South Africa

Phillip Tobias

1987 Balzan Prize for Physical Anthropology

Phillip Tobias is one of the outstanding leaders in the field of physical anthropology. His studies of human fossils, conducted mainly in South Africa, have greatly enriched our knowledge of the prehistoric development of mankind, from our early ancestors, Australopithecus, to Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens. His work has also thrown much light on the evolution of the size and capabilities of the human brain.

Phillip V. Tobias was born in Durban, Natal, South Africa, in 1925 (†2012). He attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, graduating in 1946 in Histology and Physiology and obtaining a Ph.D. degree in 1953. He then went to Cambridge in England and later to several Universities in the United States to pursue postdoctoral studies. Since 1956 he has worked continuously at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he was appointed Head of the Department of Anatomy in 1959 and is, at present, active as an Honorary Professor in Palaeo-anthropology and in Zoology.

He carried out important research in different South African areas, such as Makapansgat, Mwulu Cave, Rose Cottage Cave, Taung, and in archaeological sites of Bechuanaland as well as in Zambia and Zimbawe. He founded the Institute for the Study of Man in Africa, carrying on the work of R.A. Dart, the discoverer of Australopithecus.

Professor Tobias investigated the Australopithecus site and made fundamental contributions to the study of fossil hominids of African origin from Makapansgat, Sterkfontain, Taung and several other places.

He has made numerous studies of different African populations, including the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, the Transvaal Hottentots and the Tonga-Bantu people. He was also much concerned with social problems, examining mine-workers from different African territories in order to arrive at criteria which would enable one to avoid recruiting physically unsuited individuals. He made a detailed study of blue-eyed Blacks and of Bushmen-White hybrids. He devoted himself also to the study of the skeletal development of different peoples in relation to their alimentary and working habits.

His researches on fossil hominids led to important advances in our understanding of Primate evolution. Among his achievements, the results obtained on the relationship between erect position and brain development and the evidence of the Broca and Wernicke areas in the cranial endocasts of Homo habilis are of utmost interest. On the basis of these studies he put forward the hypothesis that Homo habilis – was capable of articulate speech.

The results of his research on African peoples and on fossil material have placed him in the very front rank of anthropological scholars internationally.

Professor Tohias is at present carrying out further research in an endeavour to advance further our understanding of the evolution of mankind.

Phillip Tobias has been the author of numerous important publications, has lectured at the world’s leading universities and has made an important effort to attract public attention to the subject of human ancestry.

Many national and international distinctions were awarded to him, honorary degrees from many universities, Foreign Membership of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and of many other scientific organizations.

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