I didn’t know him. But like everybody else who paid attention, his work erecting temporal signposts in human evolution thrilled and enlightened me. Funny thing is—if you said Potassium-Argon dating to most archaeologists they’d know what you were talking about. On the other hand, if you said do you know Garniss Curtis I’m willing to bet those same people would say, “Who?”
As an eight-year-old I can remember when the September 1960 National Geographic came in the mail. I still have it on my bookshelf—a bit the worse for wear. It announced the Leakey’s discovery of Zinjanthropus boisei. The next year, in October’s National Geographic was the truly momentous recounting of the newly developed radiometric dating technique—Potassium/Argon, and the estimated age of Zinj. It seems ‘old hat‘ now, after more than 50 years of tracking hominid phylogeny using that technique or its variants. To get a better feeling of the exhilaration of the time, read my scan of Curtis’s brief letter to Louis Leakey, which appeared on page 568 of the October 1962 National Geographic.
|National Geographic 120:564–589, 1961.|
The Leakeys had previously suspected that Zinj might have been as old as 600,000 years. They, Curtis and Evernden, and most of all the world got a big surprise. For me, this moment in the history of human palaeontology stands apart from all the rest, not least because I was an impressionable 8-year-old. As I said above, I didn’t know him. So, when I was introduced to him at the Institute for Human Origins in late 1988 I’m embarrassed to say that I had to ask who he was. I haven’t thought of him in years. The banner on the SA news ticker this morning was the first I’d heard. He died last December 18. He was 93.
There’s a reverent obituary at the UC Berkeley [online] News Center.