/ 14 June 2012

Tobias: Framed by famous fossils

It's not unusual to hear an octogenarian described as a fossil but you dared not say that about Phillip Tobias
It's not unusual to hear an octogenarian described as a fossil but you dared not say that about Phillip Tobias

Two years ago I asked the Wits Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Human Biology 84 questions on the occasion of his 84th birthday.

This interview occurred at his historic and monumental office at the Wits Medical School, richly festooned with photographs of a lifetime of marvellous achievements and significant colleagues and friends.

Tobias’ life was remarkably framed between what he considered the two most significant hominin fossils ever found – the Taung Child and Littlefoot.

When asked whether it is a coincidence that he was born in 1925, the same year as the description of the Taung Child fossil and the Scopes Monkey Trial, he replied: “I [believe that they] were causally related.

“The Taung Child, announced in February 1925, led to such worldwide publicity for this and Dart’s claims for it, that the anti-evolution school, particularly in the deep south of the US, became very upset. Within six weeks of that discovery, the Tennessee state law legislature passed a law forbidding the teaching of evolution in schools.

“Now that was not a synchronistic accident or coincidence, and I don’t think that I am the only one to have pointed this out. (The Taung Child fossil was) the work of the devil in the eyes of a creationist, and so those two events I think were linked.”

With a wry smile, Tobias added “My birth was one of these happy synchronistic events, if you like. In actual fact, I was born at such a date that my conception must have been about the day when the Taung fossil description was published.

Whether this drove my father and mother into a frenzy, I don’t know …”

Strong convictions
The course of his subsequent life drew him closer and closer to the fossil which was the type specimen of Australopithecus Africanus and to Raymond Dart, the brilliant Australian anatomist, who never wavered in his conviction that this fossil would prove to be the Rosetta Stone that would unlock our real understanding of our own origins.

In 1943, Tobias entered Wits Medical School, and in 1944 he met Dart whose “lectures were unforgettable and his descent periodically upon the dissection halls and his great histrionic display of the way in which anatomy should be studied – that was memorable and a little terrifying”.

Having attained a medical BSc, Tobias taught in the department from 1946 and was appointed as a full time lecturer when he replaced Lawrence Wells in 1951.

In 1959 the 34-year-old Tobias, who by then held three doctorates (in medicine, genetics and palaeoanthropology) succeeded Dart as the head of the Wits Medical School of Anatomy, making him the first South African-born person to be appointed to such a post anywhere in the country.

Tobias was also to become one of the only people ever to hold the chair in three departments simultaneously.

He was to receive at least 11 honorary doctorates – that from Cambridge being the one that gave him the greatest pride and to write well over 1 000 academic papers.

With the chair came the custodianship of the Taung Child fossil.

The fossil had grown enormously in status and international recognition for two reasons.

Firstly, Dr Robert Broom had found various hominin fossils in the Kromdraai and Sterfkontein area, including the legendary “Mrs Ples” of 1947.

Secondly, Marsden, Oakley and the South African-born JS Weiner had proved that the Piltdown fossil of 1912 was a forgery.

This toppled the misguided English claim to human ancestry and elevated Africa to the foreground, which position it justifiably still occupies today.

The major opponent of Raymond Dart, Sir Arthur Keith eventually conceded that “Dart was right, and I was wrong.”

A few years later, Tobias arrived in Cambridge, England, too late to meet Keith, but just on time to attend his funeral in January, 1955.

The view that Keith actually colluded in the Piltdown forgery was strongly held by Tobias and a significant number of other informed analysts.

The list of people who Tobias did meet who had a significant impact on relevant studies included Mary and Louis Leakey and their son Richard, Robert Broom, Jane Goodall, Dianne Fossey and dozens of others but Tobias still considers his most unforgettable person to be “Raymond Dart – my teacher, my mentor and my friend.”

In 1966 Tobias assumed leadership of the dig at Sterkfontein and has thus been associated with the world’s longest continuously running palaeoanthropological dig for more than half his life.

Unsung heroes
Although Tobias had worked with a host of scientists and assistants he considered stratigrapher Professor Tim Partridge to be “the unsung hero of Sterkfontein”.

Sadly, Partridge died unexpectedly at a much younger age than Tobias.

Alun Hughes was the most accomplished finder of hominin fossils and fragments, with a personal tally of over 500, unsurpassed by anyone alive in the world today.

Hughes once dreamed that the complete skeleton of a hominin would be found in the Sterkfontein Caves.

He died without realising this dream but as it happened he mentioned it to Professor Ron Clarke who succeeded him as the manager of field work at Sterkfontein.

In 1994, Clarke found amongst boxes of previously excavated fossils, a series of hominin foot bones.

The completeness of these bones suggested to Clarke and Tobias that they must have come from a complete skeleton.

In 1997 Clarke gave a cast of a severed tibia shaft to Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe.

On their second day of searching they matched this fragment to a point in the breccia in the wall of the Silberberg Grotto, where the rest of the skeleton has eventually been located.

Ever since then, Clarke and his team have been patiently excavating it with air-scribes and dentists drills.

Not only is this fossil very complete and excellently preserved but it provides remarkable evidence of hitherto unknown anatomy and critical clues to the locomotion of the foot of a relatively early bipedal hominin.

Although Ron Clarke has worked in Tanzania on the famous Laetoli footprints, he will always be remembered in association with the world icon called Littlefoot.

For Tobias, the emergence of Littlefoot will be the culmination of a remarkable and distinguished career.

Tobias arrived into the Cradle of Humankind, into the African sunshine as the spiritual (and almost the chronological) twin of the Taung Child.

He reached the end of a remarkable career on the brink of the emergence of the remarkably preserved fossil, Littlefoot.

Perhaps Tobias’s journey was long and arduous.

Fierce opposition
He has faced derision, scorn and fierce opposition from people who were motivated by prejudice, fear and ignorance of the true antiquity of our marvellous planet.

It is an honour to have the opportunity to spend time in the company of a man whose life was dignified, distinguished and indisputably ethical and whose works have been prolific and profound.

I’m sure that millions of people will be with me when I say thank you to Tobias for being a remarkable and ethical citizen of the country, the African continent and the world.

As Tobias considered Raymond Dart, so I consider Tobias the most unforgettable person I have ever met.

We have lost one of the greatest warriors who ever upheld the torch of science, of infinite curiosity, and of the unbridled quest for wisdom and truth.

He lives on in the memories of the thousands of people who had the privilege to meet him and retain lifelong friendships and correspondence.

Eighty-six years is not a long time but it may feel like it when you are faced with adversarial masses.

When you are surrounded by supporters, admirers and friends, 86 years is, alas, far too short.

Anthony Paton is the deputy director of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site and Dinokeng Projects