent most of his career at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Tobias died Saturday June 7 at age 86.   (I was off by a month, and hadn’t heard the news, but the man still deserves an RIP.)

Tobias was a student of Raymond Dart, who discovered the first austraolpithecine fossils in 1924, also in South Africa (I describe Dart’s dramatic find at the beginning of my chapter on human evolution in WEIT). Tobias was also mentored by the Leakeys, and worked at Olduvai on the famous hominin fossil nicknamed “Nutcracker Man” or “Dear Boy”.  As the New York Times obituary notes:

Dr. Tobias wrote a treatise that described Dear Boy in minute, almost microscopic detail.

“That monograph continues to be the benchmark on how we should chronicle these important discoveries,” said the paleoanthropologist Donald C. Johanson, co-discoverer of the famous hominin fossil Lucy and founding director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. “It’s on every paleoanthropologist’s shelf.”

“Nutcracker Man” became the holotype specimenof Paranthropus boisei (formerly Zinjanthropus), a robust hominin (ergo the name, derived from its massive teeth) that was a sterile offshoot of the hominin tree.

The NYT adds this:

In the 1960s, Dr. Tobias became involved in excavations at South Africa’s Sterkfontein caves, which yielded a trove of hominin fossils and tools, including a specimen called Little Foot, an unusually complete hominin skeleton whose age has been estimated at 2.3 million to 4 million years. Dr. Tobias campaigned successfully to have the caves declared a World Heritage site.

“Little Foot” is an australopithecine whose affinities are still uncertain.

And an obit at tributes notes that Sterkfontein is where over a third of all known early hominin fossils have been found, including specimens of Paranthropus, Australopithecus, and Homo.

Finally, Tobias was a fierce opponent of apartheid during the years it was the law in South Africa (Witwatersrand, or “Wits,” was a center for both black and white opposition to apartheid.) The Times describes a lecture he gave in Stony Brook in 2006:

In his Stony Brook lecture, Dr. Tobias said he wanted to correct accounts in several books that said Louis Leakey had browbeaten him into agreeing that Homo habilis was a distinct species. Dr. Tobias said that he had come around gradually to agreeing with him, but that his agreement was based strictly on the evidence.

“My personality was not such as to be easily browbeaten into a certain standpoint,” Dr. Tobias said. “My individualism had stood behind me in my 40-years-long fight against apartheid and the inroads against academic freedom by the apartheid government of South Africa.”

Tobias in 2006 in Johannesburg, where he taught. Photo for the NYT by Alexander Joe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

5 Comments

  1. BilBy
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I met Tobias a couple of times at the Transvaal Museum and at Wits – a great story teller and wonderfully enthusiastic about his, and others, research.

  2. raven
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Who knows what that hominin is in his hand?

    It’s small, looks larger because it is between him and the camera.

    Low forehead, brow ridges. Robust. Slanted face but not too slanted.

    I’m guessing (emphasis on guessing) Paranthropus or one of the Australopithecines.

    • BilBy
      Posted July 10, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      That looks like a cast of ‘Mrs Ples’ – Australopithecus africanus

      • BilBy
        Posted July 10, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        Akshully – I am wrong. Don’t think Mrs Ples has any teeth and there are molars there. would still guess at A. africanus though

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted July 11, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

          The brain-to-face ratio looks too high for non-Homo, for mine.

          …so I had a quick look through Johansson & Edgar, and now think you’re right about it being A. africanus (but not Mrs Ples, who lacks teeth as you say).

          Primate skulls are hard; how they look is so much dependent on the preservation, presence/absence of mandible etc., and large parts of ones brain are trying to analyse the imagined face instead of what’s actually preserved.


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