Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research
The Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research (BPI) aka the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), is part of the School of Geosciences in the Faculty of Science of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. It was established in 1945.
Early aircraft detection apparatus
In 1937, the University of the Witwatersrand established the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research, named for a local industrialist and philanthropist, Dr. Bernard Price OBE, who provided the initial funding. A world-recognized authority on lightning detection and analysis, Dr. Basil Schonland, was selected as the founding director. Two years later, Dr. Schonland was asked to develop an aircraft detection apparatus (later called radar) for the Defence Force. Using the institute's small but highly qualified staff, this was accomplished before the end of the year. By 1941, the radar (designated JB) was deployed around the coast, and Lt. Colonel Schonland went to England where he made major contributions to the war effort. In 1945, when the institute returned to non-military activities at the end of the war, Dr. Price provided funds in several stages to expand its activities.
Interest in fossil collection and study
At a public lecture given at the University of the Witwatersrand, a remarkable Scottish-born medical doctor-turned-palaeontologist, Dr Robert Broom called attention to the fact that thousands of fossils were being lost annually in South Africa because of a lack of proper facilities to collect, preserve and study them. Dr. Price was in the audience. Broom's eloquence and passion won him over and he pledged an amount of money to establish a foundation at the university dedicated to the collection, curation and research of South African fossils.
Several years earlier, another person had fallen under the spell of Broom – a young James William Kitching from the small town of Graaff-Reinet in the semi-desert Karoo region of the Eastern Cape province.
Broom knew that the Karoo was rich in fossils representing the period of earth history between about 265 million and 215 million years ago, and he visited the Karoo whenever he could. It was the richness of fossils in the Karoo that had originally attracted Broom to South Africa from Scotland via Australia in the closing years of the 19th century. He initially established a medical practice in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth. But it wasn’t long before he moved his practice to the small rural town of Pearston, near Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo, specifically so that he could be near the fossil beds and could devote all his spare time to searching for fossils. During his visits to the Karoo, Broom would call on the Kitching family in the nearby village of Nieu-Bethesda and encourage them to look for fossils for his researches. The entire family became dedicated and skilful fossil collectors, but none more so than the eldest son, James.
In later life Broom would often say that he regarded James's father, CJM ("Croonie") Kitching, as 'the greatest fossil hunter in the world' — which was high praise – but for James himself Broom reserved the label 'the greatest fossil finder in the world'.
It therefore made sense that when Dr Price endowed the institute at Wits and asked Broom who should be appointed to go out fossil-hunting, Broom had no hesitation in recommending James Kitching. Immediately on his return from active service in Italy at the end of World War II, the 23-year-old Kitching was appointed the first and only member of staff of the fledgling institute.
Within a week of his appointment James took a train from Johannesburg back to Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo, scene of his childhood fossil-finding successes, to begin his first official field trip on behalf of the institute. Strict war-time fuel rationing was still in force and, having secured a miserly fuel ration of only eight gallons (45 litres), James borrowed his widowed mother's gas-guzzling Buick sedan and set off into the parched plains to look for fossils. Within five months he had assembled a collection of more than 200 exquisitely preserved skulls – mostly of mammal-like reptiles.
Dr Price was so thrilled with the spectacular success of this first official field trip that he doubled his endowment, which allowed the institute to extend its field collecting activities to include the Makapansgat Caves at the other end of the country in what was then known as the Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo Province) of South Africa.
Interest in these caves had been sparked by the discovery of fossil-bearing cave-fill breccias of Plio-Pleistocene age during lime-mining operations in the earlier years of the 20th century, but relatively little had been done to investigate them in any systematic way.
James was joined in this work by his brothers Ben and Scheepers, and their discovery of the fossil remains of the 'ape-man' genus Australopithecus in the Makapansgat Limeworks Deposit further roused the interest and curiosity of Professor Raymond Dart, the young head of the Anatomy Department in the Medical School of the newly established University of the Witwatersrand. It was Dart who in a controversial 1925 paper had first described the ‘ape-man’, Australopithecus from lime-workings at a place called Taung in what is now the North-West Province of South Africa.
Dart boldly suggested that the large accumulations of Plio-Pleistocene fossil bones in the exposed cave-fill at Makapansgat were the work of early human ancestors – of tool-using, tool-making ape-men of the genus Australopithecus. From this grew Dart's now largely abandoned but always controversial theory of an 'Osteodontokeratic Culture' (bone-tooth-horn culture) practised by the australopithecines.
This work at Makapansgat began a research interest in the institute which is still actively pursued today – namely, research into 'taphonomy' — literally the 'laws of burial', or the study of the processes involved in the history of an organism from death to ultimate fossilisation and discovery.
From those beginnings and up to his death on 24 December 2003, the fortunes of the institute and of James Kitching were inseparably intertwined.
The spectacular success of the Kitching brothers in collecting fossils meant that the Institute in Johannesburg soon outgrew its temporary accommodation on the University campus, and in 1963 new premises were allocated in a disused student residence behind the city's agricultural show grounds just west of the main university campus.
The increased space was, however, soon under strain again, not only because field-work under the Kitchings was continuing as productively as ever, but also because new fields of research had been added to the institute's repertoire: in 1965 the renowned palaeobotanist Dr Edna P. Plumstead and a palynologist, Dr George Hart, joined the institute from the university's Geology Department. One of Dr Plumstead's projects at the time was the analysis of plant fossils collected by the 1955–58 American Trans-Antarctic Expeditions, in the course of which she showed that sedimentary rocks of the same age in Antarctica, South Africa, South America, India and Australia contained essentially identical plant fossils.
This was in the days before general acceptance of the theory of 'continental-drift', plate-tectonics and sea-floor spreading, but the Antarctic fossil plants were seen by a few bold souls as powerful palaeontological evidence for the objective reality of the hypothetical former 'super-continent', Gondwana.
Barely five years after the palaeobotanical evidence was announced to the world, James Kitching himself added the voice of vertebrate fossils to this debate when he was invited to join the United States Antarctic Research Group on a visit in 1970, during which he collected vertebrate fossils identical to those he was accustomed to finding in the Karoo.
In 1973, Kitching was awarded a PhD degree by the University of the Witwatersrand for his thirty years of intensive work on the biostratigraphy of the Karoo Supergroup in South Africa. In 1983 he was appointed Reader in Karoo Biostratigraphy by the university. In 1987, after the departure of Professor Mike Raath, the first full-time director of the institute, Professor Kitching took over the leadership of the institute which he had almost single-handedly launched four decades earlier. When he initially retired from full-time service in 1990, he handed over to another Graaff-Reineter, Professor Bruce Rubidge, who is the current director.
Rubidge is the grandson of another old friend of Broom's from his early Karoo days, Dr Sidney H Rubidge, who owned the farm "Wellwood" just outside Graaff-Reinet, which today houses his privately assembled collection of Karoo fossils – one of the most impressive and perhaps the most important of all such collections in South Africa.
The BPI today remains an active research and teaching institution whose small staff and their students remain dedicated to exploring the fossil treasures of the Karoo — true to the original dreams of Broom and Price.
The School of Geosciences offers MSc degrees by research dissertation and PhD degrees by thesis through the BPI Palaeontology. The minimum registration period for MSc is one year and PhD two years.
The research thrusts of the BPI Palaeontology relate mainly to the palaeontological and sedimentological development of the Carboniferous-Jurassic Great Karoo Basin, and the Plio-Pleistocene fossil hominid-bearing deposits.
Some of the research topics currently available as MSc and PhD research projects are listed below.
- Palaeontology, sedimentology and stratigraphy of the Permian Ecca-Beaufort contact
- Litho and biostratigraphy of the Middle Permian Tapinocephalus Assemblage Zone of the Beaufort Group
- Dendroclimatology of the Karoo Basin
- Taxonomic and taphonomic assessment of the fauna of the lowest Cynognathus Assemblage Zone
- Litho and biostratigraphy of the Elliot Formation in the main Karoo basin
- Taxonomy of the Therocephalia
- Palynology of the Karoo
- Therapsid Postcranial Morphology and Anatomy
- Research and Field-Exploration on Southern African Dinosaurs
- Taxonomy of the Dinocephalia
Present and previous staff
- Lucinda Backwell, paleoanthropologist best known for her discovery of termite digging behaviour in early hominids.
- Marion Bamford, Paleo-botanist who is also well known for working on fossil wood from the Plio-Pleistocene.
- Lee Berger, Paleoanthropologist and discoverer of the Gladysvale site.
- Chris Gow, Karroo palaeontologist.
- Raymond Dart, Discoverer of the Taung Child.
- James Kitching, world-renowned Karroo fossil hunter.
- Edna P. Plumstead, paleobotanist.
- Dick Rayner, palaeontologist who worked on Karoo aged material.
- Mike Raath, former Director and scientist who discovered the dinosaur species Syntarsis.
- Bruce Rubidge, Present Director and Karroo palaeontologist.
- Phillip Tobias, paleoanthropologist and Honorary Associate.
- Adam Yates, Dinosaur palaeontologist.
- Bernhard Zipfel, paleoanthropologist and curator of collections.
The Institute publishes its own journal, Palaeontologia africana. It was originally established as a 'house journal' for papers arising from research carried out in the Institute, or work based on study of specimens from the Institute's collections.
Another important role of the journal originally was to publish the Institute's Annual Report, giving a review of work done during the year and reporting on domestic matters ranging from staff news to financial matters, building developments, and statistics on students, research projects in progress and publications during the year.
The journal soon broke from its 'house journal' role and began accepting papers from people not directly associated with the Institute, provided the subject matter of the papers was relevant to the fields in which the Institute was active. That policy continues today and now the contents of any single issue of Palaeontologia africana are a blend of papers written by members of the Institute and people who are not members, but rather are colleagues affiliated through their research interests, many of them from overseas.
The first issue appeared in 1953 under the editorship of the then Honorary Scientific Director, Professor Sidney H. Haughton. Haughton served in this editorial capacity from the inception of the journal until his death in 1982 at the age of 94, advising successive directors from the great breadth and depth of his knowledge of the geology and palaeontology of South Africa and of much of the rest of the world as well.
The journal has an Editorial Panel, whose members are experts in their particular fields, to advise the editor on the acceptability of manuscripts. The editor and/or advisory panel members submit each received manuscript to independent referees for review before deciding whether or not to accept it for publication.
- Bernard Price Institute site. This article is drawn from the pages , , and , which the Institute has released for redistribution and alteration provided attribution is given.
- Background: Hales, A.L.; “Research at the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,” Proc. of the Royal Soc. of London, vol. 258, no. 1292 (4 October 1960), pp. 1–26