In Memoriam: Phillip Tobias – A Giant Passes

Phillip Tobias passed away today according to the University of the Witwatersrand. He was 86. Tobias was a giant in the field of paleoanthropology having studied both the East African fossil material- his monographs on Zinjanthropous and Homo habilis were masterpieces – and the South African fossil material – most notably at Sterkfontein. He was interested in the evolution of the human brain – The Brain in Hominid Evolution is a must read. According to wikipedia he also studied

…the Kalahari San, the Tonga people of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and numerous black tribes of Southern Africa.

I learned some interesting things about Tobias from here.

A South African colleague, archaeologist Lyn Wadley, said Tobias also should be remembered for speaking out against apartheid.

In 1986, during a period that saw clashes between anti-apartheid activists and the white racist government’s security forces that some historians have compared to civil war, Tobias spoke at a university meeting that drew thousands of students and staff members. He and others urged the government to free detainees and end a state of emergency that gave it broad powers to crack down on protests and dissent.

“Today, in the emergency, freedom is under siege as never before,” Tobias said.

Wadley said Thursday: “The thing that I really admired so much is that during the darkest ages of South Africa, when he could have got a job anywhere in the world, he chose to stay here, because this was his country, where he could make a difference.”

That takes courage.

Wadley said Tobias would ask his first-year students to send him their photographs before classes started. He would memorize names and faces, and greet scores of students by name during the first class, she said.

“That was sort of symptomatic of his love of people,” she said.

I don’t know many people that would do that.

And finally:

In a statement, South African President Jacob Zuma lauded Tobias for leading the nation’s efforts to reclaim the remains of Saartjie Bartmann, a South African slave who was taken to Europe and displayed in life and then in death as an ethnological curiosity — known as the “Hottentot Venus” — in the 19th century.

Bartmann’s fate has come to symbolize Europe’s arrogance and racism in its relationship with Africa. After becoming South Africa’s first black president in 1994, Nelson Mandela asked that her remains be taken from a French museum and brought to South Africa. After years of negotiations led by Tobias, Bartmann was brought home in 2002 and buried in southeastern South Africa. Her grave has been declared a national heritage site.

More here.

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One Response

  1. I’m very sad to hear professor Tobias has passed away. We’ll miss him very much. Professor Tobias was a very kind man, extremely erudite, “probably the most highly honoured South African scientist of the 20th century”, and one of probably few paleo-anthroplogists who are open to the possibility of a littoral past in human evolution. In 1995 he laid to rest the savannah hypothesis: “We were all profoundly and unutterably wrong! … All the former savannah supporters, including myself, must now swallow our earlier words …” and in 1998: “… if ever our earliest ancestors were savannah dwellers, we must have been the worst, the most profligate urinators there.” :-)

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