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S.Africa’s ‘father of paleontology’ Phillip Tobias dies

South African paleontologist Phillip Tobias, an internationally respected scientist associated with some of the world’s most famous hominid fossil finds, died Thursday aged 86.

Tobias, also an anti-apartheid activist, was renowned for his “dedication to a better understanding of the origin, behaviour and survival of humanity,” said the University of Witwatersrand, where he was professor emeritus.

“A stalwart of the University and a world-renowned scientist, Professor Tobias passed away today, Thursday, 6 June 2012 in Johannesburg after a long illness,” it said in a statement.

Tobias pioneered the excavation of the Sterkfontein Caves in the 1960s, now a World Heritage Site known as the Cradle of Humankind, which is the oldest continuous paleontological dig in the world.

The site near Johannesburg has unearthed a third of the world’s early hominid fossil finds, which include the notable Australopithecus discoveries of the “Mrs Ples” skull and the near full skeleton of “Little Foot”.

Tobias was also involved in describing the Homo habilis specimen, known as “handyman” due to their use of stone tools, and the “Nutcracker Man”, now known as Australopithecus boiseii, in Tanzania.

The foundation of South Africa’s first black president Nelson Mandela called Tobias an “iconic scientist and an anti-apartheid activist”.

Tobias was elected president of the National Union of South African Students in 1948, the year apartheid started, and introduced its first campaign against white minority rule and opposed segregation in universities.

Nominated for the Nobel Prize for his scientific achievements three times, Tobias also starred in a 2002 television documentary series and authored more than 1,130 publications. He officially retired in 1993.

The university said Tobias’ “passing will leave a deep wound in the country and the scientific community around the world.”