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Phillip V. Tobias, 1925 to 2012

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In early 1925, the most important fossil pertaining to human evolution to date was reported from South Africa; the skull of an infant Australopithecine from a locality called Taung demonstrated that our ancestors walked upright, had human-like teeth, and a small, ape-like brain which may or may not have had some human-like features. This fossil’s discovery co-occurred with a significant uptick in creationist activity in South Africa and the United States; for example, the Scopes trial in Tennessee started weeks later, in April 1925. Still later in the same year, on October 14th, Phillip Valentine Tobias was born.

The connections among these events is complicated. Scopes was not a direct response to the Taung fossil, but the Taung fossil and later South African finds influenced the creationist debate everywhere. South African creationism gained notable vigor as a direct response to this find. At some point the South African Apartheid government, which did have an official religion, prohibited further exploration for fossil hominins, while allowing continued research on material already in museums. The infant Tobias, after the mandatory childhood, teenage years, and all that, would become a social and political tour de force in South Africa, to the extent of being an embarrassment to the state. He worked for a public university and held a position of global recognition, and he spoke out against Apartheid, against Creationism, and in favor of Science and Evolution. It was partly because of him that the government could not entirely shut down all research on evolution. (Tobias was to become one of the scientists who contributed to the debunking of Piltdown.)

Philip Tobias and the Taung Fossil at Wits University

Philip Tobias and the Taung Fossil at Wits University

The fact that the Taung infant was reported nine months before the infant Tobias was born may or may not have been causally linked. Phillip Tobias himself has noted that it is possible that his parents were sent into some sort of frenzy on hearing news of the find, which ultimately led to his birth. This might be a good time to mention that Tobias, who died on June 7th of this year, was as well known for his humor as for his prowess as a hominin anatomist and for his humanity.

It was Raymond Dart who studied and reported Taung, and that story is one of the most remarkable and important in the history of the field. (Two recent books that give extensive treatment to that history are reviewed here.) Phillip Tobias eventually occupied the Wits University Chair established originally for Dart, and until recently, he was the keeper of the fossils, including Taung, at that facility.

Tobias began with a career in Anthropology, and was beginning to study living African groups in the Congo and elsewhere. But, while he was engaged in these early efforts in ethnography, Louis Leakey, the most famous male Africanist anthropologist of the mid 20th century, was busy assigning people diverse tasks related to the study of human evolution, all around the continent. Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, Birute Galdikas, Irven DeVore, and Glynn Isaac are among those with careers kick-started or enhanced by Leakey’s anointment or involvement in Mary and Louis Leakey’s work at Olduvai and elsewhere. Leakey brought Philip Tobias into the fold to examine and describe important fossil material from the lower levels of Olduvai.

That and other work Tobias was responsible for involved the description of species. This is different than just describing anatomy; the official description of a species provides the criteria for inclusion or exclusion of subsequent material, and is the basis for comparative studies among groups of species. The species description, or “diagnostic,” is the basic science on which other aspects of evolutionary inquiry are based. Tobias’s work on his own or in collaboration with others set a very high and as yet unexceeded standard for this important job in human evolution research.

Although Tobias was directly and materially involved in the description, revision, or analysis of Homo erectus (aka Homo ergaster) and the remains of more than one Australopithecus species, his most famous connection to the bony parts of the fossil record is probably Homo habilis. This hominin species stands at the boundary between small brained bipedal woodland and savanna apes of which there were many genera and species, and the large brained and less taxonomically diverse genus Homo.

Regardless of what one’s feelings may be about the term “missing link,” if there were no known remains attributable to this transition, that is what it would be: A missing link. For better or worse, however, hominin remains that date from 1.6 to 2.6 million years ago, after which almost everything is Homo and before which almost everything is an australopith of some kind or another, are not missing, they are Homo habilis.

These fossils represent a mosaic of features and present a confusing problem. Every skull in this group has some traits that assign it to Homo, others that suggest that it is an australopith, and no two skulls have the same exact suite of traits. “Homo habilis” is either a very large number of species that have been lumped, an annoyingly diverse species which gives weight to the Creationists’ argument that fossils are the work of Satan, or perhaps some combination of great variability within a species and a lot of sexual dimorphism. Or, given that apes are known to have it (orangs, anyway), perhaps sexual trimorphism!

Louis Leakey pushed the idea of Homo habilis on the world, and many people feel that he overstated his case. Tobias, as the key anatomist giving credibility (or not) to the find was not entirely sanguine about Homo habilis in the beginning. Eventually, he became convinced by the science that Homo habilis was real, and even wrote a major monograph on how many great ideas in science take decades to become accepted after a long trial by fire, using his experiences with Homo habilis as representative of that phenomenon. Tobias has more than once quipped that he was not, as many claimed, “browbeaten” by Leakey into accepting Homo habilis. Denise Grady of the New York Times reports that Louis Leakey’s son, Richard Leakey, on hearing Tobias say this during a lecture at SUNY Stony Brook, noted that “I think my father probably thought that he had successfully browbeaten you.”

Phillip Tobias was already quite huge in his field when I first met him, at the 70th birthday banquet for Africanist Archaeologist J. Desmond Clark. Tobias sang Desmond a verse or two modified from a famous song, but with the words changed to make it an accolade for the birthday boy. Everyone laughed and thought it was very well done. Then he sang a few more verses. It was charming. Then he sang a few more verses and then some. The audience regarded this as brilliant; Tobias’s verses were better than the original and his rendering professional. Then he continued singing. I’m pretty sure the final version of “I am the very model of a modern archaeologist” was much better, and much longer, and much funnier than the original tune by Gilbert and Sullivan about an English gentleman.

The last time I met Phillip was in his office and lab at Wits. We were with Francis Thackeray and some students from the US. Phillip, almost channeling Dart, went through the detailed history of the finding, curation, and analysis of the Taung fossil, using a research-grade replica of the find to demonstrate where the “puff of gunpowder” was used to separate the jaws, to illustrate the way in which the brain case served as a cave with stalagmites and stalagmites, and to discuss all the relevant anatomy.

After going through the whole thing, he called for his assistant, and which much fanfare the two of them walked to the large bank-vault looking thing in the back of the room, turned some dials and wheels, pulled open the vault’s door and disappeared into it. A moment later they re-appeared carrying something precious. They had retrieved the original Taung fossil. Phillip re-did the story he had done with the cast, but in abridged form and with no handling of the fossil, until the end.

This is when he picked up the Taung fossil which was a skull and a jaw as separate pieces. He put them together in anatomically correct position so that Taung was looking at us, the jaw cradled in Tobias’s left hand, the skull gently held in his right, the ancient infant’s head right next to the living scientists’ head. Phillip then said, “The ultimate question with Taung, of course, is this. Had you met him in life, would this have happened?”

And at that moment Phillip opened and closed the jaws of the fossil ape-human, to make it look like it was speaking, and said in falsetto to imitate a child’s voice, “Hello? Hello! … Hello …” And then back to his own British-South African adult voice, “Did it speak? Was it capable of speech and all that implies? Or not? That is the question.”

To this day, I can not look at an image of Taung and not think of it saying “hello” in Tobias’s falsetto to anyone who might pass by.

Tobias also carried out important research, and wrote extensively about, the evolution of the human brain. The Taung fossil figured prominently in early arguments about brain evolution and the origin of language. Tobias was very open to the idea that Australopiths did, or did not, have some sort of proto-human language, but he felt language was an important characteristic of Homo and suggested that this and tool use were diagnostic of the genus.

This idea is still highly controversial, though one alternative hypothesis–that even later members of the genus such as Neandertals lacked language–has finally faded away leaving open to more widespread consideration the idea that language, tool use, and steadily increasing brain size are related to each other and basic to human evolution over the last two million years.

I asked my friend and colleague, Francis Thackeray, if he had a few things to say about Phillip at this time of remembrance. In some ways, in my opinion, Francis, who heads the Transvaal Museum an thus was for years abreast Tobias in the hierarchy of South African Paleontology, will carry on Tobias’s tradition of being central yet broadly welcoming and universally helpful to researchers and students, as well as South African educators. Both Phillip and Francis have been leaders in social reform and both were equally disdained as closely surveilled and investigated by the old Apartheid-era South African Bureau of State Security in the bad old days. Here, dear reader, is what Francis wrote for you:

We shall miss Professor Phillip Tobias. He made major contributions to palaeoanthropology, as reflected especially by his meticulous descriptions of hominin fossils such as OH5 (Australopithecus robustus) and specimens attributed to Homo habilis, from Olduvai Bed I in Tanzania.

He served as Director of excavations at Sterkfontein in South Africa since 1966, during which time more than 600 hominin fossils were discovered. Tobias said that of all the things that he could wish for, he would really like a complete skeleton of a hominin. That wish was granted when Ron Clarke, Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi together discovered the “Little Foot” skeleton of Australopithecus at Sterkfontein.

I shall remember Tobias not only for his excellence as a palaeoanthropologist, but also for his advocacy of human rights. He and I objected to the apartheid regime during the years in which I for one was monitored by BOSS: the “Bureau of State Security”. I expect that even BOSS respected Tobias as a formidable force in the fight against apartheid.

We celebrated the birth of a democratic society in South Africa in 1994. This year we mourn the death of Phillip Tobias, but at the same time we celebrate his lifetime of achievements. Phillip Tobias was a great and special representative of Homo sapiens, the species to which we all belong.”

Phillip Tobias was born on October 14th, 1925 and died on June 7th, 2012, at which time he was Professor Emeritus for the University of Witwatersrand. He was educated at Wits in medicine and did his PhD there on genetics, earning his doctorate in 1953. He later worked at Cambridge, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago. He took over Dart’s chair, from Dart himself, at Wits and thus served as Head of the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology, form 1959 onwards, and was Dean of Medicine in the early 1980s. He has received numerous honors including honorary doctorates and medals, as well as three Nobel Prize nominations.

Works mentioned and other references:

Leakey, L.S.B., Tobias, P.V., Napier, J.R. 1964. A new species of the genus Homo from Olduvai Gorge. Nature. 202(4927):7-9.

Tobias, P.V. 1965. Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, Tool-Using and Tool Making. The South African Archaeological Bulletin. 20(80):167-192

Tobias, P.V., M. H. Day, F. Clark Howell, G. H. R. Von Koenigswald, J. R. Napier and J. T. Robinson. New Discoveries in Tanganyika: Their Bearing on Hominid Evolution [and Comments and Reply]. Current Anthropology 6(4):391-411

Tobias, Phillip. 1992. The species Homo habilis: example of a premature discovery. Ann. Zool. Fennici 28: 371-380.

Grady, Denise. 2012. Phillip V. Tobias, Who Analyzed Apelike Fossils, Is Dead at 86. New York Times, June 11, 2012.

Statement from the University of Witwatersrand on the passing of Professor Phillip V. Tobias.

Greg Laden About the Author: Greg Laden is a biological anthropologist who worked in the Congo and South Africa and currently blogs about science at Greg Laden's Blog and about politics and other matters at The X Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @GregLaden. Follow on Twitter @GregLaden.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. MarieCu 2:28 pm 06/20/2012

    That is a very interesting summary of an amazing career. I did not realize that the idea of Neandertals not having languge had been discredited so completely. That is good to hear, I did not ever like that idea.

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  2. 2. greg_t_laden 6:44 pm 06/20/2012

    Yes, at least, I think it’s discredited. Ideas don’t ever go completely away until all the people who pushed them AND all of their students die. I’m sure that one could find vestiges of Piltdown out there somewhere. (Piltdown was actually just removed from the human evolution exhibit at the Peabody Museum before I started working there pre-graduate school in 1980)

    But yes, the “Can Neanderthals really speak” idea was given a lot of strength with the idea of the “paleolithic explosion” among moderns in Europe at 30,000 years ago, and that idea has been revised out of existence as well (There still may be a phenomenon at 30K, but not the origin of language and modern humans).

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