Phillip Tobias, origins of humanity expert, dies at 86


(JTA) – Phillip V. Tobias, a South African paleoanthropologist who was a leading expert on the prehistoric origins of humanity, has died.

Tobias died in Johannesburg Thursday at the age of 86 after a long illness.

Tobias, who was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize and won many other honors, taught for decades at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand.

He was also an outspoken critic of apartheid and lifelong advocate of human rights and academic freedom.

“We have lost a renowned scientist, a scholar and a unique human being," South African President Jacob Zuma said in a statement. "Our country remains eternally proud of his work.”  

Tobias worked closely with Louis and Mary Leakey, pioneers in the discovery of the fossilized remains of ancient species believed to be the evolutionary precursors of human beings.

He and the Leakeys collaborated on the identification of one the early hominids, Homo habilis, in 1964.

Tobias "was one of the greats in human evolutionary studies," Nick Barton, director of Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology, told the Associated Press.

Tobias was also actively involved with the Jewish community and received the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Human Rights award in 2001.

Mary Kluk, a spokesperson for the the Board of Deputies, told local media he was “truly a scholar and a gentleman, someone who was as loved for his kindness and humility as he was respected for his myriad academic achievements.” 

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