John Nyaphuli passed away peacefully in Bloemfontein on 24 July 2020. He was born in 1933 on the farm Rohallion in the Wepener District. After a primary school education, John moved to Bloemfontein to seek employment.
During the years 1962-1967 he worked in the catering department at Tempe Military Base and then as a messenger at the University of the Orange Free State until 1973 when he was appointed as a fossil preparator in the Karoo Palaeontology Department at the National Museum by Dr Jacques van Heerden, rose through the ranks and by the time he retired he was Chief Fossil Preparator. His first experience in fossil preparation was on dinosaur material from the Elliot Formation which van Heerden was researching for his PhD thesis. In these early days the standard way of preparing fossils was by using a small hammer and steel nails. John demonstrated a remarkable flair for preparing fossils, and as technology improved he advanced to using vibro-tools fitted with gramophone needles. In the early 1980’s when the National Museum began working on very small fossils from the lowermost Beaufort Group which were preserved in an extremely hard matrix, which not even the strongest vibrotool could penetrate, he experimented in using air-driven engravers which proved to be far more effective. At the same time John was schooled in and mastered the painstaking processes of acid preparation, a method which Ione Rudner had previously proved to be useful in the preparation of the holotype of Eodicynodon during the 1960’s.
Once schooled in the basics of acid preparation John experimented on his own to develop the best and most effective techniques to extract fossils from the lower Beaufort. He perfected both mechanical and acid preparation and, as chief technician in the Palaeontology Department at the National Museum, he schooled the rest of the team of preparators there in these skills. In addition the BPI Palaeontology (now the ESI) and Council for Geosciensces have on several occasions used John to give training in fossil preparation to the technicians at these institutions.
John’s greatest contribution to Karoo palaeontology has been in fieldwork. His first experience was on a trip to the Fouriesburg District with Jacques van Heerden where they met up with James Kitching, Lucas Huma and Jim Hopson to collect in the Elliot Formation. He soon recognized the extraordinary ability of James Kitching to find fossils, and spent the rest of the excursion closely observing the illusive clues which led Kitching to finding fossils. When Bruce Rubidge, while in the employ of the National Museum, initiated a programme to find tetrapod fossils in the Prince Albert District, in what were then considered to be Ecca rocks, John Nyaphuli was the person who found the most fossils. The collecting horizons expanded beyond this district and several new genera were found which have subsequently proved to be some of the most primitive therapsids. This discovery of a new and very basal therapsid fauna led to the recognition of a new biozone at the base of the Beaufort Group and the realization that many of the therapsid groups had their origins in southern Africa and not in Asia as previously thought. After Rubidge moved to the BPI this project was expanded to the Ecca-Beaufort contact around the whole basin, and John Nyaphuli (with the kind approval of the director of the National Museum) continued to be included in these excursions because of his remarkable ability to find fossils in areas where previous generations of palaeontologists have not been able to locate them. This project has led to the discovery of at least eight new basal therapsid taxa in addition to many other specimens, most of which were discovered by John Nyaphuli. Even though John had passed retirement age when Jennifer Botha joined the Museum as Head of the Karoo Palaeontology Department, he remained on the staff of the museum until 2017 because of his exceptional skills and he continued to undertake fieldwork. John Nyaphuli has recovered hundreds of fossils, including the holotypes of Anomocephalus africanus, Australosyodon nyaphuli, Eodicynodon oelofseni, Langbergia modisei, Patranomodon nyaphulii and Tapinocaninus pamelae.
In 1992 John Nyaphuli was unanimously voted to honorary life membership of the PSSA, the highest award of the Society, and in 2011 was awarded the Morris F. Skinner Award by the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the USA for outstanding and sustained contributions to scientific knowledge through the making of important collections of fossil vertebrates and for encouraging and training others towards the same pursuits. This cheerful and kind-hearted person whose generous spirit endeared him to all will be remembered for the huge contribution he made to Karoo Palaeontology in fieldwork and fossil preparation. In his soft-spoken way he commanded the respect of those who worked with him and motivated them to greater achievement.
Text: Bruce Rubidge and Jennifer Botha