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.”