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Famed African archaeologist J. Desmond Clark of UC Berkeley has died at the age of 85
15 February 2002

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Print quality photo available for download

John Desmond Clark
John Desmond Clark

Berkeley - John Desmond Clark, the dean of African archaeology and a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, died Thursday, Feb. 14, from pneumonia at a convalescent hospital in Oakland, Calif.

Clark, 85, had been in generally good health and had just returned to his home in Oakland after a trip to England.

"Clark was legendary," said paleontologist Tim White, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and a longtime colleague. "He towered above anybody else in African archaeology with his breadth and depth of knowledge about the rise and development of prehistoric culture. His death leaves an enormous void."

"He's a monument to the field of archaeology," said Clark Howell, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of anthropology, who first met Clark in 1954. "There is hardly anywhere that he didn't touch with his archaeological capability and interest."

Howell called him a "world-experienced prehistorian. He left behind a new set of scientific footsteps."

Clark specialized in the study of stone tools, and brought archaeology to many sites in Africa, as well as in India and China. More than any other scholar of his generation, he developed African archaeology from the examination of ancient artifacts into the study of how our ancestors lived and thought.

He conducted much of his field work during the 24 years he served as director of the National Museum in Zambia, and continued work in Africa after coming to UC Berkeley in 1961.

"His lifelong quest was to elucidate the very beginnings of human culture and technology and its development through time in Africa, and he was not only an expert in the oldest stone tools, but he knew the Iron Age and the Late Stone Age and which colleague was digging at what cave, and where it was and how old it was. The knowledge and understanding this one man had of African archaeology will never be surpassed," White said.

Though he retired in 1986, Clark continued to work until his death. He was co-leader for 20 years with White and Ethiopian archaeologists of a major research project at prehistoric sites in the Middle Awash Valley in the Horn of Africa. These sites have produced major hominid finds from as long ago as 6 million years.

"The combined record that's come out of the Middle Awash, and will continue to come out of the Middle Awash, is - in the fossil realm - his greatest contribution, because he really started that work," White said. " While I and our Ethiopian colleagues dug up the hominids and other fossils, Desmond excavated the stone tools."

One of the team's most important contributions was the 1996 discovery of the worlds earliest large mammal butchery in Ethiopia, published in 1999 in the journal Science.

Just last year, Clark published his third major monograph on a prehistoric site in Zambia known as Kalambo Falls, and he was working on a major monograph on another African site. His extensive collections of fossils and tools remains a major part of the teaching and research collections in UC Berkeley's Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies.

Clark was born in London on April 10, 1916, and attended Christ's College at Cambridge University, where he first became interested in archaeology. With a B.A. in hand but few professional jobs available in the field, he accepted an offer to become secretary of the newly-formed Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Northern Rhodesia, and the post of curator of the David Livingstone Memorial Museum. Arriving in what is now Zambia in 1938, he ended up staying 24 years.

At the time, there were only a handful of archaeologists on the entire African continent, but Clark began interacting with all of them, eventually getting involved in organizing the yearly Pan-African Congress on Prehistory. He explored numerous sites around the continent, including the Congo Basin, the Central African Rift Valley, the Sahara, the Nile Valley, Angola, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, and wrote extensively on new finds. He returned briefly to Cambridge to obtain an MA in 1940, a PhD in 1950 and an ScD in 1974.

Since he and his wife Betty first met at Cambridge, she has been his constant companion, accompanying him on digs, organizing the camps and seeing after the people, said longtime friend Elizabeth Colson, professor emeritus of anthropology at UC Berkeley. Betty Clark provided most of the drawings of stone implements for his papers, translated for him, served as secretary of the museum in Livingstone and, when her husband was away during World War II, ran the place.

Upon leaving his directorship of the museum, Desmond Clark was named a Companion of the Order of the British Empire.

At UC Berkeley, he worked with several colleagues to build a research and graduate student training program that became the country's foremost center for the study of human origins and African archaeology.

In 1991, he lead a team that convinced China to open its doors to foreign archaeologists for the first time in 40 years, and obtained the first permit to dig for fossils in the Nihewan Basin near Beijing.

"One of his most important contributions was his very early recognition that we have to involve Africans in their own archaeology," White said. "Beginning in the 1960s, he trained people from many African countries who now are museum directors and scientists who carry on this work."

He published over 18 books on archaeology and paleoanthropology in Africa and other countries, as well as over 300 papers in journals and collected works. Many of these seminal works brought specific new information to the field and at the same time provided an overview of the current state of knowledge of a particular region.

Perhaps his best known works were The Prehistory of Africa (1970) and The Atlas of African Prehistory, reference collections still used in classes today.

"He literally wrote the book on African prehistory," White said.

Clark became a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences in 1986 and a full member in 1993, when he became an American citizen. He also was a fellow of the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of South Africa, and a member or fellow of more than 15 other learned societies.

Among his many awards was the Huxley Medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation's 1996 Prize for Multidisciplinary Research on Ape and Human Evolution, and honorary degrees from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town.

Clark was a longtime member of the scientific executive committee of the Leakey Foundation and had a commitment to that institution that spanned a number of decades.

"Even though his eyesight failed in his last year, he reviewed grant proposals and was always there to discuss new students' research applications," said Alan Almquist, PhD, grants and program officer for the foundation.

Clark is survived by his wife of 64 years, Betty Baume Clark; a daughter, Elizabeth Winterbottom of New South Wales, Australia; a son, John Clark of Kent, England; a sister, Moira Coulson of England; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 27 on campus in the Great Hall at the Faculty Club.

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