A Bitter Archaeological Battle Is Rocking Tel Aviv University

Prof. Yoel Rak challenged his colleagues at Tel Aviv University’s anthropology department, saying their groundbreaking find is in fact a run-of-the-mill Neanderthal. He says they responded by changing his locks

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Prof. Yoel Rak, this month.
Prof. Yoel Rak, this month.
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s anthropology department claims that the institution and his department colleagues are harassing him because he has questioned their groundbreaking study.

The researcher, Prof. Yoel Rak, published an article that casts doubt on the existence of a new type of ancient human, called Nesher Ramla. When the discovery of the specimen was first reported in June, it became a scientific and journalistic sensation. An article by a TAU researcher describing Nesher Ramla was the cover story of the prestigious journal Science about six months ago, and Rak’s article, written in response, was published last week in the same journal.

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According to Rak, from the time that Science requested a response to his criticism from the scholars who published the original article, headed by Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, he has suffered from harassment. This includes, among other incidents, changing the locks on his laboratory on campus. The university rejected Rak’s claims, and said that they are clarifying what took place. The scholars who published the original article, for their part, added that Rak’s response presents only a partial picture and distorts the reality.

“I needed some reference or another and went to my library,” Rak recounts. “I’m trying to open the door and I see that they changed the key. I went to the superintendent, and he tells me that the department head ordered him not to give me the key. I went to him and told him that I’ve been a faculty member in the department for 50 years. What’s happening here? I also went to the dean and it turns out that he knows about it, too.”

Behind the doors whose locks were changed is a unique collection with over 70 scientific copies of prehistoric skull fossils, made of plastic and plaster. Rak himself brought the collection to the university about 40 years ago from his time in Berkeley, where he says he was in charge of copying skulls and fossils. Rak retired five years ago, but he continues to teach two courses. He received a small room next to the laboratory where the collection is kept, and he uses the skulls regularly in his teaching. Now he can’t bring the skulls to class, nor can he return two skulls that he brought to a lecture in his grandson’s class.

The mandible and skull dome of Nesher Ramla Homo at Tel Aviv University, in June.

In his opinion, there is no doubt that there is a connection between the decision to change the locks and to prevent his access to the collection, and the article that he sent to Science. “This collection has been there for 40 years, right after Science requested a response from Israel [Hershkovitz] they close the door to me? That’s no coincidence,” says Rak.

Recently, after the article was published, claims Rak, the university ramped up the harassment, by breaking into his closets in the lab. He claims that the university administration was told that he plans to transfer the collection to another place, which is why they changed the locks. Rak says he has no such intention. “The collection is scientifically valuable. I even wanted to ask them to make me a door from my room to the lab for the collection. That’s all I wanted to ask for, I had no intention of removing the collection.”

Hershkovitz denies that he has any connection to the matter of the collection or changing the locks. Tel Aviv University said: “Without getting into the details of the specific case, whose pertinent facts are being clarified by the relevant entities, it should be noted that, as a rule, an academic collection that was collected and created in the context of academic research work in the university belongs to the university as a public institution and is kept by it, and is not transferred to the private possession of a faculty member.”

The mandible controversy

Responsible for the announcement of the new type of prehistoric human are two research teams from TAU, who published two articles on the study of dynasties of ancient man, which they published in Science. The first article described a new group of hominins called Nesher Ramla Homo, based on the human remains that were discovered in a prehistoric excavation inside a Nesher quarry in Ramle, in central Israel. The second article dealt with the material culture of that group.

The researchers, led by Hershkovitz, wrote that the human remains from Nesher Ramla – part of the dome of a skull and a lower mandible with two teeth, from about 130,000 years ago – are remains of a human group that was not known to science until now. This group, according to the researchers, may be the evolutionary predecessor of the Neanderthals – the human group that was common in Europe up until about 30,000 years ago – as well as of other species.

The mandible of Nesher Ramla Homo at a laboratory in Tel Aviv University, in June.

The researchers added that the new Nesher Ramla type can solve many questions regarding the human family tree. For example, it can explain the relationship and genetic transfers between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, and the question of how the Neanderthals returned to Europe after the ice ages. According to the scholars, the Levantine Nesher Ramla group wandered to Europe every time the climatic conditions made that possible, and renewed the Neanderthal population there.

Tel Aviv University was proud of the study and held several press conferences; the findings were published in newspapers all over the world. The head of the research team, Hershkovitz, had already assumed that the study would be attacked. “Tonight will be the night of the long knives,” he predicted at the time, in a conversation with Haaretz. And in fact, weeks after publication, Science received a response harshly criticizing the study. The response came from the very same TAU department – from Hershkovitz’s colleague, Prof. Rak.

In the article, Rak and his student, Dr. Assaf Marom, wrote that the Nesher Ramla type is nothing but an ordinary Neanderthal, lacking any characteristics that distinguish it from other Neanderthals discovered in the region, for instance, the 160,000-year-old skeleton from Tabun Cave on Mount Carmel.

“In our view,” wrote Rak and Marom, “the evidence presented by the authors is not only weak, but also ignores the fact that the [Nesher Ramla] mandible manifests the unique combination of highly diagnostic morphology of the Neanderthal mandible … Our results indicate that the NR fossils should simply be classified as Neanderthals.”

Dr. Hila May, Dr. Rachel Sarig and Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, who announced the discovery of Nesher Ramla Homo, at Tel Aviv University in June.

“The Neanderthals are quite unique, if I find a tooth I know that it’s Neanderthal,” says Rak. “The chewing system that they found in Ramla is very typical, and that can easily be demonstrated with several measurements. As soon as the article was published, colleagues from all over the world reached out to me and said, how are they publishing something like that? I know the people, they’re experts at pyrotechnics, they did all kinds of hocus pocus and that makes an impression on people who don’t understand,” he says; the researchers in Hershkovitz’s group used three-dimensional scans in order to analyze the remains. “But it’s Neanderthal and only Neanderthal, like they found in the Tabun cave. But if you want to make a big fuss, you do it.”

Along with the article by Rak and Marom, Science has now published a response to the response, written by Hershkovitz and his partners on the research team. In their article, they attack Rak and Marom, and write that they focused only on the mandible, which really is similar to that of a Neanderthal, as they themselves noted in the original study. But they claim that Rak and Marom ignored the other finding – the fossil of the dome of the skull that could not be Neanderthal.

“He takes only half a picture and that’s a distortion of reality,” says Hershkovitz. “You’re being deceptive, because you give people the sense that Nesher Ramla is just the mandible. For that reason alone, this article is unacceptable.” He adds that the analysis by Rak and Marom is faulty, as it ignores nuances.

“Their world is dichotomous: there are Homo sapiens and there are Neanderthals. In such a world, the findings are automatically Neanderthals. Our study has a much higher resolution,” he adds. Hershkovitz claims that the scientific world in general embraced the study about Nesher Ramla. “No article opposing our idea was published, but science is a very fraught and emotional place.”

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