Acceptance Speech – Bern, 13.11.1987

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.

Mr. President , Your Excellencies ,
Mr. President and Honoured Members of the Foundation Balzan,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

It was with profound emotion that I received the news of my being chosen as a recipient of the Balzan Prize. My first thought was how many other members of the community of anthropologists I considered more worthy than myself . In the event , although I have been chosen as the fortunate recipient of this wonderful prize, it is perhaps my field of research – physical anthropology – that has received high recognition.
This subject has been but little acknowledged by the major international foundations. Therefore the decision of the Balzan Foundation to include it among the prize-winning fields of study in 1987 signals not only the highest accolade for physical anthropology , but a fresh advance , a veritable breakthrough, in the history of the discipline . For this , I , along with some hundreds of human biologists around the world , rejoice and thank the wise ones who administer the Foundation. Many would assert that recognition of the discipline is overdue , but for such a sentiment to be expressed by myself to day would be the height of impropriety – for I stand here as an interested party!
You may be tempted to think that men and women, who grovel amid the dust and rocks of the remote wilderness to find old bones, must surely be the most cadaverous, bloodless, colourless and desiccated of persons, a little like the fossils which are their daily companions. Yet those who have dedicated their lives to such matters include some of the most vivid and colourful personalities that have walked the stage of science in the first half of the twentieth century. One thinks of Pittard and Schultz of Switzerland , Giuseppe and Sergio Sergi of Italy, Blumenbach, Haeckel and Martin of Germany, Boule , Arambourg and Vallois of France , and Huxley, Keith , Elliot Smith and Wood Jones of England – to name but a handful.
My own career has been set in Africa. There I had the good fortune to fall under the spell of three such men, Raymond Dart , Robert Broom and Louis Leakey. These were the three flamboyant scholars whose unbridled scientific vision and heterodox theories led Robert Ardrey, the author of “African Genesis” , to speak of them as the “three wild men of Africa”. Always l am conscious of the debt I owe them; in fact, the spirits of these three renaissance men share the platform with me today.
In essence , the task of the palaeo-anthropologist is to instill into the dead bones the breath of life – much as Ezekiel, the prophet, visualized in the valley of bones . We strive to unravel how these early bipeds stood, walked and ran, held their heads and vertebral columns , masticated and manipulated .
Even more basic is the challenge to probe the secrets of their brains. Through casts of the interior of their crania , one has learned much about the brains that formerly inhabited those cavernous skull- vaults. We used to be content to determine the magnitude of the brain and to elucidate how it had come to treble its size in a mere 2 ½ million years. More recently, we have probed the form of the external surface of the brain . Such investigations led me, nine years ago, to an egregious scientific heresy . I recognised the telltale marks of spoken language in the brain casts of Homo habilis who lived two million years ago and I had the temerity to claim that this earliest member of our genus Homo was capable of rudimentary spoken language. Articulated speech was indeed the first great prize won by an ancient , loquacious forerunner: and he won it very much earlier than most people believed. Thus there was attained a new level of organization in global evolution.
Yet Sophocles dimly apprehended this , when he wrote in Antigone, 24 ½ centuries ago , “Of all the wonders, none is more wonderful than man, who has learned the art of speech , of wind- swift thoughts , and of living in neighborliness .”
And did no t Shakespeare , with amazing prescience , speak of ” … tongues in trees , books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything? “
There is indeed a place for imaginative fancy , even for a certain element of poetry , in all science , but especially in the reading of the clues that link man’s past story with that of today’s humankind.
As a final thought, all living peoples are united not only by the strong bond of their essential humanity, but also by their common descent , ultimately, from the same ancestors. That philosophy has inspirited much of my work: it provides the scientific fundament – if, indeed , one is needed – for the humanity, peace and brotherhood among peoples which is a primary purpose of the Balzan Foundation. It is a rich thought that it was the African continent , whose great gift to the world was the family of man, the earliest progenitors of all of us.
Finally , let me reiterate my profound appreciation, as well as that of my university, my collaborators and assistants , my family and friends , for the distinction you have bestowed on me. It is on their behalf , as well as my own , that I gratefully accept the Balzan Prize of 1987.

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