James Simpson Brink was appointed as a junior researcher in archaeozoology at the National Museum Bloemfontein in 1983 where he took over from Dr Ron Clarke in 1984 to lead an interdisciplinary palaeo-environmental research unit at the museum’s Quaternary Research Station at Florisbad. With missionary zeal, James not only began an in-depth study of of the archaeozoology of the Florisbad Spring and Living Floor Assemblages which represents the type site of the Florisian Land Mammal Age, but also initiated the expansion of an extensive vertebrate osteological reference collection in what would eventually grow into a world-class research collection for students and scientists alike. With an extensive discussion on the taphonomy and re-evaluation of the fossil collections from Florisbad, James received an MA degree in Archeozoology in 1987 from the University of Stellenbosch. During 1987 and 1988 he completed a course at the Institut für Palaeoanatomie, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Munich, which included, among others, the comparative osteology of mammals in the Old World, the history of animal domestication in the Old World, the comparative osteology of fish and an introductory course in Latin and Greek as used in scientific nomenclature. In 1992 he received his BA Honors degree in Latin from the University of the Free State, while working on a comparative osteological study on the evolution of the black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou), for a future PhD study.
Meanwhile in 1994, James, together with Rainer Grün from the University of Canberra in Australia, launched an extensive radiometric dating project to determine the age of the Florisbad deposits. In the process, a groundbreaking technique for non-destructive dating through ESR was developed to date a single tooth of the famous Florisbad human skull. This work, published in Nature in 1996, provided James with the palaeontological time frame to continue his, in what would become an influential study on the evolution of the endemic black wildebeest as a model for the effects of changing environments on mammal evolution during the Quaternary. For this he earned a DPhil – degree from the University of Stellenbosch in 2005. Since then he has worked extensively on the evolution of Plio-Pleistocene ecosystems and the processes that drove changes in environments and ungulate communities in the central interior of southern and eastern Africa. These studies would eventually culminate in the first ever description of an extinct caprine from the Cape Fold Mountains, as well as a re-evaluation of age of the faunal assemblages from the Cornelian Land Mammal Age type site.
With over 100 peer-reviewed publications produced during his career, James would also foster local as well as international collaboration with colleagues in the USA, Australia, France, Germany, Kenya, Israel and Sicily.
James found the appeal of functional anatomy and mammal evolution irresistible and he would freely give instruction on some finer points of comparative osteology to anyone, even to a casual passerby. His expertise in bone identification and post-cranial elements in particular was simply outstanding. He was an exceptional teacher who in his unique way introduced many students (including myself) to the practical side of Quaternary palaeontology and archeozoology. I was fortunate to be one of his earliest students and, like others after me, was captivated by his wisdom, sense of humor and modest nature. He was a philosopher, expert on classical cultures and languages, as well as a connoisseur of good wine, It is hard to imagine a world without James, and to think of Florisbad without his singular presence. None of those who knew him will forget his generosity towards every person he encountered.
James is survived by his wife Marianne, their children, Mari, Willem-Carel, and Lilian.
HOD, Florisbad Quaternary Research Station