Tobias placed South Africa as the cradle of life
PHILLIP Tobias believed South Africa was the true cradle of humankind.
Nobody did more to persuade a doubting world that South Africa was the true cradle of humankind than famous paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 86.
But for him the honours would have gone to East Africa, the stamping ground of the famous Leakey duo, Louis and Mary, which was exploding with discoveries at a time when not a lot was happening in South Africa in terms of fossil finds.
Tobias lived long enough to see the tide turn and South Africa take centre stage in the great discussion of human origins in Africa. It was largely his doing.
Perhaps his crowning vindication was the discovery four years ago by his protégé and successor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Lee Berger, of a new species of hominid, Australopithecus sediba, almost two million years old and a direct ancestor of the genus Homo.
Berger believed it could be the transitional species between the southern African apeman, Australopithecus africanus (like the Taung Child and Mrs Ples), and either Homo habilis or a direct ancestor of Homo erectus.
When Tobias was shown Sediba, he wept. It was what he'd always dreamed would be discovered in South Africa.
Tobias initiated the excavation of the Sterkfontein Caves (now a world heritage site known as the Cradle of Humankind), 40km out of Joburg, which he first visited in 1943, when negotiating its sheer walls and precipitous drops without any of the ladders and other aids was a hair-raising feat that demanded considerable physical courage.
It is now the longest-running excavation in history and has produced one of the largest assemblages of early humans ever discovered, including the famous Little Foot, at between 4.1 million and 3.3 million years old one of the oldest human ancestors found to date.
Though his career as a paleoanthropologist started in the field it was in the laboratory that Tobias built his legendary status.
In a profession notorious for its disputes and vicious rivalries, he certainly had his detractors. No more so than after publishing a paper with Louis Leakey, based in Nairobi, and John Napier in London identifying, describing and naming the new species, Homo habilis, found at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and named as such because it was the earliest species to manufacture and use stone tools.
Leakey and Napier then went their way, leaving Tobias to defend what was a revolutionary concept against a wave of scorn from the scientific community. It took 15 long, lonely years before his position was vindicated.
He held his opinions confidently, but he was not dogmatic. He was a liberal thinker where all too many scientists are not. Because of this, even his detractors respected and, in most cases, liked him.
Tobias was born in Durban on October 14 1925. His father owned a toy shop that went bankrupt and left the family almost destitute. They were reduced to living in a cheap hotel, with Tobias having to share a room with his parents, who fought constantly before splitting up. Tobias was distraught.
In spite of these emotional and material challenges, he excelled at Durban High School and at Wits, where he enrolled as a medical student in 1943. Having deviated to complete a medical BSc, he was already teaching in the department by 1946.
In 1951 he was appointed to a full-time lectureship in the department of anatomy at Wits Medical School. He went on to obtain doctorates in medicine, genetics and paleoanthropology.
In 1959 he succeeded his mentor, Raymond Dart, as head of anatomy. He retired 30 years later, was made a professor emeritus and continued going to his office until his illness earlier this year. He published innumerable books and papers, won many awards and was nominated three times for a Nobel prize.
Both as a student (he became president of Nusas the year the Nats came to power) and as a member of staff, he was at the forefront of opposition to apartheid.
He never married and had no children. The 10000 students he taught and influenced were his family.
He was a brilliant, unforgettable teacher who brooked no sloppy thinking or writing. His PhD students, in particular, feared nothing more than his blue fountain pen.
"You'd thank God it wasn't a red pen, because your thesis draft would have looked like a murder scene," reemembered a survivor. - Sunday Times