Conversations with: Dr Hila May

Today it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Hila May, a physical anthropologist based at the Department of Anatomy, Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center, Tel Aviv University! Hila leads the Biohistory and Evolutionary Medicine Laboratory at Tel-Aviv University, which has two principal fields of interest: 1) the evolutionary trade-offs between different anatomical structures during an evolutionary process of adaptation, and their impacts on modern human health and 2) the reconstruction of the everyday lives of past population through their skeletal remains. She has appeared many times in the media discussing the significance of new discoveries, such as the jawbone from Misiliya Cave. She also has published in a number of high-impact academic journals, such as Nature, Science and Journal of Human Evolution.

Dr Hila May, Department of Anatomy, Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center, Tel Aviv University

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

I like to think about my research as multidisciplinary, involving human evolution, biohistory, and evolutionary medicine topics. Each of them stands on its own but they are related and complementary. To summarize it in a nutshell, I would say that my research focusses on five major issues:

1) Current human health in light of biological, cultural and technological evolution throughout the Pleistocene and Holocene.
2) The reconstruction of daily life in prehistoric populations, including issues relating to demography, physical activity, diet, health, group violence (intra and inter), labor division, and social behaviour.
3) The effect of technological revolutions on human biological structure, mainly the Agriculture revolution (ca. 15k years ago) and the Secondary products revolution (ca. 8000 k years ago).
4) The origin of Levantine prehistoric and historic populations based on ancient DNA.
5) Improving methodologies and creating new research tools for studying skeletal remains (e.g., methods for sexing skeletal remains and diagnosing pathologies). 

Why did you originally want to study human evolution?  And tell us about your PhD?

Actually, before starting my MA degree I wasn’t even aware of physical anthropology, and like all good stories, I found it by chance. You see, when I started my studies at the university, I could not decide between science or humanities, so I postponed my decision by combining the two and graduated as a BSc in Life sciences and Sociology and Anthropology. After graduating my BSc degree, my lack of decisiveness still had a strong grip, so I started to look for researchers that combine biology and anthropology and who use biological methods. This search mission turned out to be not an easy one, as there are only a few scholars in Israel that are carrying out this type of research. 

By my mere luck, I came across Prof. Israel Hershkovitz from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University who became my supervisor in my master and PhD theses. It was him that gave a name to what I was passionate about, and exposed me to the wonderful, exciting, and never dull worlds of human evolution, physical anthropology, and evolutionary medicine. My MSc was in evolutionary medicine where I studied an interesting phenomenon named HFI – Hyperostosis Frontalis Interna (an overgrowth in the inner part of the frontal bone) that’s etiology is most probably related to sex hormones and has increased significantly during the last century (as I demonstrated in my study). My PhD thesis was in physical anthropology where I focused on the impact of the Agriculture Revolution in the Levant (ca. 15k years ago) on human biology from various aspects including nutrition, physical load and health.     

Hila excavating a burial in Timna as part of the Central Timna Valley project of Tel Aviv University, located in the southern Aravah, Israel.

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

Before starting my position as principle investigator at Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, I was a post doctorate fellow at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland under the supervision of Prof. Frank Ruhli. During that period, I expanded my knowledge and skills in virtual anthropology methods and carried out some exciting projects in evolutionary medicine. For this project, I developed a new protocol for estimating the shape of the femur for revealing how changes in femoral shape during human evolution is related to the risk for a hip fracture.  

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

I am involved in several projects, some in collaboration with researchers from Israel and abroad. Firstly, I am involved in the study of new fossils from Israel dated to about 100-150k years that hopefully will help us to clarify who lived in the southern Levant during this important period for human evolution. I also lead research of several projects that aim to reveal the mysteries of past populations, such as their origin (through aDNA studies), physical load, health, diet, demography, and social behaviour. My focus is on populations who lived during the agriculture revolution and the Secondary product revolution in the Levant. These studies will shed light on the people that lived during crucial periods for the development of modern lifestyles. Other projects that are currently being carried out in my lab try to reveal, from an evolutionary perspective, why modern humans suffer from certain diseases such as osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and hip fractures. Understanding the evolutionary causes of these diseases may help in finding ways for preventing them.    

Peqi’in Cave; a Chalcolithic secondary burial cave at the Upper Galilee, Israel.

What do your roles at the Department of Anatomy, Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center entail on an average day?  

 During an average day I wear and replace between several hats:

  1. I have a great research group composed of about 8 MSc and PhD students that I supervise.
  2. I teach anatomy to medical students as well as courses in biological anthropology for graduate students.
  3. I am a curator in the Anthropological collection in Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, Tel Aviv University where I am responsible for the preservation laboratory and, of course, the collection itself. 

Why is your research important for understanding prehistoric human behaviour?

You can look at skeletal remains as an objective history book. By applying various methods, both traditional and novel (the latter are mostly based on imaging techniques like microscopy, micro CT, and virtual anthropology), we develop a better understand of the biology of the studied populations, which include their work distribution, demography, physical load, diet and nutrition, health, and migration. 

Furthermore, since we have an ever-growing anthropological collection that spans a large time scale, we can examine biological changes over time in populations that lived in a limited geographical region. Therefore, confounders related to environmental conditions become less significant, which helps to enhance our hypotheses and conclusions about the past lives of these ancient populations.    

Entering Safsuf Cave; a chalcolithic cave at the Upper Galilee, Israel.

What’s the best thing about your job? What would you change if you could?

As I always say, I am fortunate to feel as though my work and my hobby are the same. There isn’t a dull moment and I get to choose which research to carry out or to be involved in. I believe that I would be happy to add more field days although I already spend about a third of my time in excavations.


Published by lucyjt96

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

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