South Africa’s eminent prof of fossils dies

PHILLIP TOBIAS (1925-2012)

Tobias was usually to be seen near some half-unearthed bones in Sterkfontein, outside Johannesburg. Born in 1925, he started working at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1946, where he spent the rest of his career. There, he received doctorates in medicine, genetics and palaeoanthropology. In 1959 he took over as head of anatomy at the Wits medical school. When he retired 30 years later, he was awarded the title of professor emeritus.

His other lifelong project started in 1966 when he started excavating at Sterkfontein. During his 50 years spent walking around the rolling hills of this site, he supervised the discovery of more than 1000 hominin fossils belonging to humans and their ancestors. He also drove the process of making the Cradle of Humankind a world heritage site.    

Professor Bruce Rubidge, director of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at Wits university, said it was a sad day for the field. “He made a huge contribution to the discipline from the very start when he put in descriptions of the earlier hominids.”

Although Tobias was aware of his illness and was growing older, Rubidge said he was still busy towards the end of his life and was trying to get work done. The students he had taught continue his work around the world, he added.
Tobias left no children, but saw his students as his legacy. “I have taught over 10000 students; all of those are, in some small way, like my children,” he once said. “It is not a genetic legacy that I leave but 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 that almost every one of them has given something valuable to me, and I remember them as my own family.”

He was a prolific publisher and was working on a second autobiography at the time of his death. – Sipho Kings

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

Obituary: Literary allrounder Stephen Gray was a scholar, critic, novelist and poet

Stephen Gray made an immense, long contribution to the South African literary landscape across many genres, but it was poetry that he described as ‘the main activity of my life’

Myesha Jenkins: A sister who always said it with feeling

Poet and activist Myesha Jenkins (1948-2020) took her craft, including her teaching, extremely seriously

Obituary: The pointillist detail and zen brush strokes of Jürgen Schadeberg

‘Drum’ photographer Jürgen Schadenberg, who died on Sunday, displayed a profound humanism, writes his friend and sometime collaborator Hazel Friedman

George Hallett: Nomad, raconteur and photographer who ‘became the camera’

The renowned South African photographer understood how to look for the tucked-away spaces that were the sources of both light and dark

Credo Mutwa: Defying the sting of death

The highest honour that can be paid to Credo Mutwa is familiarising oneself with his output

2019: The ones who left us

From Uyinene Mrwetyana, Oliver Mtukudzi to Xolani Gwala, Mail & Guardian remembers those who have passed on

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

DRC: Tshisekedi and Kabila fall out

The country’s governing coalition is under strain, which could lead to even more acrimony ahead

Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs.

Klipgat residents left high and dry

Flushing toilets were installed in backyards in the North West, but they can’t be used because the sewage has nowhere to go

Nehawu leaders are ‘betraying us’

The accusation by a branch of the union comes after it withdrew from a parliamentary process

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…