Words from the Wise

By Bernard Wood
September 07, 2014

Publishers have all-but-abandoned conference volumes, but when I started my career, and thanks in large part to the Burg Wartenstein series of publications supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, you could make a strong case that conference volumes had more influence on paleoanthropology than refereed journals. One of the strengths of well-edited conference volumes is that they provide a platform that allows experienced and seasoned researchers to escape from the hegemony of pretending they are presenting the results of “hypothesis-driven” research. They allow smart people to “think aloud,” and for this reason they must be a godsend for the historians of our discipline.

This year marks the golden jubilee of the 1964 Leakey, Tobias and Napier paper announcing Homo habilis, so I was on the lookout for a paper published in the early 1960s that would give some sense of the historical context. That search led me to a review by John Robinson1 in a Burg Wartenstein conference volume entitled African Ecology and Human Evolution edited by Clark Howell and Francois Boulière. In their papers in that volume both Robinson and Louis Leakey refer to the fossil evidence for the “pre-Zinjanthropus juvenile” that was to become the type specimen of H. habilis, but for different reasons neither of them consider it in detail. As the title of Robinson’s contribution suggests, his review provides exactly the sort of context for H. habilis I was looking for, but re-reading that paper led me back to Robinson’s 1953 paper2 about Telanthropus, and two of his papers that were published in 1954.3,4

With no hypothesis, and 50 pages long, the Telanthropus (Robinson did not italicize Telanthropus in the title) paper would not stand a snowball’s-chance-in-hell of being published these days. But thank goodness it was. John Robinson, who was a fine morphologist, shares his thought processes with the reader as he discusses the morphology of Telanthropus I (SK 15), Telanthropus II (SK 45) and Telanthropus III (SK 80). And what a privilege it is to “hear” him think aloud. The line drawings (which I think are his own) are as lucid and economical as the prose. Sure, some of the conclusions have not stood the test of time, but anyone who thinks they can understand this phase of hominin evolution without reading this paper at least once is sadly mistaken.

The 1954 paper on australopith taxonomy should be read, and re-read, by every graduate student. It is a model of clarity and many of the points (e.g., the taxonomic valency of dm1 occlusal morphology) are as valid now as they were then. The paper on the dentition published in the same year is especially forward-looking, for it not only includes a prescient discussion of how molar size order might be used for phylogenetic reconstruction, but it also includes a section on “Ecological requirements and coexistence” that discusses what we now refer to as character displacement.

Among the many other excellent chapters in the African Ecology and Human Evolution volume is one by Basil Cooke that focuses on the Pleistocene mammal faunas of southern Africa5, and thanks to Mark Collard, I recently had the opportunity to visit with Basil and renew an old friendship.

He, his late wife Dorette, and Griff Ewer were very kind to me when I appeared at the National Museum in Nairobi in 1968, en-route to what was then called Lake Rudolf. I was a medical student, the only other time I had left the UK was to go on a school trip to Austria, and I had never flown in an airplane before. I had arrived late morning in Nairobi at Jomo Kenyatta airport at the end of a 48-hour journey. It began by taking a boat train from London to Folkestone, then we crossed the English Channel to Boulogne, followed by a train to Zurich via Paris. From Zurich I took a charter flight on East African Safari Airways to Benghazi, where we waited until it was cool enough to fly over the Sahara to Entebbe, then on to Dar es Salaam, and then finally to Nairobi. What do you expect for a London-Nairobi round trip fare of 48 UK pounds?

I was exhausted, and although I knew I was due to leave the next day on a charter flight from Wilson Airport to East Rudolf, I had nowhere to stay, and not the first clue where the airport was. I stumbled (literally) into an outbuilding at the National Museum where a bespectacled woman (it was Griff Ewer6) smoking a pipe that had been repaired using a piece of Bunsen-burner tubing was dissecting the face of a wart-hog. She took pity on me, invited me to lunch with Basil and Dorette, and between them the three of them found me a “hotel” (The Plums) for the night, and saw to it that the following morning I was at Wilson in time for the flight to East Rudolf.

Basil Cooke’s work on pigs from the Omo-Shungura Formation had resulted in a biochronology for the Plio-Pleistocene of East Africa that suggested younger dates for the KBS tuff than those being promulgated by Frank Fitch and Jack Miller. This resulted in tension between the East Rudolf Research Project and the researchers working in Ethiopia, that was eventually resolved in favor of what became known as the “pig-clock”.

Basil always had a reputation for “speaking his mind,” and he seemed no less forthright in his opinions about my colleagues and their work a few weeks ago when we reunited at 98 years old than he was four decades ago. During my visit to the retirement home where he now lives, he asked me (I am not sure why) if I could help him identify people in a series of photographs taken in July 1961 at the African Ecology and Human Evolution meeting at Burg Wartenstein.

One shows Basil standing next to Bill Bishop.