Conversations with: Professor Katerina Harvati

I am delighted to introduce today’s guest, Professor Katerina Harvati, a palaeoanthropologist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen! Katerina is the leader of the Palaeoanthropology group at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaoenvrionment (SCHEP), whose research focusses on Neanderthal paleobiology and modern human origins; functional anatomy, adaptation and relationship of skeletal morphology to genetics and environment in primates and humans; growth and development in human and non-human primates; and human skeletal analysis. Katerina’s research has contributed hugely to the understanding of how morphological variability relates to population history and the environment, and her recent work on the fossil human remains from Apidima Cave, Southern Greece, may have pushed back the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe by more than 150 thousand years!

Professor Katerina Harvati from the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

In general I am interested in Pleistocene humans. I work mainly on Neanderthal evolution and paleobiology, as well as on modern human origins and the interactions between skeletal phenotype, population history and environment. But I find many topics fascinating, including primate evolution, life history, evolution of the brain and cognition, and more…

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I was always fascinated by the past. I always liked to imagine what it would have been like to live in another era and what the lives of past people would have been like. Growing up in Greece, I was of course surrounded by remnants of the past so this was something that was very natural for me. However I did not discover anthropology until University, and it became clear that this would be my major. I was hooked for good after my first experience in the field – at the Koobi Fora fieldschool back in 1993.

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? 

I did my PhD at the City University of New York and New York Consortium on Evolutionary Primatology (NYCEP). As part of NYCEP I worked mainly at the American Museum of Natural History, where I also held a PhD fellowship in Anthropology / Paleontology. I defended in 2001, and my topic was on the taxonomic position of Neanderthals using reference models and 3D geometric morphometrics approaches. My supervisor was Eric Delson.

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

I was very fortunate to secure a tenure track position at New York University. I was there from 2001 to 2004, when I was recruited to join the newly formed Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig as senior researcher. I stayed at the MPI until 2009, when I moved to the University of Tübingen as Full Professor, and I have been here ever since!

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these will go in the future?

Well, there are quite a few! From trauma and stress patterns in the Paleolithic, to evolution of tool making behavior, to hybridization in the fossil record, to the paleoanthropology of Greece….and others.

I think there are so many interesting questions to be asked, especially in this exciting time of discovery in paleoanthropology, and I am delighted that my team and are lucky enough to work many different fascinating topics. 

What project or publication are you most proud of?

My first paper will always have a very special place in my heart, even though it was on a topic that I no longer work on, primate life history. This article was based on my Master’s thesis, and it was my first real research project, on colobine monkey dental eruption patterns. I submitted it in the late 1990s, and this was before submissions became electronic, so everything was sent in by post in hard copy, and the waiting times were very long. It was also before digital images, so I developed all the photographs myself from film at the American Museum of Natural History dark room, and had to do it over again a few times to get it just right! It was a labor of love and I was (and still am) very proud of it. 

Beyond that, I am also very happy and proud to have had the opportunity over the last two years to work, together with my team and my colleagues at the University of Athens, on the human fossils from Apidima, Southern Greece. These fossils are among the most important ever found in Greece, and it was a real pleasure and honour to be able to work on them and to produce our paper in Nature last year.

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last 5 years?

There have been so many new discoveries in recent years in paleoanthropology, including fantastic new fossils like Homo naledi or Homo luzonensis, or our own Apidima 1 early Homo sapiens specimen; as well as fascinating advances from paleogenomics and paleoproteomics that have been able to add such a great level of detail to our understanding of evolutionary processes in human evolution.  

What advice would you give to a student interested in your field of research?

I think that, given the scarcity of jobs in academia in general, and particularly in paleoanthropology, students really need to evaluate their priorities in life, especially if they are considering a serious and difficult commitment, such as a PhD. Students should be aware of the possibilities for funding and what the requirements for that would be. They should also research their prospective institution and supervisor: email this person and find out about their work and possibilities to work with them before making a decision. Talk to current students. Last but not least, say yes to opportunities that present themselves, and hunt every opportunity down: you never know the positive developments that they can lead to  – this has been my experience!

How has academia changed since you did your PhD?

As I mentioned above, there have been tremendous changes in technology and the way we go about our everyday work, including the rise of the laptop computer, digital images and electronic articles and journals, and, more recently, open access publishing and digital data platforms, to mention a few big ones. There have been equally amazing advances in the scientific approaches and analyses that are now possible, from ancient DNA from fossil humans (considered impossible when I started my PhD in 1994) to microCT and surface scanning and 3d virtual anthropology. These are all amazing advances that have made it possible for our field to move forward by leaps and bounds. A downside of that is the increasingly rapid pace of scientific work, which reduces the time one can invest on digesting each announcement before the next one is made. 

There have been fewer changes in other aspects of academia: for example, although there are now more senior women than ever before in bioanthropology, paleoanthropology and human evolution remain male-dominated, and our field in general lacks in diversity. Nevertheless, I think some important steps have been taken towards addressing thorny issues in our discipline, such as sexual harassment or colonialist attitudes in research, for example. Twenty years ago even to talk about these issues would be nearly unthinkable.


Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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