In a statement, the university where Tobias studied and then taught and conducted research until the 1990s, said he died in a Johannesburg hospital after a long illness.
The university said Tobias's name was synonymous with research at the Sterkfontein caves near Johannesburg where an ape-man’s skeleton — millions of years old — known as Little Foot was discovered. The area, now a World Heritage site, is where over a third of all known early hominid fossils have been found.
A South African colleague, archaeologist Lyn Wadley, said Tobias also should be remembered for speaking
out against apartheid. Wadley said Thursday: “The thing that I really admired so much is that during the darkest ages of South Africa, when he could have got a job anywhere in the world, he chose to stay here, because this was his country, where he could make a difference.”
In a statement, South African President Jacob Zuma lauded Tobias for leading the nation's efforts to reclaim the remains of Saartjie Bartmann, a South African slave who was taken to Europe and displayed in life and then in death as an ethnological curiosity — known as the “Hottentot Venus” — in the 19th century.
Bartmann’s fate has come to symbolize Europe’s arrogance and racism in its relationship with Africa. After becoming South Africa's first black president in 1994, Nelson Mandela asked that her remains be taken from a French museum and brought to South Africa. After years of negotiations led by Tobias, Bartmann was brought home in 2002 and buried in southeastern South Africa. Her grave has been declared a national heritage site.
Zuma said of Tobias. “Our country remains eternally proud of his work.”
Photo: Phillip Tobias