Phillip Tobias 2012


Phillip Valentine Tobias was born on 14 October 1925 in Durban. He matriculated from Durban High School, after which he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand for a BSc in Histology and Physiology, graduating in 1946. He then completed his honours in 1947 with a first class pass in Histology, his MB BCh in 1950 and his PhD in 1953.

In 1955, he was a Post-doctoral Fellow in Physical Anthropology in the Duckworth Laboratory, Cambridge. He continued with post-doctoral studies in 1956 in the Departments of Anatomy, Human Genetics and Anthropology at Chicago University and in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan University. Back in South Africa, he obtained his DSc at his alma mater, Wits, in 1967. He also taught at the University of the Witwatersrand for many years.

Phillip Tobias is one of the most prolific scholars of South African science on an astonishingly diverse plethora of topics. He has produced over 1130      publications of various kinds on predominantly physical anthropology and human biology of hominids and the various peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa. He has studied the Kalahari San and the Tonga of Zambia and Zimbabwe in particular. He has covered palaeo-anthropology, -neurology and -demography and in so doing has been one of the major contributors to our understanding of human evolution.

His illustrious career is typified by the initiation of the research and excavation of the Sterkfontein caves where over a third of all known early hominid fossils has been found. The site is now a World Heritage Site.

His published works include biographies of anthropologists as well as aspects of the philosophy and history of science. The list of his achievements and awards is exhaustive and includes being nominated for a Nobel Prize on three occasions.

Humankind owes much to Africa. South Africa, in particular appears in reference to the “Genesis of Life” (Barberton Greenstone Belt with its Achaean fossils), the “Cradle of Humankind” (Maropeng, including the world’s most excavated hominid fossil site, Sterkfontein), and the “Conception of Culture” (Southern Cape with its ancient art). In turn, science owes much of what we know about human evolution to Phillip Tobias. His name is synonymous with anthropology in Sub-Saharan Africa and he is one of a quartet of palaeoanthropologic doyens of the subcontinent.

It is perhaps the greatest tribute to Phillip that his name should be associated at various levels with “Mrs Ples” (Australopithecus africanus), “Littlefoot” (the most complete Australopithecus specimen ever found), the “Taung child” (Australopithecus africanus) and “Dear Boy” (Australopithecus boisei) – the most famous of hominids that pique curiosity about our origins on the African continent.

In recognition of his work in establishing South Africa as the “Cradle of Humankind”, his devotion to humanity and for raising the profile of southern Africa and its people in Science and Society, it is an honour for NMMU to confer the degree of Doctor of Science (honoris causa) on PHILLIP VALLENTINE TOBIAS.