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A Tribute to Dr CK ‘Bob’ Brain

By Lazarus Kgasi, Junior Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

Beginnings and early career history

Charles Kimberlin ‘Bob’ Brain (see Fig. 1) was born on 7 May 1931 in what was then Salisbury (now Harare), Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). From his earliest years, he had close contact with natural history as his father was an entomologist and his mother trained as a botanist. Dr Brain was always supported by his late wife Laura, enjoying the company of their daughters Rosemary (Mel) and Virginia (Ginny), and sons Tim and Conrad, all of whom have played a role in contributing to his research. He often emphasised the significance of fun in science, and believed that self-motivation, innovation and efficiency would be natural if this was in place.

Figure 1: Bob Brain in the field

When he was still a young man and because of his interest in natural history, Dr Brain regularly visited the Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History). Here he met Dr John Robinson who had just replaced Dr Robert Broom as the palaeontologist at the Museum. Robinson invited him to investigate the cave deposits at Swartkrans, recognising that the stratigraphic series visible at the time did not comply with Lester King’s (geologist and geomorphologist) understanding of australopithecine-bearing caves in general. The preliminary findings of that study appeared in the Proceedings of the Fifth International Geological Congress held in Algiers in 1952. This was his first scientific paper, co-authored by Robinson.
     He served as a research associate in the Department of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Physical Anthropology of the Transvaal Museum from 1954 to 1957, and was subsequently the curator in the Lower Vertebrates Department. He served at the Queen Victoria Museum in Harare from 1961 to 1965, and returned to the Transvaal Museum in 1965 to replace Robinson. He was appointed Director of the Museum in 1968 and served in this capacity until his retirement in 1991.
     Dr Brain based his attention on Swartkrans for almost three decades (1965-1992), where he discovered evidence of the controlled use of fire about one million years ago. He worked not only on the geology of the cave deposits but also on stone stools and fauna, with an emphasis on taphonomy (the field which relates to processes of accumulation and preservation of fossil bones). He published a significant reference book in 1981, entitled The Hunters or the Hunted? An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy.
     Dr Brain also undertook research on bones scattered around a Nama settlement along the banks of the Kuiseb River in Namibia. The results of this study contributed to an understanding of the processes which affected bones from cave sites.
     Professor Raymond Dart of the University of the Witwatersrand undertook an analysis of fossilised bones of animals discovered at Makapansgat, which were about 3 million years old. They were associated with fossil remains of australopithecines which he classified as Australopithecus prometheus. Controversially, he claimed that the australopithecines were using bones, horns and teeth of animals as weapons. However, Dr Brain was able to demonstrate that patterns associated with broken animal bones had been affected by natural factors, rather than being the result of hominin behaviour. Thus Dart’s concept of the so-called ‘osteodontokeratic’ culture (ODK, associated with the use of bones, horns and teeth as weapons) was disproved.  

Work at Swartkrans

Dr Brain’s work at Swartkrans was aimed at compiling a large assemblage of fossil representatives of palaeo-environments within the past 2 million years. The Swartkrans Palaeontological Research Project ran for more than 21 years. With assistance from Laura and their children, his activities included excavation, preparation of fossils, identification, and cataloguing. Having discovered burnt bones of antelope, they conducted campfire experiments. Through chemical analyses of modern and fossilised bones, it was possible to determine that black, grey, or white material from Swartkrans was the result of burning at high temperatures. This was the basis for the claim that the hominins were controlling the use of fire at least 1 million years ago.

Figure 2: burnt bones from Swartkrans

The Swartkrans project advanced in three periods. In the early 1970s, Brain systematically went through the lime miners’ dumps to recover fossils. He also removed overburden obscuring cave breccia (calcified sediments). This was accomplished with the help of field staff under George Moenda’s (long-term assistant to Dr Brain) supervision. Thereafter, he conducted systematic excavations, recording the precise position of fossils in the context of a grid. During these excavations, he discovered many fossils of Paranthropus robustus in addition to rare fossils of early Homo.
     In 2008, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Dr Brain by a former colleague, Stephany Potze at DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History and he related the story of why he concluded that hominids used fire one million years ago. He indicated that while excavating on the cave’s west wall in February 1984, a piece of fossil bone got exposed and it showed indication of having been burnt (see Fig. 2). This was something that had never been seen in the fossil record elsewhere in the cave. As they continued with their excavation, more and more burned fossil pieces were found, and Dr Brain concluded that they were intentionally heated. Confirmation of heating came both from his histological examinations and from chemical tests done by Andrew Sillen. These results were published in Nature (Brain and Sillen, 1988). By 1985, different experiments and interpretations of evidence of early use of controlled fire at Swartkrans involved the making of numerous experimental fires, and the measurement of the temperatures attained in them.
     During his tenure as director, Dr Brain was instrumental in transforming the Transvaal Museum into a happy and highly productive institution with an international reputation for its research activities. He achieved this by allowing considerable independence for his staff members, provided productivity was maintained.
     Brain’s comprehensive publications up to the year (articles and books) are summarised in two landmark publications, The Hunters or the Hunted? An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy and Swartkrans: A Cave’s Chronicle of Early Man. These two books lay the groundwork for taxonomic research and studies on Swartkrans.
     Dr Brain’s achievements in the field of palaeosciences and his leadership have changed the landscape of palaeoanthropology. His work received universal recognition and for this, he should be celebrated.

– Pickering, T.R., Schick, K. & Toth, N. 200. C.K ‘Bob’ Brain and African taphonomy. Evolutionary Anthropology 13(5): 163-167.
– Rubidge, B. 200. Charles Kimberlin (Bob) Brain- a tribute. Palaeontologia Africana 36:1-9.
– Brain, C.K, Ed. Swartkrans, a Cave’s Chronicle of Early Man, Transvaal Museum Monograph 8, 23-33.

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