Don Savage, expert on mammalian evolution and former chair of paleontology at UC Berkeley, has died at 81

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Paleontologist Donald Elvin Savage, 81, a world-renowned expert on the origins of mammals, in particular the evolution of anthropoid apes, died Monday, April. 5, of pancreatic cancer. He moved from his home in Clayton, Calif., to a hospice in Rossmoor, Calif., shortly before he died.

Savage, professor emeritus of paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, and former director of the campus's Museum of Paleontology, spent much of his life correlating mammal fossils with specific geologic formations, a field known as biostratigraphy.

Before radioisotope dating became reliable and accessible, the principal way of dating fossils was to correlate a find with a suite of fossils known from other areas that geologists had been able to date. Even today, with fossils found in sediments that are not easily dated, the most reliable method is often this sort of correlation.

Savage traveled the world in search of mammalian fossils, at various times in his career concentrating on horses, rhinos and the early apes. His book, "Mammalian Paleofaunas of the World" (1983), written with Donald E. Russell, was a compendium of mammals through the ages. At the time of his death he was completing a second book on paleofaunas with retired UC Berkeley research paleontologist J. Howard Hutchison.

He also was an authority on Bay Area fossils and was fond of sharing his knowledge with students, scientists and the local community.

One of Savage's key finds, made with student Russell Ciochon in Burma in 1978, was a primate jaw that today remains one of the earliest known fossils of higher primates. Dated at 40 to 44 million years ago, it came from the Eocene, an era in which mammals proliferated and primate species abounded.

"This fossil was the earliest step towards humans," said Ciochon, now chair of anthropology at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. "This discovery set up Burma and Southeast Asia as a pivotal center of primate evolution and helped get more people interested in Asia, in addition to Africa and Europe."

Though the door to Burma was soon shut, that success helped Savage and Ciochon gain entry to China in 1983. They became one of the first scientific teams allowed access after the Cultural Revolution.

Part of Savage's success lay in the fact that "he was a very good fossil collector," said Ciochon In the early 1960s, on a trip to Egypt with Elwyn Simons of Duke University, he immediately picked up a jaw that for decades remained the earliest known anthropoid fossil from Africa, a 35-million-year-old ape that bears his name: Oligopithecus savagei.

"He was a wonderful man," Ciochon said. "He was the person that first taught me about primate paleontology, the one who got me interested in primate evolution, and I owe him a lot."

Savage was born in Floydada, Texas, May 28, 1917, and was scouring the Texas panhandle for vertebrate fossils by his late teens. He received his BS from West Texas State University in 1937 and his MS from the University of Oklahoma in 1939, then served a six-year stint in the U.S. Air Force.

In 1946 he came to UC Berkeley as a graduate student and served as an instructor in the paleontology department until 1949, when he obtained his PhD and joined the faculty. He also was appointed curator of mammals in the museum, a post he held until his retirement in 1987.

Savage served as chair of the Department of Paleontology from 1966 to 1975, and in 1967 was appointed acting director of the museum. He was director from 1970-1971. During these years he helped expand the museum collections to include plant and invertebrate fossils as well as vertebrates. Today the Museum of Paleontology is one of the largest in the U.S. and a resource for scientists around the world.

He also was an early supporter of the museum's public outreach and exhibits programs, and was often asked to speak on all aspects of Bay Area geology and paleontology.

Savage is survived by his wife Than Myint Savage of Clayton, Calif., and five children from his first marriage: Suzanne Savage of Oakland, Calif.; Sheryl Long of Gainesville, Fla.; Brandon of San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Michael of Santa Monica, Calif.; and Stephanie Edsell of Eugene, Ore.

A memorial service will be held at the Strawberry Canyon Club House at UC Berkeley on Wednesday, April 14, at 6 p.m.

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