Anthropologist Phillip Tobias, internationally renowned as an authority on human evolution has died.

South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, where Tobias studied and then taught and conducted research until the 1990s, said he died on Thursday in a Johannesburg hospital after a long illness.

Tobias's name was synonymous with research at the Sterkfontein caves near Johannesburg where an ape-man's skeleton - millions of years old - known as Little Foot was discovered, the university said.

The area, now a World Heritage site, is where over a third of all known early hominid fossils have been found.

Tobias started a programme of excavation at Sterkfontein in 1966, which is now the longest continuously active palaeoanthropological dig anywhere in the world, and has produced over 1,000 hominin fossils, the country's Gauteng Tourism Authority said.

'One of the greats'

Nick Barton, of Oxford University, said that Tobias "was one of the greats in human evolutionary studies".

Lee R. Berger, who studied under Tobias and went on to follow him as the leading researcher in his field at the university, compared Tobias to famous paleoanthropologists and said he excelled in a variety of scientific fields beyond the study of the evolutionary links between primates and humans.

Tobias was involved in early genetic studies and taught anatomy to generations of top South African doctors.

"He was a polymath and was absolutely of that classical generation," Berger said.

Tobias was among the first people to whom Berger showed newly unearthed remains nearly two million years old that were evidence of a previously unknown species that scientists say fit the transition from ancient apes to modern humans.

"He cried," Berger recalled. "It was what he'd been waiting to see discovered in southern Africa."

A South African colleague, archaeologist Lyn Wadley, said Tobias also should be remembered for speaking out against apartheid.

In a statement, South African President Jacob Zuma lauded Tobias for his efforts.

"We have lost a renowned scientist, a scholar and a unique human being," Zuma said of Tobias. "Our country remains eternally proud of his work."

Source: Agencies