'Bone man' loses his job

January 1, 1999

British-born Ron Clarke, whose recent unearthing of a near complete ape-man skeleton is considered one of Africa's most important palaeoanthropological breakthroughs, has lost his job at the University of the Wi****ersrand.

Dr Clarke, senior research officer of the palaeoanthropology research group at Wits and field director of excavations at the Sterkfontein caves near Johannesburg, was told in February that his renewable contract would end last month.

He has since secured a post at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt but will continue his work at Sterkfontein. His departure from Wits is a blow to the university, which has lost several top academics during 1998.

Dr Clarke's axeing has caused controversy in academic circles. His discovery at Sterkfontein has been described by South Africa's best-known palaeoanthropologist, Phillip Tobias, as "full of firsts, and of such staggering importance that the mind boggles".

Dr Clarke wanted to stay at Wits but was ousted by the head of the research group, Lee Berger, described as a flamboyant 32-year-old American regarded as an able fundraiser and publicist for the cash-strapped discipline.

Dr Berger was full of praise for Dr Clarke at the December press conference where the finding of the 3.5 million-year-old Australopithecus skeleton was announced, crediting him with an incomparable discovery and "dogged determination".

But when the editor of the South African Journal of Science asked last May why Dr Clarke was leaving, Dr Berger replied that the scientist did not have a great record or special skills and that his methods were "30 years old and expensive". Subsequently, Dr Berger has blamed the decision on lack of funding, and said he wished Dr Clarke was staying and that he would "hold an honorary position at the university". Dr Clarke has refused to comment.

In 1994, Dr Clarke discovered four foot bones belonging to an Australopithecus in plastic bags in a cupboard at the Wits Medical School. They had been found embedded in chunks of rock blasted from a cave wall by miners in the 1920s, identified as animal bones and then forgotten.

Last year, he found eight leg bones in another bag, some of them cleanly broken off, and became convinced that the rest of the skeleton remained in Sterkfontein. Excavators found matching bones sticking out of the cave wall, and further painstaking excavation revealed the rest of the skeleton.

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