INTERNATIONALLY FETED: Palaeoanthropologist and prolific author Phillip Tobias was the recipient of many international awards, including honorary degrees from a multitude of universities, and was nominated for a Nobel prize three times. Picture: ROBERT BOTHA

PHILLIP Tobias, a giant of South African palaeoanthropology who was world-renowned for his work on genetics, anatomy and the fossils that hold the secrets of early human origins, died yesterday after a long illness. He was 86.

Known for his charm and eloquence, Prof Tobias was a passionate scientist unafraid to take on his peers or the government of the day. He rejected apartheid, and more recently criticised the African National Congress-led government's refusal to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama.

"He lived through a transformation in palaeoanthropology, both in terms of the scope of the fossil evidence and the way that evidence is analysed," Bernard Wood, professor of human origins at the George Washington University in the US, said yesterday.

"His descriptions and assessments of the Olduvai hominid fossils are the bedrock on which all subsequent work rests.

"No one had his grasp of the fossil record of the human lineage, nor his appreciation of the history of our field."

Prof Tobias was a prolific author, with more than 1100 books, articles and academic treatises, and was working on the second half of his autobiography until shortly before his death.

Part of the secret to his academic success was the fact that he needed just three or four hours of sleep a night. Though he became increasingly frail in his 80 s, he remained intellectually active until he died.

Prof Tobias was most famous for his contribution to our understanding of the evolutionary links between primates and early humans. He initiated the excavation of the Sterkfontein Caves at the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg, which have yielded one of the world's biggest collections of fossilised ancient animals and human ancestors, including the famous Little Foot.

This is one of the oldest human ancestors found to date, between 4,1-million and 3,3-million years old, and it is a virtually complete skeleton - a rarity in a field where entire careers may be staked on a few fragments of bone.

Prof Tobias received many international awards, including honorary degrees from a multitude of universities, and was thrice nominated for a Nobel prize.

"He was a real polymath of science, a fearsome professor of anatomy, and he will be remembered with a great deal of awe and respect for his editorial prowess with his blue pen," Lee Berger, who did his PhD under Prof Tobias, and was handpicked as his successor at the Bernard Price Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, said yesterday.

Prof Tobias never married and lived alone in a flat in Killarney in Johannesburg. Every surface was piled with books and documents, and he wryly once said that he had consequently not eaten at his dining room table in years.

He was determinedly polite during interviews, offering Earl Grey tea with biscuits baked by his housekeeper, yet rarely provided a glimpse into his private life.

In the first part of his autobiography, published in 2005, he described how the death of his sister Valerie when he was 16 propelled him into a medical career. She died of diabetes-related complications, and Prof Tobias wondered why the disease, which also afflicted their maternal grandmother, spared their mother.

Seeking an answer to that question, he became SA's first geneticist. He spent most of his academic career at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Prof Tobias's career reached a turning point when he was asked by Mary and Louis Leakey to help describe a hominid skull they had discovered in Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania in 1959.

"I was quite overwhelmed by this request. My knees turned to jelly and I nearly fainted, and then I said yes," he said in an interview in 2005.

The fossil turned out to be a new species, Australopithecus boisei, nicknamed Dear Boy.

Prof Tobias helped characterise another fossil discovered a short while later at the same site, which belonged to a species called Homo habilis, or "handy man", a reference to its apparent capacity for making stone tools.

His understanding of genetics and palaeontology gave him a unique perspective: "I tried to marry the messages of the genes with the messages of the fossils."

Prof Tobias was fascinated by more recent history too, and did extensive work on the genes of living people, including South African miners and the Khoisan.

He believed scientists should use their knowledge to challenge the politics of the day. Citing the Scottish pacifist Lord (Peter) Ritchie-Calder, he said : "Up until 1945 scientists were prepared to leave their discoveries like foundlings on the doorstep of society. All that changed in two blinding flashes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Scientists have got to state their case to politicians, and politicians should be more ready to avail themselves of the best brains in the field."

This was more than mere theory. He was among the doctors who helped force an inquiry into the death in detention of apartheid activist Steve Biko, and urged scientists to do more to challenge the AIDS denialism of former president Thabo Mbeki.

"There were times of great difficulty, when (apartheid era) government-supporting scientists and institutions sent veiled warnings to me not to be so outspoken if I wanted to go on getting research grants, but I felt it was my duty to speak out on the meaning of race, and did so on every possible occasion," he said.

Prof Tobias will be buried on Sunday at 10.45am at West Park Jewish Cemetery, Johannesburg.

kahnt@bdfm.co.za