Today’s guest is Professor Erella Hovers, a Prehistorian at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem! Erella’s research is primarily focussed on the Plio-Pleistocene archaeology in East Africa and the Middle Paleolithic of the Levant, concentrating on lithic technology, the development of the use of symbolism and the techno-economic behavior of early hominins. Her research has significantly furthered our understanding of early human material culture in these periods through collaborative multidisciplinary research projects. In addition to being a professor in the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Erella is also an International Research Affiliate for Arizona State University and serves as Field School Faculty in Hadar, Ethiopia.
What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?
I am a paleolithic archaeologist by training. I consider what I do as part of paleoanthropology, because although many people use this term only for researchers working with skeletal remains, the definition of anthropology emphasizes the scientific study of humans and their behavior – present and past. I work mainly in the Early and Middle Paleolithic periods in eastern African (specifically Ethiopia) and the eastern Mediterranean Levant. I am a field archaeologist and a lithic analyst. To me, lithics are a never-ending source of information about the past, if one thinks about them long and hard.
What originally drew you towards human evolution studies?
I was interested in “prehistoric people” as a child, even before I knew about evolution. I think I was fascinated by the mental time travel and I had a sense that this type of knowledge could be important to understanding the world around me and how it came to be. The decision to try to make this my profession came much later. When I started my university education, this was not my main interest. I was lucky enough to have a great professor in the first year (the late Ofer Bar-Yosef), who drew me into prehistory and human evolution studies. I took immediately to the multi-disciplinarity of the endeavor, and was fascinated by the work, thought, knowledge and imagination that were needed in order to “build a case” and to convince others that one’s scenario is valid. I was then, and still am, excited about linking the stones and bones to really big and important questions in all aspects of human evolution – biological, cultural, social, cognitive and so many more.
What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor?
I wrote my dissertation under the supervision of Ofer Bar-Yosef and Naama Goren-Inbar, on the lithic assemblages of Qafzeh Cave. This is a cave in Israel, well known for its Middle Paleolithic hominin fossils. The large number of fossils from this cave were identified as modern humans during the 1960 and 1970s, following two different excavations (in the 1930s and the 1960s). Although the lithic assemblages were not studied, it was clear that they were Mousterian and very similar to those of the Neandertals in Europe, and then it also turned out – when dating was finally possible in the 1980s – that these fossils were contemporaneous with the classical Neandertals in Europe, and in fact they were older than Neandertal fossils in the Levant. Very little was known about the lithics though, and that was when Ofer suggested that I wrote my Ph.D. on this material. I carried out a nauseatingly detailed analysis but also to put the assemblages in the context of behavioral, demographic and evolutionary thought of the time. I touched on all this in a volume with the uninspiring name ‘The Lithic Assemblages of Qafzeh Cave‘, which – for better or worse – does include much more than the lithics.
How did you find your PhD experience?
In retrospect, it was intellectual fun. No scholarship was available for the project, which was difficult since I had to work for a living (I TA’d and also worked outside of archaeology), in addition to putting in the work for the thesis. But it was also a good thing because it gave me freedom and I was the boss of my own time. I dragged the analysis and write-up for many years, also because I was involved in several other projects (such as my own excavation at Amud Cave and the work in the Hadar Research Project in Ethiopia), taking time off from my Ph.D. work for many weeks on end).
After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?
I was a post-doctoral fellow in the department of Anthropology at Harvard University, for one year, and was incredibly lucky to be offered a job as a lecturer at Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, immediately upon returning to Israel. I have been there ever since, doing research and teaching. I was appointed an international research fellow of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and spent two 1-year stints as a visiting researcher at the department of Anthropology at NY.
What current projects are you working? Where do you hope these go in the future?
Trying to advance publication of some past projects, for one. Amud Cave is a huge project (I sometimes think that we simply translocated the site from the cave to the lab, there is so much sediment to go through and so many lithics and fauna to study). Although we have already put out a rather large number of publications on various aspects of the work there is still a lot to be done. We also returned to the site a few times for limited sampling, for specific studies that were not even conceivable when we had our big field seasons. We will soon be launching a new phase of study of the faunal assemblage, which I am excited about.
Another site that my team of great students, ex-students and colleagues is working on is an open-air site, Ein Qashish, that was excavated on a very large scale (but is not as dense as Amud Cave, so may actually move forward faster… ). It is currently being studied by a Ph.D. student who is also doing some Agent Based Modelling as part of the process. I really look forward to see what she comes up with.
Also, a detailed publication of the Oldowan material from the Hadar research area is -finally – advancing. Slowly but in the right direction…
In terms of field work, I am currently co-directing a project at Melka Wakena, an Early Acheulian site on the highlands of southeastern Ethiopia. My co-director is an Ethiopian colleague – a former Ph.D. student, who received his degree from the Hebrew University just last week! He wrote his thesis on the lithic assemblages from localities that we had already tested at the site. There are very few sites similar to Melka Wakena, so this is a big responsibility, also because the site is endangered by quarrying. We are now working to publish some papers on the project and its significance, and about the lithics.
There are thoughts and plans for other new projects, in Israel and abroad. Also, quite a number of papers that are more general and not necessarily related to particular sites that are in the making.
What has been your favourite memory from the field?
It is very hard to select one. I think they would be, in no particular order, listening to classical music during work at Amud; the discovery and excavation of the skeletal remains of the infant Amud 7; getting up in the early morning in the tent in Hadar, hearing the Awash River as it flowed below the cliff where our camp was and the birds chirping in the bush, just before the day started.
What project or publication are you most proud of?
Nearly each publication that I manage to have accepted by a journal after a rigorous, constructive review process… Writing is hard!
What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last 5 years?
I think the field is still reeling from the implications of ancient DNA research. Over the last five years, we are probably learning what the limitations are. Compared to the earlier awe, this is a revolution in itself.
What would you be if you were not a paleoanthropologist?
By inclination, a bum… but since I’d have to be more useful if I wanted to be paid, maybe a literary editor.