Ofer Bar-Yosef (1937-2020)

March 23, 2020
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Ofer Bar-Yosef (1937-2020)

March 23, 2020

It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef, the George G. and Janet G.B. MacCurdy Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology, Emeritus in the Anthropology Department at Harvard University. Prof. Bar-Yosef passed away peacefully in his home in Kfar Saba, Israel on Saturday, March 14th, 2020. Prof. Bar-Yosef was the epitome of a great scholar and mentor. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the British Academy, and the Academy of Science of the Republic of Georgia, he will be remembered as among the world’s foremost experts on major transitions in human activities from the Paleolithic through the early Neolithic.

Since 1959 he conducted archaeological research around the globe, with significant field projects in Israel, the Sinai, Turkey, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Georgia, and the People’s Republic of China. He contributed substantially to debates on human dispersals out of Africa, lithic analysis, human-Neanderthal interactions, the relationship between environmental and behavioral change, early pottery production, and the development of agriculture, among other topics.

Over the course of his wide ranging and influential career he published over 400 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, in addition to authoring or editing 25 volumes. His publications are frequently cited, and there is virtually no paper written on Paleolithic archaeology or transitions to agriculture that does not reference or build upon his work.

As a specialist of the Archaeology of China, and someone who benefitted enormously from his mentorship and guidance since my arrival at Harvard in 2004, I think it important to highlight the significance of his recent work on the Paleolithic of East Asia, a topic that occupied much of the last decades of his career. Although a late focus of his, his influence was impressive, and by the time he was no longer able to travel as frequently to conferences and fieldwork in the past several years, he had become famous across the landscape of practicing archaeologists in China for his love of fish and red wine. His collaborative work at Zhoukoudian in the early 1990s brought new approaches to stratigraphic analysis and cave morphology to one of the most important sites for understanding Homo erectus and Homo sapiens activities in the region, and conclusively demonstrated that frequently cited evidence for early use of fire in the cave was flawed. More recently, in the 2000s, fieldwork in southern China, primarily at the cave sites of Yuchanyan and Xianrendong provided incontrovertible evidence that the Yangzi River region was among the earliest places in the world where human communities created ceramic vessels – dating to around 18,000 years ago.

Prof. Bar-Yosef was an active, engaged, and supportive mentor throughout his entire career. He served as the PhD chair for 17 scholars. It is a testament to his mentorship that all his students from the 25 years as a Professor at Harvard remain in the field at prominent institutions, spread around the world. His Harvard PhD’s include (in reverse order of PhD date, with current institution): Bastien Varoutsikos (PhD 2015), CNRS, France; Güner Coşkunsu (PhD 2007), Department of Archaeology, Mardin Artuklu University, Turkey; Carolina Mallol (PhD 2004), Dept of Prehistory, Anthropology and Ancient History, Universiadad de La Laguna, Spain; Daniel Adler (PhD 2002), Dept. of Anthropology University of Connecticut; David Joel Cohen (PhD 2001), Department of Anthropology, National Taiwan University; Gilbert Tostevin (PhD 2000), Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota; Shoh Yamada (PhD 2000), Center for Use-Wear Analysis, Komoro, Nagano Prefecture, Japan; Ian Kuijt (PhD 1995), University of Notre Dame; John Shea (PhD 1991), Department of Anthropology, SUNY Stony Brook. While at Harvard, he also served the co-chair for Daniel Lieberman (PhD 1993, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University), and as a primary mentor (although not dissertation chair) for other PhD students in Anthropology, including Nicola Stern (Department of Archaeology, LaTrobe University, Australia), Martha Tappen (Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota), and Greg Laden (who left the field). In addition, prior to coming to the US, he was the chair of the PhD committees of seven students who received their degrees at Hebrew University, most of whom are now prominent scholars in Israel: Prof. Anna Belfer-Cohen, Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar, Prof. Nigel Goring-Morris, and Prof. Erella Hovers, all of whom are currently in or retired from the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as Prof. Avraham (Avi) Gopher (currently at Tel-Aviv University), Prof. Isaac Gilead (emeritus at Ben-Gurion University), and Dr. Uri Baruch, a palynologist who eventually left the field. He was also a primary mentor for Prof. Dani Nadel, now at University of Haifa. This list does not include the truly innumerable students and scholars that have been mentored informally throughout their career.

Undergraduates who have worked with Prof. Bar-Yosef at Harvard include several who were his primary mentees and are now prominent researchers in the field such as Tostevin, who also studied with Bar-Yosef for his PhD, as well as Metin Eren (PhD from Southern Methodist University, currently at Kent State University), Radu Iovita (PhD from University of Pennsylvania, currently NYU), Katherine Twiss (PhD at UC Berkeley, now at SUNY Stony Brook), David Strait (PhD at SUNY Stony Brook, now at Washington University in St. Louis) and Aaron Stutz (PhD from U of Michigan, now at Bohuslans Museum, Sweden). Many others who were not his primary advisees have also benefitted from his mentorship during their undergraduate concentration at Harvard. He has transformed generations of prehistoric archaeologists.

I count myself among the many lucky individuals who received support and encouragement from Prof. Bar-Yosef. When I arrived at Harvard, Prof. Bar-Yosef took it upon himself to welcome me warmly, provide feedback on research, discuss fieldwork, publication and teaching strategies, co-teach with me on two occasions, and provide an example of a scholar whose tireless energy was an example to follow. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to travel with him in China. The photo associated with this brief tribute shows Ofer at the site of Niuheliang in Northeast China during a trip together in the summer of 2008.

Prof. Bar Yosef retired from Harvard University in 2013. For many years after retirement he continued to be an active participant in conferences, fieldwork, mentoring and scholarly activities around the world, until health problems began to curtail his travels in early 2018. He will be missed by his friends, students, mentees and his family. We are all enriched from having known him.

Rowan Flad

John E. Hudson Professor of Anthropology

Chair, Department of Anthropology