10th Annual Standard Bank/PAST lecture to explore the Ancestral Connection

The 10th Standard Bank/PAST keynote lecture will this year be presented by paleo-artist John A. Gurche, at The Wits Great Hall, on Thursday 16 October 2014 at 18:30 where he will be discussing The Ancestral Connection: Portraits of our Prehistoric Human Family.

Recipient of the John Landsendorf Award for Paleo-art from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, John Gurche’s address will highlight how art can be used to better understand the science of human origins.

He believes that human beings live at the centre of the most wondrous story ever told, and through this observation says that we have the good fortune to be living at a time when a testable method of inquiry yields details of how the story of all of us happened.

John Andrew Gurche, an artist known for his paintings, sculptures, and sketches of prehistoric life, especially dinosaurs and early humans, has published his art in several publications and his recent book Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins contains accounts of the work done on depicting human evolution in sculptures that represents six million years of human history. The book has images of the fifteen sculptures made for the Smithsonian’s new Hall of Human Origins.

Some of the passages in the book were written with the intention of fostering a kind of mental time travel, in order to facilitate what he calls the “ancestral connection”. This is a view that humans live within the larger context of the evolutionary history of life.  Some of the lifelike sculptures deal with a vision of what it would be like to observe one of these ancestors at close range while other sections attempt to project the readers into the heads of those ancient ancestors.

According to PAST CEO, Andrea Leenen, John Gurche was selected for this year’s lecture because “his artistic depictions bring our ancestors to life in a way that a fossil bones  cannot. PAST Chief Scientist Prof. Rob Blumenschine adds that these depictions, “while based on a thorough understanding of the underlying skeletal anatomy, allow one to establish an almost personal connection with our ancestors.”

This year’s keynote address, is also the third Phillip Tobias memorial lecture and comes a year before the 99.9% aLIKE global campaign launch by PAST, which will aim to celebrate the common humanity and shared African roots of all people. “For the public to appreciate these ancient African roots,” says Leenen, “it helps to see how hauntingly similar our ancestors’ appearances are to ourselves, and Gurche is a master at this.”

Standard Bank is the exclusive sponsor and partner to PAST’s Keynote Lecture Series, which has brought the world’s leading origin scientists to South Africa.  Presented in memory of world-renowned South African palaeo-anthropologist Phillip Tobias, who passed away in June 2012, this annual lecture allows a platform for consideration of key findings that have relevance in the evolution of modern thinking. Previous speakers have included Sir Richard Dawkins, Dr. Richard Leakey, Drs. Tim White and Berhane Asfaw (co-discoverers of famous ‘Ardi’ skeleton of Ethiopia), and Dr. Don Johanson (discoverer of the famous Lucy skeleton from Ethiopia).

“PAST is an outstanding organisation which has done – and continues to do – excellent work in supporting pure research in the origin sciences in Africa and in fostering new generations of African scientific researchers.

Perhaps most important of all, PAST is very good at teaching young people the extremely valuable lessons that can be learned from Africa’s ancient heritage. These include pride in Africa as the cradle of our species; an awareness of the common humanity of all of us; knowledge of the connectedness of all life and hence of the vital importance of conservation; an understanding of the power of the scientific method; and a good sense of the fulfilling career prospects that follow from studying the sciences.

One of the most effective ways that PAST introduces these messages is through its ‘Walking Tall’ theatre piece and subsequent discussions, says Sim Tshabalala Chief Executive Standard Bank Group.

PAST, the Palaeontological Scientific Trust, funds post-graduate bursaries and much of the groundbreaking palaeontological research work in Africa. PAST also helps bring a knowledge of palaeontology in particular and science in general, to school children from previously disadvantaged backgrounds through its acclaimed “Walking Tall” Educational Theatre Project; and programmes designed to improve instruction in evolution and genetics, and more fundamentally, to help teachers expose learners to science in a manner that makes it relevant to their lives. Along with public outreach programmes such as this keynote lecture series, PAST is the largest, independent, African organisation promoting origin sciences research, education and public understanding.

The 10th Standard Bank/PAST Phillip Tobias Memorial Lecture will be presented by John Gurche, at The Wits Great Hall, on Thursday 16 October 2014 at 18:30. He will discuss The Ancestral Connection: Portraits of our Prehistoric Human Family. Entrance is free and no booking is necessary. For more information visit the website www.past.org.za or contact PAST CEO Andrea Leenen on andrea@pastafrica.co.za or Tel +27 11 717 6668.


Celebrating 20 years of promoting origin sciences in Africa, the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) was established in 1994, and has participated in a mutually rewarding association with the Standard Bank since 1997. Funding support from the Bank has had a profound influence on PAST’s ability to advance the science, through its support of various programmes, including the granting of bursaries and research funding to African scholars.

Palaeo-anthropologist Phillip Vallentine Tobias was born between the two world wars, in 1925; and passed away in Johannesburg on 7 June 2012. Nominated for a Nobel prize three times, Tobias was best known for his work at South Africa’s hominid fossil sites. As one of South Africa’s most honoured and decorated scientists, and a world leading expert on human prehistoric ancestors; he was key in changing humans’ understanding of our ancient ancestry, and an advocate for the eradication of apartheid. He received honorary degrees from seventeen universities and other academic institutions in South Africa, the United States of America, Canada and Europe; and was elected as a fellow, associate or honorary member of over 28 learned societies. Prof. Tobias was PAST’s first Chief Scientific Advisor and later served as its Chief Scientific Patron.

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