Let us honour Professor Phillip Tobias, the esteemed South African palaeo-anthropologist.
He successfully campaigned for the Sterkfontein Caves – in the Cradle of Humankind – to be proclaimed a World Heritage site, after one of his most famous palaeo-anthropological finds was “Little Foot” – four foot bones unearthed by Dr Ron Clarke that were 4.17-million year-old. Later, more of the skeleton was unearthed, making “Little Foot” our oldest, most complete skeleton of a direct ancestor
While Tobias was studying genetics under Professor Raymond Dart – famous for his discovery of what became known as the Taung Skull in 1924 – and Professor Joe Gillman, he “fell under the spell” of palaeontology. Dart’s theory, now accepted, initially shocked scientists across the globe. The Taung skull is now seen as belonging to a child of the humanoid Australopithecus Africanus genus.
This was a new species, a new link in the chain which ends with modern humankind – Homo sapiens sapiens.
The only person to hold three professorships simultaneously at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, this world renowned scientist was known for being able to explain his science to anyone.
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’’
Tobias was instrumental in the process of having the remains a Khoi woman – Saartjie Bartmann – returned to South Africa which had been exhibited in Paris as ethnological and sexual curiosities in the 19th century, and led negotiations with France on behalf of the South African government.
In 2006 Tobias published his autobiography Into the Past, which documented his first forty years. 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”.
His bequest is an incomparable legacy for our country – and humankind.