Alumna Katerina Harvati-Papatheodorou Is Awarded Germany's Highest Scientific Prize, for her Breakthrough Findings on Human Evolution

December 23, 2020

Harvati has gained "crucial new insights into the processes of human evolution" through a combination of field research and 3D morphometry imaging techniques, DFG said in its prize announcement.


Graduate Center alumna Katerina Harvati-Papatheodorou (Ph.D. ’01, Anthropology) (known professionally as Katerina Harvati) was one of 10 scientists awarded a 2021 Leibniz Prize from the Joint Committee of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), considered the most important research funding prize in Germany. The award, which includes prize money of 2.5 million euros, recognizes her groundbreaking findings on the evolution of humans and their closest relatives.

Harvati, a professor and director paleoanthropology at the University of Tübingen, has gained “crucial new insights into the processes of human evolution” through a combination of field research and 3D morphometry imaging techniques, DFG said in its prize announcement. “In her diverse research she has been able to show that Neanderthals also had a highly developed behavioural repertoire, and this has fundamentally revised the idea of man’s closest relative.”

In addition to prestigious grants and honors, Harvati has received considerable media attention for her discoveries involving human evolution. Time magazine named her research on a skull from South Africa a top-10 scientific discovery for 2007. She and her team determined that the skull matched skulls found in Europe, Asia, and Australia, demonstrating the African origin of all modern humans. 

In 2019, her breakthrough research on human fossils in Greece made lists of the most important scientific discoveries of the year by The GuardianDiscover Magazine, and Livescience and of the decade by Gizmodo. The research, published in Nature, revised theories about when humans started leaving Africa. Analysis of crushed skulls found in the roof of a cave indicated that some Homo sapiens reached Europe over 210,000 years ago, well before the great diaspora that occurred 70,000 years ago. 

Harvati learned about the Liebniz Prize just before it was announced, in a letter from the president of DFG. “Of course, I was thrilled and felt incredibly honored to receive this prize — the highest scientific award in Germany,” she said. “It is an amazing recognition for the work that my team and I have been conducting, shedding light on modern human origins and on the adaptations and lifestyles of our fossil relatives. The prize funds will go to further both new and currently ongoing research projects in my lab, and it is a great relief to be able to advance my research agenda without worrying about external funding for the next several years. I am grateful to The Graduate Center for the rigorous academic training I received there as part of the Anthropology Ph.D. program, and I am proud to be a member of the extended CUNY family.”

Harvati has published her work in NatureScience, the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesEvolutionary AnthropologyJournal of Human Evolution, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and other peer-reviewed international journals. She is the co-editor of two volumes in the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology series of Springer Verlag, Neanderthals Revisited, and Paleoanthropology of the Balkans and Anatolia.

She remains connected to The Graduate Center where she has been a presenter and served on student research committees.