Conversations with: Professor Ran Barkai

Today’s interview is with Professor Ran Barkai, Palaeolithic archaeologist at Tel-Aviv University. Ran wrote his PhD on the Neolithic but since has moved deeper in time to the Lower Palaeolithic, excavating the site of Qesem Cave in Israel for the last two decades as well as other Lower Palaeolithic sites in the Levant. Although an archaeologist by training, his research interests are wide, including stone tool technology, cosmology and ontology of human relationships with the cosmos in the archaeological record, human-elephant interactions and altered states of consciousness. Ran has published extensively, including in high impact journals such as Nature and Journal of Human Evolution, and he sits on the editorial board of Quaternary Science Reviews.

Dr Ran Barkai, Tel Aviv University.

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

I began my journey as a Neolithic and Paleolithic archaeologist, dealing mostly with lithic technology and reconstructing early human life ways and adaptation. But it was clear to me right from the start that really I am more interested in anthropological questions regarding human behaviour, world views and human interactions with the world. Following years of archaeological field work and stone-tool analysis, it became apparent to me, that in order to arrive at a better understanding of went on in the past, I must expand my horizons and now I am really into human-animal interactions and deal mostly with human-elephant relationships. I came to understand that elephants likely played a major role in human cultural and biological adaptations, so I wanted to delve deeper into the nature of these interactions and the way that humans were dependant on elephants, and of course what happened after elephants were not any more available for human consumption in the Levant.  This research led me into aspects of cosmology and ontology, ‘the ontological turn’ and the way that humans perceived and interacted with the world.

More recently, I have been also interested in human relationships with caves, mountains, stones, different animals and so on, which is fascinating. Following on from these interests, I wanted to understand better human consciousness in the Paleolithic and the role of altered states of consciousness in human adaptation and behaviour, and to what extent these are reflected in the archaeological record – I believe they are. So, basically my aim now is to put all these lines of investigation together, and see how human adaptation, technology, relationships with the world and consciousness fit together and explain the human journey during the Paleolithic. 

Ran Barkai with elephant bones at the Middle Pleistocen site of La Polledrara, Italy.

How did you first become interested in human evolution?

Well, I must admit I wasn’t at first. Since my early childhood I read a lot about the past and was fascinated by ancient history. I was mostly interested in ancient Egypt and the Romans. I guess I must blame my obsession with the Asterix and obelisk book series (which I like reading until this very day, as well as my daughters), and the fact that my parents had at our home the two magnificent volumes of Life magazine: “The World We live In” and “The Epic of Man”. I kept these near my bed and kept looking at the beautiful centrefolds over and over again. After I finished my army duty (after 5 long years), I went to Egypt and visited the great pyramids of Giza. Following that, I went to study Archaeology at Tel-Aviv University with the aim of focussing on Egyptology. This was a nice plan indeed, and studying hieroglyphs was fun, but as soon as I took the stone-tool typology and technology practical class, it became clear to me that this is what I wanted to do. It was both a sensual and intellectual experience, and I was heavily attracted to stone tools. So it was a slippery slope from that class onwards, until this very day.

Tell us a little bit about your PhD. What did you study and how did you find the overall PhD experience? Would you change anything about it?

My PhD, entitled “Flint and Stone Axes as Cultural Markers: Socio-Economic Changes as Reflected in Holocene Flint Tool Industries of the Southern Levant” was my own initiative. I was sorting huge lithic collections at a museum in northern Israel and came across thousands of axes, chisels and adzes and realized these were not studied in detail – I wanted to know more about these amazing stone tools. So, I decided to study Holocene bifacial tools from their emergence during the Natufian culture in the Levant up until their disappearance during the Chalcolithic. Luckily, my PhD supervisor was fine with the idea. I studied a lot of excavated materials from different sites in Israel, and attempted to correlate the changes in bifacial tools to transformations in economy, society and ideology. I was lucky in finding a use-wear analyst, Prof. Rick Yerkes, who was interested in joining me in studying the function of these tools, and his results helped me a lot in configuring my conclusions and provided me with a lot of appreciation for the functional study of stone tools. I have very good memories from the years of my PhD and I am very glad with the results. I was able to publish several papers during and following my PhD years and it also came out as a book, so I am satisfied with the results.

There is only one thing I would change. My PhD supervisor was always concerned about me being too bold in my arguments and thinking, and he was afraid this might hamper the review process and that the reviewers might find some of my suggestions and conclusions too far reaching. I know he did that for my own good and in order to make the review process as smooth as possible. And it was indeed smooth. But I had to lower the tone of my arguments and leave aside some of my thoughts and speculations. I never recommend doing so to my students; I make it clear to them that being bold and original might make their life difficult, but I never suggest them to walk on the safe side. I try to help them phrasing their arguments in the best way possible, and they are aware of the fact that their papers will, most probably, be rejected time and time again until finally accepted for publication, and this is indeed a recurring pattern for me and my students. But, it makes life interesting.

Teaching stone tools class during COVID 19 times.

Following your PhD, what projects have you worked on? Which was your favourite?

After my PhD I decided to move to the Paleolithic, the Lower Paleolithic. The year I finished my PhD, the year 2000, the site of Qesem Cave was discovered and we started the excavation that same year. We still study that particular site until this very day, and it will be studied for many years to come. The site is like a treasure box sealed for 200,000 years, and it holds many secrets about human cultural and biological evolution in the Levant. I am very proud of this project. Later on, I was lucky enough to study the lithic assemblages of Revadim, a late Acheulian site in Israel. I was interested in that project because that site is slightly earlier than Qesem Cave so it provided me and my team with materials that reflect the sequence of events in the terminal Lower Paleolithic in the Levant and comparable material to Qesem Cave. The lithics from Revadim were also beautifully preserved and allowed many breakthroughs regarding the understanding of Acheulian stone tools function via use-wear and residue analyses. In the year 2016 the late Acheulian site of Jaljulia was discovered, and we took part in the excavation and were in charge of the lithic analysis. This site adds to Qesem and Revadim in providing a detailed view on what went on during the late Lower Paleolithic in the Levant, a period of significant changes and transformations. So these are my favourites, in addition to the human-elephant interactions project and the study of past human ontology and cosmology. 

Ran Barkai during field work at Qesem Cave, Israel.

What are you currently working on? Has your work been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I basically continue the work described above. As I was not planning field work, COVID-19 did not have a severe influence of my work, but it certainly slowed things a lot, and for a long period of time it was not possible to work at the lab on the lithics. Moreover, the students, as well as myself, went through difficult times so the process of working, thinking and producing was, and still is, not at its best. 

An excursion to Qesem Cave during COVID 19 times.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I like publishing, so this is a difficult question. For the recent year, I am mostly proud in the work done with my PhD student Yafit Kedar regarding the possible role of hypoxia and altered states of consciousness in decorated caves and in human relationships with caves, and in the work with my PhD student Bar Efrati regarding life history and biographies of Paleolithic stone tools as mnemonic objects and token of appreciation towards the ancestors. But I like all of the projects that I am dealing with and all the publications that result, and I hope I will keep enjoying my work in the future as I do now.

Why do you think studying human origins is important?

My general understanding is that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, our ancestors, who lived in the past and paved the way to the present. In my view, all world views, conceptions and habits we now hold as “natural” or parts of “human nature” were actually conceived and practiced by humans in the past, and this human nature was shaped during the human past and thus could be understood and reconstructed through the study of the archaeological record. Thus, if we wish to understand the reasoning behind what we perceive as “natural” of “unavoidable” human behaviour, we should look at our past. We can also find out that humans lived in ways different than our own, and that there are alternative ways, which might be better than the one we are practicing, to allow human prosperity and sustainability. 

A visit to an Innu camp in Labrador with Prof. Adrian Tanner in 2017.

What do you hope we discover or find out about human evolution in the next 5 years?

My aim in the coming 5 years is to try to put together a research framework that will connect available knowledge regarding the animals hunted by humans during the Paleolithic and the stone tools made and used by humans in these times. I believe the transformations in animal prey availability throughout the Paleolithic holds great potential in understanding correlative trends in lithic technology, and my aim would be to make such a connection in an attempt to understand better changes in lithic technology over the course of the Paleolithic. I would also like to try to figure out the role of altered states of consciousness in the Paleolithic and how it is reflected in the archaeological record.

What advice do you have for students hoping to have a career similar to yours?

This is easy, and twofold: First, always follow your heart and keep your heart and mind open. Second: love what you do and do what you love. Find out what you are good at, and what makes you feel good. If you follow this advice, I guarantee you will be both successful and happy. 

Ran Barkai lecturing at the VII International Conference on Mammoths and their Relatives, Taiwan, 2017.

Finally, if you were not a scientist, what would you be?

This is even easier: I would love being a park ranger. I like to be out in the open, in nature, and I would enjoy helping to protect the environment. 

Published by lucyjt96

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

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