/ 14 June 2012

Evolution of the man who rocked the cradle of humankind

The origins of Tobias: Research expeditions in the Kalahari to study the San.
The origins of Tobias: Research expeditions in the Kalahari to study the San.

Some years ago, Jane Dugard and I had the privilege of conducting a series of extensive interviews with Tobias in which the great scientist talked about his life and work. What began as a project on the history of contemporary science became one of the most rewarding events of our lives. There is nothing more intellectually fulfilling and stimulating than listening to Tobias talk and reflect.

At the same time, learning more about Tobias made me realise that it is close to impossible to produce a biographical account on the great man that would do justice to his extraordinary and complex life.

Indeed, Tobias was an intellectual of many interests who made contributions to a wide variety of scientific disciplines, a person well versed in the arts and humanities and a politically engaged activist throughout his life. He was often described as a “Renaissance man”.

Tobias was born in Durban on October 14 1925. After matriculating from Durban High School, he went to study science and medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand. At Wits, Tobias obtained his MBBCh (1950), PhD (1953) and DSc (1967). He was strongly influenced by his two mentors, PhD supervisor Joseph Gillman and the head of the department of anatomy, Australian-born anatomist and anthropologist Raymond Dart. It was primarily under Dart’s influence that Tobias decided to ramify his scientific interests into several diverse yet interconnected disciplines.

His formative years peaked in postdoctoral research, first at Cambridge and then at several leading universities in the United States. There, he further advanced his scientific competency and studied the latest developments in medical education.

This knowledge would be crucial to his transforming Wits’s anatomy department into a world-class centre for teaching and research.

The student days were busy for Tobias, both scientifically and in terms of political and social engagements. As an undergraduate in the mid-1940s, Tobias led student expeditions to Makapansgat, the valley that would became famous for its wealth of palaeoanthropological and archaeological remains. These early expeditions would lead to systematic excavation, which resulted in numerous important discoveries.

In addition, Tobias was the president of the non-racial National Union of South African Students, which strongly opposed segregated education. Tobias’s opposition to the apartheid regime continued throughout his life, the most famous being his involvement in the “Biko doctors” affair and the fight against apartheid in education.

Tobias was appointed as a lecturer in the department of anatomy at Wits in 1951. In 1959, he became a professor and succeeded Raymond Dart as head of department.

Tobias was also a member of the senate and council of the university and held the position of dean of the medical faculty from 1980 to 1982. He retired in 1993 and was appointed professor emeritus, remaining active in research and the supervision of postgraduates. Although he enjoyed many things in life, from a good dinner party to an exciting cricket match, his main joy was undoubtedly his work.

Living populations
Although Tobias’s PhD and his early career were in the field of genetics (he established the first human genetics counselling service in South Africa), his research and teaching would soon spread into other fields such as human growth and variation, skeletal biology, palaeoanthropology, evolutionary theory, philosophy and the history of science.

Tobias’s research on South African living populations began in 1952 when he joined the French Panhard Capricorn Expedition to study the San and other ethnic groups of the Kalahari Desert.

In 1956, he founded the Kalahari research committee, which organised the annual multidisciplinary scientific expeditions to the Kalahari until 1971. This research was crowned in 1978 by a publication of the monograph titled The Bushmen, which Tobias edited. His research on growth and development of the Southern African population soon included other groups such as the Tonga of Zambia.

Although Tobias’s early views on human variation were based on racial typology, he was soon to accept more modern approaches and, in 1961, he published a short but insightful book titled The Meaning of Race in which he masterfully dispersed myths of racial superiority. This book and its second enlarged edition, published 11 years later, served as a key reference text.

In 1956, Tobias’s superb review of the morphology of the controversial Kanam jaw led Louis and Mary Leakey to invite him to describe their find of Australopithecus (Zinjanthropus) boisei. That was the beginning of a long-lasting and scientifically productive friendship with the Leakey family and Tobias’s engagement in the interpretation of East African hominin fossils.

Meticulous research
In 1964, together with Louis Leakey and John Napier, Tobias identified a new hominin species, Homo habilis. Tobias later completed two classical monographs on the East African (Olduvai Gorge) material: Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei (1967) and Homo habilis (1991).

Both monographs represent examples of insightful and meticulous research.

In South Africa, Tobias was in charge of excavations at well-known hominin sites such as Sterkfontein (from 1966), Taung (early 1980s), Makapansgat and Gladysvale. As a result of these digs, more than 600 hominin specimens have been recovered and catalogued. The field and laboratory studies under Tobias’s leadership have led Wits to become a renowned centre of excellence for palaeoanthropological research and teaching.

Most of this work has been completed through the palaeoanthropology research unit (later Sterkfontein Research Unit and now part of the Wits Institute for Human Evolution), which Tobias established in 1979.

Above all, Tobias had a remarkable ability to synthesise knowledge from different disciplines and arrive at broader theoretical and philosophical conclusions and reflections. His contribution to science and society brought him many honours including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Research Foundation of South Africa, the National Order from the Presidency, the Huxley Memorial Medal, the Balzan International Prize, membership of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society in the US and the Fellowship of the Royal Society, London.

When Jane and I completed our last interview with Tobias, he walked us out, saying: “Alright dear friends, hamba kahle [go well]”, to which Jane replied “Lala kahle, ndunankulu [stay well, big chief].”

It is now time to say: “Hamba kahle, ndunankulu” one last time. Go well, big chief, you made this world a better place and your intellectual children – your students, co-workers and comrades in the fight against social and political injustice – will proudly continue your legacy.

To view the slideshow go to www.mg.co.za/tobias