Feature

Phillip Tobias, 1925–2012

The anthropologist who scoured Africa for early humans

Phillip Tobias made his first anthropological discovery by accident. As a 20-year-old medical student, he went to visit a rare yellowwood tree in a cave in the Transvaal. Kneeling to take a look, he felt something hard in the soil and discovered an ancient stone tool. A subsequent archaeological dig yielded some 3,000 tools from the Middle Stone Age. The serendipitous find was typical, he later said, of a life filled with “coincidence, synchronism, eureka moments.”

Tobias first became interested in human evolution as a child, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), after his sister died of diabetes and he discovered that no geneticist in South Africa could explain why she had the disease and he did not. The Durban native went on to earn degrees in medicine, genetics, and paleoanthropology. A notable early success came in 1953, when he helped expose the “Piltdown Man”—a skull said to be the missing link between man and ape—as a fake made up of an orangutan’s jawbone “deliberately combined with the skull of a modern human.”

Named chairman of the anatomy department at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1959, Tobias led research into the excavation of the Sterkfontein Caves, “one of South Africa’s most important fossil sites,” said the Los Angeles Times. In 1964, he and British paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey first identified Homo habilis, a hominid species that lived between 2.3 million and 1.4 million years ago. In 1995, Tobias announced the discovery of Little Foot, “an almost complete hominid skeleton” that was 4.17 million years old, at the time the oldest ever identified.

Beyond his teaching, Tobias also “campaigned against racism and apartheid” for decades, said The Mercury (South Africa). As early as 1961, he argued that science disproved the assumption, then widely held in South Africa, that blacks were genetically inferior to whites, and he later published findings that living under apartheid was damaging the physical stature of black South Africans. “I felt it was my duty to speak out on the meaning of race,” he later said, “and did so on every possible occasion.”

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