Friday, June 8, 2012

Digging around in the Dirt - Phillip Tobias

l-r Me, Barney Pityana and Phillip Tobias
Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site

The strange thing about public personalities – I have found – is that when you meet them, it is often a bit difficult to see why they are what they are supposed to be. They are often shorter - or stouter, or greyer, or irritating, or rude, or dull. Often you will find that they come alive only when the camera is focussed on them. The smile lights up. The eyes glisten. The laugh laughs. The recollections dazzle. The sound-bites resound.

They seem to live in a kind of nether world, where the rest of us don’t. Occasionally, they venture into our space. They delight, they converse, they share, they disappoint. And then they go off again, into that unreachable, untouchable space, where they all reside and where they all seem to know each other. Where the rules are a bit different. Where the tolerance levels are extreme. Where privacy is longed for, but shunned.

Phillip Tobias was one of these. He was luminous. When he entered a room, the focus of attention shifted towards him. Shorter than one might have thought. Slighter than one might have imagined. Dandier and nattier than one would have thought possible, his advanced age notwithstanding. He could hold anyone in his gracious conversation. Words like “Paranthropus” and “Australopithecus”, “hominid” and “ergaster” dripped easily and confidently from his lips. He would tell a dazzling tale. He would start at the beginning. He would engage you throughout – the middle, the climax, the end, the dénouement. He would skip lightly, during his tale, between Greek and Latin, French, Arabic – History, Theology, Philosophy and of course, his beloved Palaeo-anthropology.

He would throw in a bit of engineering, of art, of pedagogics into his tale. He would sprinkle stardust and medicine and magic and anthropology and physiology, here and there. And when he was finished. You felt as though you had been on a journey – on an incredible journey, from the partially glimpsed to the slightly firmer foothold of human knowledge and human endeavour.

“As I said to Mary Leakey,” he would say. He would speak of Robert Broom (who discovered Mrs Ples) and Raymond Dart from the basis of personal insight and personal knowledge. Sterkfontein was his pillow. The Cradle of Humankind was his wash-basin. Africa, the birth-place of the human species, was his home – and he spent all his years revelling in the wonder of our majestic and mysterious continent. “Littlefoot”, the wondrous 3 million year old Australopithecus Africanus fossil, which Ron Clarke found in Sterkfontein became something close to an obsession with Tobias. Along with “Lucy” and a host of other Hominid discoveries which Africa has given the dumbstruck world. (In later years, he would even put aside his enmity with Lee Berger, to wax lyrical over his latest find – the even more extraordinary Sediba.)

Tobias was a showman. He was comfortable in the public eye. He told a tale and he told it well. He inspired people. Even people who would not normally give a fig for Palaeo-anthropology. Somehow, he managed to do it. And you went away feeling a different person.

But to work with him was a different matter. He could be stubborn. He could be irascible. He could be unreasonable, difficult and problematic. He would storm out of meetings. He had a sense of personal ownership on the intellectual property of the Cradle of Humankind. He had no compunction in staking his claim and would brook no rivals. He knew that the project would go nowhere without his blessing and he was never afraid to call the shots. I have to say, though, that even though he was all of this, he was never belittling or dismissive. He had a graciousness that comes from being at ease with power and influence.

One aspect of the man intrigued me – his response to religion. Born a Jew, he took the utmost delight in having been able to track definitively the “Jewish” genetic imprint on the Lemba people, in the north of the country. Whereas the other scientists – (many, if not all of them), simply dismissed religion as irrelevant and unscientific, Tobias never did. Not that he was religious, I think. But that he was profoundly scientific, in that he recognised this huge and puzzling aspect of human make-up.

Many a time, I heard him patiently deal with a question from his audience – the inevitable one, on the existence of God and Adam and Eve (and stuff like that). He would always answer the question – even the most irritating question – with the kind of seriousness and respect that had the effect of turning away the hysteria of the questioner. Of forcing the person to confront the enormous and unquestionable fossil evidence. From the vast recesses of his experience and his intellect, he would draw the questioner into the evidence and turn the question back on them. “Rather tell me”, he would say, “who put the fossils there?” “And why would they have done such a thing?”

The other aspect of his learning, which struck me, I have taken as my watchword – on the question of race. Tobias was, from his early student days, an unapologetic political activist. The fact that apartheid was wrong was, to him, as plain as daylight. “Race”, he would say, whenever given the chance, “is (scientifically speaking), the least significant thing about us as a species”. The science of it all had led him to that position. And he was unable to maintain a position as important as that, merely theoretically. The position he took for himself had political, moral, social and ethical consequences. The nationalist government despised him, because he would not endorse their position on race. Not only would he not endorse it, he proved, beyond any doubt that their position was fatally flawed.

Phillip Tobias was a legend. He left no genetic legacy. He had no children. But he had 10 000 students who passed through his lectures and courses. He had many thousands more who, like myself, listened enraptured to his speaking. A truly gifted human being. And a mensch.

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