Sine Pari

By Bernard Wood
June 20, 2012

Phillip Vallentine Tobias (known by all as “PVT”) was the undisputed doyen of the palaeoanthropological community for the whole of my professional life. His half-century stewardship of the rich South African fossil site of Sterkfontein, his status as ‘Palaeoanthropologist by Appointment’ to Louis and Mary Leakey and his choice to remain in South Africa for all of this time, meant that he played a distinctive role in the academy and in our discipline. His descriptions and assessments of the Olduvai hominin fossils are the bedrock on which subsequent work rests.

Tobias was born and mostly schooled in Durban. In the first volume of his autobiography, Into the Past (2005), he suggests that the premature death of his sister Val from inherited diabetes plus visits to the Durban Natural History Museum were the reasons for his subsequent interest in science. He began his six decade-long professional association with the University of the Witwatersrand when he completed a BSc in physiology, histology and embryology in 1946, and it was as an undergraduate student at Wits that Tobias first met his mentor, Raymond Dart, the latter already famous for his recognition of Australopithecus africanus, the first early human ancestor, or hominin, to be recognized in Africa. Tobias completed his medical degree in 1950, but he never practiced clinical medicine, opting for a career in research and teaching instead.

After completing his PhD in genetics in 1953 (his dissertation was entitled Chromosomes, Sex-Cells, and Evolution in the Gerbil), Tobias’ participation in the Panhard-Capricorn Expedition to the Kalahari Desert to collect data on the San drew him even further into physical anthropology. He spent 1955 at Cambridge University in England, where he was supposed to be conducting postdoctoral research on biometrics in physical anthropology with Jack Trevor, but he also used this opportunity to examine hominin fossils curated in England and in France. Tobias spent most of 1956 in the USA studying physical anthropology, human genetics and dental anatomy; he returned to South Africa in late 1956. These traveling fellowships provided scientific contacts around the globe that Tobias nurtured throughout his career; PVT’s Rolodex must have been a “Who’s who” of paleoanthropology.

In 1959, shortly after Dart’s retirement, Tobias was appointed Professor of Anatomy and Head of the Department of Anatomy at Wits, a position he held until 1990. 1959 was also the year that Tobias got his big break. In that year, Louis and Mary Leakey invited him to undertake the detailed analysis of the Zinjanthropus boisei cranium (OH 5) recently discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. This led to Tobias’ collaboration with Louis Leakey and the British anatomist John Napier to describe the fossils discovered by Louis and Mary Leakey at Olduvai that became the basis of Homo habilis, a new, and still contentious, hominin species. A monographic treatment of the OH 5 cranium, The Cranium and Maxillary Dentition of Australopithecus (Zinjanthropus) boisei (1967) followed, and a similarly detailed treatment of the cranial remains attributed to H. habilis resulted in two mammoth volumes entitled The Skulls, Endocasts and Teeth of Homo habilis (1991). The first is a model of what such a study should be.

For much of his career Tobias was concerned with, or directed, the excavations at Sterkfontein. Robert Broom and John Robinson had excavated there from 1947 until Broom’s death in 1951 and in the 1950s had Robinson continued to work there periodically. In 1958 Sterkfontein became the property of Wits and Tobias initiated extensive excavations of the site that continue to this day. Initially the excavations were supervised by Alun Hughes, who had worked closely with Raymond Dart at Makapansgat. Subsequently, the task was taken over by Ron Clarke, who had worked with Louis and Mary Leakey as a research assistant/conservator. By the early 1990s, Tobias’ team had collected over 500 hominin fossils, most of which belong to Au. africanus. However, some (e.g., Stw 53) were judged by Hughes and Tobias to belong to an early variety of Homo, and Clarke argued that other specimens belonged to Paranthropus robustus. The Sterkfontein fossils are crucial to debates about whether hominins were moving freely between East and Southern Africa, or whether hominin evolution was proceeding effectively independently in the two regions. Tobias continued as the director of the Sterkfontein Research Unit after his retirement as head of the Department of Anatomy in 1990.

Tobias belonged to a talented cohort of science undergraduates at Wits Medical School; Tony Allison, Sydney Brenner, Priscilla Kincaid-Smith and Aaron Klug were among his colleagues. Not a bad peer-group! But whereas their scientific interests led them away from South Africa, Tobias’ “laboratory” could not be moved; he had to stay where the fossils were. Among other things his continued residency in South Africa resulted in him being a consistent thorn in the side of the South African apartheid regime. He was politically active as a student, and even when he was the Dean of the Wits Medical School he led a group of academics that took the Medical and Dental Council of South Africa to court to protest their unwillingness to investigate the behavior of the doctors who should have been protecting Steve Biko from his interrogators. Later in his career PVT’s prominence as a scientist gave him a measure of protection, but his moral and physical bravery should not be underestimated. Despite his evident and effective activism, it was distressing to some of us that Tobias was occasionally tarred with the apartheid brush and denied access to conferences. This seemed both illogical and unfair.

Tobias never married, but he was wedded to his work. Apart from time taken to watch his beloved cricket at the Wanderers ground at Northlands, he worked, read or travelled. I remember visiting him at his apartment and despite it having three large tables, we ate dinner from trays on our laps; he explained that his ‘habilis volume’ was spread out on all of the other surfaces! As meticulous about his manners and dress as he was about his writing and lectures, PVT was unfailingly kind and encouraging to students and young researchers, this one included. His eponymous lectures were notoriously long, and the immature among his listeners (me included) had been known to make a book on the length of his talks; I remember winning at the von Koenigswald Memorial Conference in Frankfurt.

In his prime, which lasted for many decades, his apparently faultless memory and voracious reading (he seemed to have read everything!) meant that he was a “one-man” encyclopedia of paleoanthropology. The “end of an era” is a phrase that is used so commonly that it has lost its true meaning. But PVT’s death really does mark the end of an era. No one will ever have his grasp of the hominin fossil record and the cognate literature. The palaeoanthropological community is diminished by his passing, and now I will have no one to ask the questions only PVT could have answered.

[The "Sideways Look" Blog will be on hiatus for the remainder of the summer, but will return with new updates in September.]