Forty Years On

by Bernard Wood

logo of a man and a chimpanzee under a tree, text reads CASHP
March 13, 2016

Elwyn Simons died a week ago today. He was 85. My condolences to Friderun, his children and grandchildren, and to his many colleagues.

To say that Elwyn lived a rich and full life is an understatement. After his graduate studies, which included a spell in Oxford where he was one of the few, if not the only graduate student of Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark who was interested in primate paleontology, Elwyn went to Yale University in 1960. He remained there until 1977 when he moved to Duke University, where he stayed until his retirement in 2011. According to an appreciation on the Duke University website [1], where you can see a video-clip of Elwyn, “he led more than 90 field expeditions and wrote or coauthored more than 300 books and research articles.”

Elwyn Simons was first brought to my attention in 1965 when I took John Napier’s course in primate evolution. He suggested we read Elwyn’s 1964 PNAS paper [2] in which he made the case that Ramapithecus punjabicus “is almost certainly man's forerunner of 15 million years ago. This determination increases tenfold the approximate time period during which human origins can now be traced with some confidence” (ibid, p. 535). Although Elwyn also suggested that the “dental and facial characters are so close to Australopithecus africanus as to make difficult the drawing of generic distinctions between the two species” (ibid, p. 535), with the enormous benefit of hindsight we know that the similarities between the taxa are almost certainly homoplasies. But when I re-read the paper I was as impressed as I was half a century ago with its elegance, both of the writing and of the argument.

My first contact with Elwyn was in 1976. I was sitting next to him at a dinner, and in the course of explaining the case for Ramapithecus being what in those days was called a hominid, he proceeded to sketch in his usual effortless way. I had the forethought to keep one of his sketches, which is on the wall in my office.

Sketch by Elwyn Simmons on the wall


Bill (W.W.) Bishop kept the other, but he later sent me a Xerox copy, which is also on the wall in my office.

Xerox copy of Bill's drawing


Although my research interests only barely overlapped with Elwyn’s, he always took an interest in what I was doing. I will also always remember Elwyn “holding court” at Duke parties at the AAPA meetings. He was an impressive and irreverent mimic, but he was never irreverent when he mimicked his beloved Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark.

Elwyn’s death breaks yet another link with the history of our discipline. Elwyn’s research contributions to palaeoanthropology were unmatched, and I think he would have appreciated me spelling palaeoanthropology as Le Gros Clark would have done!



2 ‘On the mandible of Ramapithecus’ (1964) PNAS, 51: 525-538.