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Dr. Phillip Tobias died this summer in Johannesburg


June 7, 2012

It is with great sadness that we heard that Professor Phillip Valentine Tobias had died June 7th.

Professor Tobias was an outstanding palaeo-anthropologist, a scientist who made major contributions to the study of human evolution.

It was Professor Tobias who in meticulous detail described the skull of a new species which he called Australopithecus boisei, discovered by Dr Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in 1959. It was he who in 1964 described Homo habilis, a new hominid species, first recorded in East Africa, and described by Tobias together with Dr Louis Leakey and Dr John Napier. Professor Tobias undertook detailed studies of endocasts of the brain of Homo habilis, recognising that this species had the capacity for speech 1.8 million years ago.



It was he who directed excavations at Sterkfontein for more than 40 years. Together with Alun Hughes he described a partial skull as a South African representative of Homo habilis

Later, with Professor Ron Clarke, he published on the discovery of the “Little Foot” skeleton, which represents a species of Australopithecus different from the taxon represented by Mrs Ples (Australopithecus africanus) which had been discovered by Dr Robert Broom of the Transvaal Museum.

Like Robert Broom, Professor Tobias was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He was given numerous other awards.

He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize.

In, 1999, President Nelson Mandela conferred upon him the Order of the Southern Cross.

In 1992, President F.W. de Klerk conferred upon him the Order of Meritorious Service (Gold Class) of South Africa

In 1998, President Jacques Chirac made him a Commander in the National Order of Merit of France.

As a Professor in Anatomy, he educated and stimulated more than 10,000 students at the University of the Witwatersrand. He considered them “his children”.

He served on the Editorial Boards of numerous scientific journals, including the Journal of Human Evolution, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and the Journal of Human Biology.

He was the author of many books, including The Brain in Human Evolution, one volume on Australopithecus boisei and two volumes on Homo habilis. He wrote extensively on so-called Piltdown Man, initially called Eoanthropus, and which was announced in London 100 years ago as a new species, but which was shown to be a hoax or joke.

Professor Tobias was recognised not only as an excellent scientist but also as a person who stood up for human rights, and who staunchly objected to apartheid. Professor Tobias will be remembered for his kindness and respect for all, whether he was addressing Presidents or the general public. 

Science is usually undertaken dispassionately, but it has been said that “Scientists have feelings too”. This certainly applied to Phillip Tobias who recently shed a tear of excitement on seeing the remarkable skeletons of Australopitrhecus sediba, discovered by Professor Lee Berger.  

We express our sincere condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Professor Tobias. We have lost a great and special representative of our species, Homo sapiens. May he rest in peace.


Prof Francis Thackeray


Institute for Human Evolution




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