Phillip Tobias leaves a 'cultural legacy'

2012-06-07 16:36
The University of the Witwatersrand has expressed sadness at the news of leading South African palaeo-anthropologist Philip Tobias' death. (File, Sapa)

The University of the Witwatersrand has expressed sadness at the news of leading South African palaeo-anthropologist Philip Tobias' death. (File, Sapa)

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Johannesburg - The University of the Witwatersrand expressed sadness on Thursday at the news of leading South African palaeo-anthropologist Phillip Tobias' death.

"A stalwart of the university and a world-renowned scientist, Professor Tobias passed away today [Thursday] in Johannesburg after a long illness," said spokesperson Shirona Patel in a statement.

Tobias was the recipient of many awards and honours, including honorary degrees from the universities of Pennsylvania, Cambridge, California, Natal, Cape Town, Unisa, Durban-Westville, Western Ontario, Alta, Guelph, and the Witwatersrand.

"We extend our deepest sympathies to the friends and family of Professor Tobias, and those him knew him well," Patel said.

A colleague, archaeologist Lyn Wadley, said Tobias also should be remembered for speaking out against apartheid.

Wadley said, "The thing that I really admired so much is that during the darkest ages of South Africa, when he could have got a job anywhere in the world, he chose to stay here, because this was his country, where he could make a difference."

Tobias, who was the only person to hold three professorships simultaneously at the University of the Witwatersrand, was always known for being a friendly, outgoing man, eloquent and able to explain his science to anyone.

In 2002 Tobias had his own, popular, TV series, Tobias' Bodies.

The series, presented and narrated by Tobias, consisted of six stand-alone episodes exploring different themes around genetics, anatomy and primatology.

"Little Foot"

He also successfully campaigned for the Sterkfontein Caves to be proclaimed a World Heritage site.

One of his most famous palaeo-anthropological finds was "Little Foot" - four 4.17 million year-old foot bones unearthed at Sterkfontein by Dr Ron Clarke.

Later more of the skeleton was unearthed, making Little Foot our oldest, most complete skeleton of a direct ancestor, Tobias explained in 2003, when a new dating technique showed the bones to be considerably older than the first estimate of 3.3 million years.

He always had great love for the palaentological digs at Sterkfontein, where he led a team of researchers.

He participated in almost all the other major digs in southern Africa since 1945 and discovered some 25 archaeological sites in "Bechuanaland Protectorate", now Botswana, while on the French Panhard-Capricorn Expedition.

Tobias was instrumental in the process to have the remains of Saartjie Bartmann returned to South Africa. He led negotiations with France on behalf of the South African government.

The remains of the Khoi woman, which were exhibited in Paris as ethnological and sexual curiosities in the 19th century, finally returned home in May 2002.

Never married

In 2006 Tobias' autobiography Into the Past, which documented his first 40 years, was published.

Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who wrote the foreword to the book, said it "not only records Phillip Tobias’s personal journey in life, science and education, but also the passage of our country, South Africa".

Paton said Tobias had been working on another book covering the rest of his life, but it was unclear whether he had finished it.

Tobias, who never married or had children, said he regarded his students, numbering in the region of 10 000 during his career, as being "in some way" his children.

"It is not a genetic legacy that I leave, but rather a cultural one, orally transmitted through education, the value of which cannot be overemphasised.

"I like to believe that I have given something valuable to every one of them, and I can tell you quite honestly that almost every one of them has given something very valuable to me, and I remember them as my own family," he said.
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