File photo: Sterkfontein Caves Proff Phillip Tobias takes Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka on a tour of the newly opened Huminoid exhibition in the new ficility named in his honour. Picture: Steve Lawrence

Into The Past (Memorial Edition)

Phillip Tobias

Picador Africa and Wits Press


The original memoir of the national treasure that was Phillip Tobias, published in 2005, was heartily received by an adoring public.

This memorial edition follows his death in 2012.

That was more or less at the same time as his successor, Lee Berger (Research Professor in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at Wits University), announced the discovery of an Aladdin’s cave containing incredible ancient hominid remains at the Cradle of Humankind. So the search for the origins of humankind continues; from the Leakeys in the Tanzanian Olduvai Gorge in 1950s through the work of Robert Broom, Raymond Dart and Tobias himself at Wits, to Lee Berger.

Tobias’ generosity is displayed in his acknowledgements, which run to five pages, while his ego, rather endearingly, manifests in many of his descriptions of his life’s work.

No matter: here is a man who was devoted to studying the evolution of humankind through palaeontology, anatomy, cytology, sociology and anthropology (and, not to forget, a healthy dose of philosophy).

This new edition also includes the obituary, published by the University of the Witwatersrand, describing his scientific work, his tireless campaign against racism and prejudice, and his numerous awards and honours.

He was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize.

The main body of Tobias’ memoir covers only the first 40 years of his life (he was 87 when he died) and is a careful mixture of the personal, the political and the scientific. He tells delightful stories.

As a young Wits student in the 1940s, Tobias was active in the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), becoming its feisty president in 1948.

His opposition to apartheid was unwavering.

We read about Taung child (found by Raymond Dart); “Mrs Ples” (from Plesianthropus transvaalensis found by Robert Broom at Sterkfontein); “Dear Boy” (Mary Leakey’s famous find in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania), “Jonny’s child” and “Twiggy” (also found at Olduvai). We discover, in some detail, how the evidence for the developing theories was painstakingly gathered from the fragments excavated – with glimpses into the fascinating personalities involved in this historic work.

Throughout his memoir, Tobias refers to the ongoing questions that need to be addressed by scientific communities as well as society in general: the question of ethics in science; science and religion; the pursuit of truth no matter what... He is clear that science without ethics is unacceptable. The science-religion question is one he claims to have struggled with all his life.

The epilogue, by Pat Tucker, is taken from selected chapters from the second volume of memoirs that Tobias was working on before his death.

It largely deals with the decades-long debate over the recognition of the “new” species homo habilis. Tobias describes in detail the convolutions, the personalities, the politics and the scientific evidence invoked in this debate.

Tucker describes Tobias as “…urbane, charming, talkative and encyclopaedically knowledgeable…”

This volume certainly underscores that evaluation.