Episode 8: Israel Hershkovitz, archaeologist at Tel Aviv University

What's it like being a real-life Indiana Jones? Plus: Why we have Israel to thank for our pet dogs.

The guest: Dr. Israel Hershkovitz, a professor at Tel Aviv University, is one of Israel's leading archaeologists. More than that, he studies ancient bones with the eye of an anthropologist, hoping to discover some insight into evolution and the plight of the human condition. Why are we the way we are and what lessons can we learn from our past to pave a better future? Today we head to Dr. Hershkovitz's lab to chat with him about what it's like to be an archaeologist in the world's most fertile place for finding artifacts.

The gist: If you're an archaeologist and could choose anywhere in the world to work, it's safe to say that your dream job would be searching for ancient artifacts in Israel. The Mediterranean country has no shortage of discoveries. For many of us, what we know about the field of archaeology likely stems from Hollywood. Whether it's "Indiana Jones," "Tomb Raider," "National Treasure" or the "Mummy" franchise. But in modern-day Israel, archaeology is a big business. New discoveries are found on a regular basis. Elementary school students take field trips to archaeological sites. The Israel Antiquities Authority recently unveiled plans for a whopping 350,000-square-foot complex, containing nearly 2 million archaeological objects. Another 15,000 excavated artifacts will be added each year. At the center of this boom are the country's archaeologists.

Further reading:

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(Left) Host Benyamin Cohen and Dr. Israel Hershkovitz. (Right) A caste of a skeleton the wall of Hershkovitz's office. As discussed in the episode, visitors will notice a small dog buried near the head of the skeleton. (Left) Host Benyamin Cohen and Dr. Israel Hershkovitz. (Right) A caste of a skeleton the wall of Hershkovitz's office. As discussed in the episode, visitors will notice a small dog buried near the head of the skeleton. (Photo: From The Grapevine)

Dr. Hershkovitz's office is lined with ancient skulls instead of the usual paperweight decor. Dr. Hershkovitz's office is lined with ancient skulls instead of the usual paperweight decor. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

Dr. Israel Hershkovitz recording an episode of 'Our Friend from Israel' in his office at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Israel Hershkovitz recording an episode of 'Our Friend from Israel' in his office at Tel Aviv University. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

Transcript

Benyamin: On this episode of Our Friend from Israel.

News Reporter: Well you don't have to be Indiana Jones to make a major archeological find in Israel. An Israeli mother and her seven year old daughter, were taking a leisurely hike the other day, when they stumbled upon an ancient clay lamp.

Benyamin: If you're an archeologist and could choose anywhere in the world to work, it's safe to say that your dream job would be searching for ancient artifacts in Israel. The Mediterranean country has no shortage of discoveries.

News Reporter: Archaeologists in Israel have unearthed a rare, multicolored Roman mosaic.

News Reporter: Archaeologists find a cave that once housed Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel.

News Reporter: The safe where the Arc of the Covenant was known to have been stored in Israel for two decades, is about to be excavated for the very first time.

News Reporter: Archaeologists in Israel have recovered bronze statues and thousands of coins from a merchant ship, that sank off the Mediterranean Coast some 1,600 years ago during the late Roman period.

Benyamin: In Israel there's even a cottage industry of archeological finds, that are solely dedicated to alcoholic discoveries.

News Reporter: Archaeologists uncovered hundreds of liquor bottles near a World War I barracks in Israel.

News Reporter: Archaeologists in Israel recently stumbled upon a 1,600 year old wine press.

News Reporter: According to the Israel Antiquities Authorities, archaeologists unearthed a 5,000 year old brewery in Tel Aviv, not far from where the city's present day bars are located.

Benyamin: For many of us, what we know about the field of archeology likely stems from Hollywood. Whether it's "Indiana Jones," "Tomb Raider," "National Treasure" or the "Mummy" franchise. But in modern day Israel, archeology is a big business. New discoveries are found on a regular basis. Elementary school students take field trips to archaeological sites. The Israel Antiquities Authority recently unveiled plans for a whopping 350,000 square foot complex, containing nearly 2 million archeological objects. Another 15,000 excavated artifacts will be added each year.

Benyamin: At the center of this boom are the country's archaeologists. In a place like Israel with its rich, ancient history, archeologists have more than enough to keep them busy. Once such archeologist is the aptly named Dr. Israel Hershkovitz, a professor at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Hershkovitz is unique in his field.

Benyamin: More than merely an archaeologist, he studies ancient bones with the eye of an anthropologist, hoping to discover some insight into evolution and the plight of the human condition. Why are we the way we are and what lessons can we learn from our past to pave a better future? Today we head to Dr. Hershkovitz' lab, on the campus of Tel Aviv University, to chat with him about what it's like to be an archeologist in the world's most fertile place for finding artifacts.

Benyamin: Welcome to Our Friend From Israel, a podcast brought to you by FromTheGrapevine.com. I'm your host Benyamin Cohen and each week we'll have a conversation with an intriguing Israeli. They'll come from all walks of life, actors, artists, athletes and other news makers. In today's episode, we chat with one of Israel's leading archeologists.

Benyamin: I think most people who think about archaeologists, we get this image of Indiana Jones and running around finding bones and skeletons. Is any part of that real or is that just in the movies?

Israel: There is something to it. What you have to realize that we are not what you call, arm chair anthropologist. I mean we don't stay here at the university, the medical school in our labs and wait for other people or for the archeologist to bring the bones. Actually we are taking active part in almost every excavation here in Israel. I spend at least three to four or five months a year, just in caves or sites all over Israel, in order to find treasures like the skeletons over here on the wall.

Israel: There is something to it because we are a mixture between laboratory people because we do some chemical analysis, we do DNA analysis, we do all kinds of sophisticated things in our laboratory. And at the same time we go to the field and work with shovels and so on and dig the bones over there, so it's nice.

Benyamin: What were one or two of the most exciting things that you found, that you discovered?

Israel: Well it's like asking a father who you love more. Which of your children do you love more, that's an unfair question. There are many things that I think are important. Some of the finds that we recently published are extremely important scientifically and reached a global intention. There was even everywhere in the New York Times, The Guardian and the Washington Post, everywhere, every newspaper around the world. But for example there are many other artifacts that are more touching, that maybe they are not that scientifically important but from the human perspective, I am more attached to them.

Israel: For example, I have a full skeleton of a dwarf from the Byzantine period, from a small city called Rehovot. One of the famous Natufian Byzantine city and it's interesting, it's dwarf like, less than one meter high, that reached quite an old age. And you think about it, going back 2,000 or 1,500 years in time, how someone like him could survive in the desert. Tells you about the people around and people were caring about human, helping him to live a normal life, actually full life and I'm sure it wasn't easy.

Israel: I have a skeleton from a community in Getty who was totally crippled for example, he couldn't walk. You could tell it from the bone right away and he again, he still managed to live into adult life. It means that the family and the environment, they were caring for him, I mean they were helping him. We tend to think about people as egocentric, as we think about ourself.

Israel: Benefit of the society, we don't care too much about other people, especially in the past and this is not the case, it is the contrary. We can see how people were caring for the weak people in the society, without all the social organizations that we have today. Without the central government, without anything to help them, just simple people who were caring about their neighbors, which is really touching and tells you a lot about people in the past.

Benyamin: That gives you hope.

Israel: Yeah.

Benyamin: Are we evolving as a species or have we devolved in that sense?

Israel: The mechanism behind evolution is natural selection. The problem is modern technology, we are actually partially neutralizing the effect of natural selection.

Benyamin: What do you mean?

Israel: We are playing God, you and me have-

Benyamin: Glasses.

Israel: Glasses. 20,000 years we wouldn't survive because we couldn't hunt, we couldn't go hunting. We couldn't do anything beneficial, we would starve to death during-

Benyamin: We were nobodies.

Israel: We were nobody. Now every second individual has glasses so actually technology, we are neutralizing the power of natural selection. We're in a position now with all the modern genetic technology, we start playing God. Says, "Okay natural selection, from now on we will play God. We'll decide that we want to give benefit to different genome specific genes and so on. Whether we have priority for genes for intellectuality or for beauty or for eye colors or for statue or whatever."

Israel: Where we are heading I don't know, but it's up to us. Now it is up to us, it's not even up to the natural selection anymore but it is up to us. I don't know but we are reaching the moment where we will have to make a decision because we reach such a high level of technology here, that we can intervene with any aspect of human life today.

Benyamin: But you're saying that's a good thing if we use that power correctly.

Israel: I'm not saying it's good or bad, I don't know, I think there is a big risk behind but [inaudible 00:08:49] we will manage to live much longer, double our life expectancy. Instead of living around 80 years we live to 160 years. What this would mean, that you will have people living to 160 years, so people want to retire only when they will reach the age 140. What impact it will have on our mental capabilities, beyond physical capabilities, I don't know.

Benyamin: When we return, Dr. Hershkovitz talks about the importance of being an archeologist in Israel and how the country plays an important role in the history of pet ownership.

Israel: The first domesticated evidence for the first domestication of dogs, comes also here from Israel. I love my dog, I have a great dog.

Benyamin: What kind of dog do you have?

Israel: I have a mishmash. I remember when my daughter brought it and we went to the vet for injection so on the wall there was a huge picture of all the different races of the dogs. And she was looking at it and said, "Oh dad I can't find our dog, it's not in any of the pictures." and there is 100 dogs there. And the vet told her, "You have a very special dog, it is a mixture of this one and this one and this one and this one."

Benyamin: What's your dog's name?

Israel: Max.

Benyamin: Max.

Benyamin: Hello listeners, you'll notice that every single podcast on the planet, asks you to rate and review them on iTunes. Why do they do that, well here's the answer. The more reviews and ratings that a show gets, the higher the show winds up on the iTunes charts, which in turn helps more people discover the show. If you're enjoying this podcast, please head on over to iTunes and leave us a rating and a review, we greatly appreciate it. And now back to the show.

Benyamin: Israel must be an amazing place to be a physical anthropologist. There is so much rich history to be found here.

Israel: Well there is good and bad to it. The good things about it is Israel is a corridor between different continent. Even if you are interested very much in say human evolution for example, all the earlier hominids that went in and out of Africa, they had to go to pass through Israel. This is the only way they could go in and out and spread around the world. For example, Israel is one of the richest place, globally in prehistoric sites. We have more prehistoric sites per square kilometer, than any other country globally and this is why we have so many important fossils.

Israel: If you want to really study human evolution, you have to come to Israel. You have to start with Ethiopia in East Africa, where everything had began. But afterwards if you want to know more about it, about human expansion and about the evolution of our own species the Homo sapiens, you have to come to Israel because Israel is really the central part.

Israel: Now over hundreds of centuries, people were coming and going and we witnessed all of the major historical events, globally, had some impact on this small piece of land. Really we have a huge amount where we can contribute a lot, to the understanding of human history and human evolution in general.

Benyamin: I read a lot of news and I often see in the news they say, "An archeologist found something new in Israel and they discovered that it was one of Jesus' apostles." Or they said, "From this bone we were able to see the diet of what the people back then ate." It boggles my mind how the archeologists are able to know something so specific, just from an old bone.

Israel: Well not the archeologists, you mean the anthropologists.

Benyamin: Anthropologist, sorry.

Israel: That's okay, don't mix between the two.

Benyamin: Sorry.

Israel: I don't know if you are helping us or them but let's differentiate between archeologist and physical anthropologist, we are biologists. You can extra data from diet from the teeth for example, from oral diseases, from dental diseases, from the isotope content of the bones, from different diseases that are associated. There are many ways to extract data for example, when humans die. And then what you can do is sure enough you take your anthropological data and you combine them with your archeological data.

Israel: Animals were hunted for example, in the region. You can correlate it with botanical information on plants and so on. We are not working in isolation. Eventually what we do is we come with, we code that with the anthropological code data and then try to verify and validate it against what we know about the animals, about the environment, about the plants around us. What people are not always realizing that the bones actually record every event, every important event that you experience during your life.

Israel: Diseases that you have suffered from, type of diet, nutrition, health problem. You can extract knowledge on your age, sex and now with DNA analysis we can even know what was your eye color or hair color. We can extract your height, your stature. We can actually gain information on almost every aspect of the individual's life. Imagine to yourself that you excavate a cemetery and you have 100 skeletons from all ages, both sexes, and you carry out an anthropological study.

Israel: Eventually you will end up with 100 stories. You combine those 100 individual stories into one story and then you have an idea how the population looked like, not just physically look like. About lifestyle, daily activities, even social structure, economy, health condition and so on. Basically when people are coming to my lab or down to the collection, to the anthropological collection, they are entering a huge library because for us every skeleton, every bone is a book, historical book.

Israel: Instead of relying on historical documents we are actually relying on the people were living at that time. That's say I'm interested in Jerusalem during the Roman period, so instead of collecting Roman documents I can collect bones and see what the bones can tell us about human life in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period.

Benyamin: If you're enjoying this podcast, you'll also want to check out our recent interview with Dr. Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard's astronomy department. Dr. Loeb is actively searching for alien life.

Avi Loeb: My young daughter who is 12 years old, asked me to bring the alien home if we ever find it.

Benyamin: Like ET.

Avi Loeb: My wife on the other hand said that, if they ever offer me a ride on the spacecraft, I should make sure that they leave the car keys with her and they don't ruin the lawn in the back yard when they lift off.

Benyamin: Check out that episode with Dr. Avi Loeb at FromTheGrapevine.com. And now back to today's episode with Dr. Israel Hershkovitz, an archeologist at Tel Aviv University.

Benyamin: When you walk into Dr. Hershkovitz' office, hanging on the wall is a cast of a human skeleton. If you look closely, you'll see the bones of a small animal curled up next to the human's head. It's a replica of bones found by archeologists in an Israeli town and it is believed to be the first physical evidence that humans had dogs as pets. As such, dogs have taken an out-sized role in the research of some Israel archeologists.

Israel: Dogs are one of the easiest animals to domesticate. For example, you can't domesticate a zebra, they tried to domesticate it. You cannot domesticate an ibex or you cannot domesticate gazelle, I mean but goat yes, you can domesticate goat and sheep you can domesticate. The only hard evidence that we have for dog domestication is here on my wall is just behind you.

Israel: It's a Natufian skeleton. They were late hunter gatherers of the region, living roughly between 15,000 to 11,000 years ago and this is a female burial and she's buried, you can see on the top just above the head to the left there is a full skeleton of a dog. This is the first evidence that we have, for domestication of dogs, physical evidence.

Benyamin: That's fascinating so this was found in Israel.

Israel: Yup.

Benyamin: And how do you know that I'm looking at a little animal skeleton? How do you know that that's a dog skeleton and not a rabbit or a turtle or anything?

Israel: No I know, that's my profession, it's a dog. It's a small dog by the way, not a big one but it's a dog, it's definitely a dog and it was confirmed by many other people.

Benyamin: And so the fact that it was buried with its human owner, what does that mean?

Israel: I don't know, it's interesting. It means that she cared very much about her dog. Think about it, a woman, young female living 15,000 years ago, buried with her own dog. It's very touching if you think about, that's why I left it here on my wall.

Benyamin: What do you think it is about pets? I mean I think pets as a modern invention but it's not a modern invention.

Israel: Oh no, no, no not at all but as I said, dogs are easy to domesticate. There are some animals that you can't domesticate and I think there is a good reason why we call dogs, "The best friend of man." And I can call the best friend of women because the first skeleton with a dog was with women not the men. She's also interesting in a way.

Benyamin: Where are these bones? This is just a replica, where are the actual bones of this woman?

Israel: This one it's interesting because it was discovered long ago in the early 1960s in a Kibbutz which is called Ma'yan Baruch which is in the upper Galilee, just above the Hula Valley. And there was a kibbutznik there who was crazy about pre-history and he found the site and the site was excavated by a French delegation long ago and when they finished they took up the whole skeleton. And since he established in the Kibbutz Museum of Prehistory which is still working and open to the public, they're getting the skeleton of the woman with the dog so it is still there.

Israel: Which in a way I'm happy because there is a tendency, in all museum you activate genes throughout Israel and then you plug into the Israel museum in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv Museum and so on. And sometimes I feel pity about it because I think this treasure should stay where they were found, with the people. They belong to the people who are living there, not to the people who are living in Tel Aviv and those who would like to see it should go travel to the Kibbutz there and see this skeleton, it's an amazing skeleton.

Benyamin: One of the things I know we talked about Indiana Jones and going into caves, this field has really progressed in the modern era now and I know there's so many new technological tools that people in your profession are using. You have a whole laboratory here at Tel Aviv University.

Israel: Yeah we have quite a sophisticated, very advanced, several laboratories here, three laboratories. With all the most sophisticated instrument that you can think of but in the end what you needed most is not intellectual capabilities and not sophisticated, advanced instrumentation whatsoever. What you need most is luck.

Benyamin: Luck?

Israel: Luck. Simply luck. Imagine to yourself to go, you can spend 10 years of your life in a cave, spend I don't know how much money, don't want to think even about it and eventually come out with nothing. I mean nobody can tell you and there is no special machine that can help you to find fossils in caves or even in open sites. That's something that still depends on luck.

Benyamin: And do you think you've had a lot of luck in your career?

Israel: Yeah I think so, I think so. I think so. It's something frustrating because if you think about some of the most important physical anthropologists of our century and previous century, we are not able to find even a single fossil. And they were extremely capable and knowledgeable, brilliant physical anthropologists so you need this extra, which I called it luck, God's help whatever you want to call it, everybody can give it a different name. I just simply call it luck.

Israel: What people are not realizing, what I was saying, it's an essential part of your success and this is not true for almost any other scientific field. It is true for physical anthropology because at the end we have to go through the field and we have to find this fossil and there is no way we can predict when we start an excavation, even a statistical way to predict where we will find the fossil.

Israel: There is no way, people were trying to do it, they took data from 200, 300 excavations around the world and tried to make sense out of it. Whether the chances to find the fossil at the terrace in front of the cave or deep in the cave, close to the wall or far from the wall, no rules. No rule.

Benyamin: There's no metal detector that you can go and [crosstalk 00:24:08].

Israel: No metal detector. Sometimes you have to excavate eight meters before you reach the fossil. Someone is just 20 meters below the surface. What was the way to tell?

Benyamin: What was it like the first time you dug up a bone, was it just a big aha moment for you?

Israel: It is always. Every bone that you find, every fossil that you discover is exciting for you but it's really exciting, it just makes you very happy.

Benyamin: I can imagine. If I were to come back and visit you in five years or ten years from now, what do you hope to have accomplished by then that you haven't yet accomplished?

Israel: Well what you have to realize is that you need luck to find a fossil but then you need to have something new to tell and it's not the same thing. You have to develop some kind of a perception let's say of human evolution, of recent human evolution. And what I hope to do in the coming five years actually to revolutionize the whole concept of modern human evolution.

Benyamin: That's not a small task.

Israel: It's a huge task. Basically we started, we found a new hominid last year in a new cave that we just started working. For example in one cave I was working for 10 years before I found the single tooth. In another cave I just started last year, the first season, we just cleaned the surface and start excavating. Removing maybe 20 centimeters of the upper ecological layer we found two skeletons.

Benyamin: Wow here in Israel.

Israel: Here in Israel. I think we just used skeletons, we just need to find, we might be able to say something new about the history of human kind.

Benyamin: Do you have any idea what that is?

Israel: I have but I won't tell you. You'll have to come five years from now and come back and interview me.

Benyamin: Okay. Is there any question I did not ask you that I should have asked you?

Israel: No, no you asked me everything that you wanted. You are asking the question, I am giving you the answers.

Benyamin: Yeah okay. Thank you Professor Hershkovitz for spending the time to chat with us today, it's been very educational, enlightening, enriching and very interesting. Thank you so much.

Israel: My pleasure.

Benyamin: Our Friend From Israel is a production of FromTheGrapevine.com. Extra notes and a transcript of today's episode can be found at OurFriendFromIsrael.com. Our show is produced by Paul Kesko, editorial help from Jamie Bender and Ilana Strauss. Our head engineer is Everett Adams, our theme music by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel.

Benyamin: You can visit our website at FromTheGrapevine.com to find more episodes from the show. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcast app. Feel free to leave us a review there, when you do it helps others discover Our Friend From Israel. I'm your host Benyamin Cohen and until next time, we hope you have a great week.

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