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During his long and varied academic career, first as a geographer and then an archaeologist, David Harris became an acknowledged world authority on the ecology, diversity and evolution of agricultural systems, and of plant and animal domestication. He became a Professor of Human Environment at the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) and subsequently Director of the Institute. He was active in supporting environmental archaeology and archaeological science at the Institute of Archaeology and at the UK national level. Following retirement in 1998, he remained highly active until his death in December 2013.
Born in London on 14 December 1930, the son of Dr Herbert and Norah Harris, David was educated at St Christopher School, Letchworth. For its time, the school was highly 'progressive', being coeducational and vegetarian, and with predominantly Quaker teachers during World War II. It was at school that he met Helen, his future wife. Following school and 18 months as a conscript in the Royal Air Force, he proceeded to read Geography at University College, Oxford. Continuing this with postgraduate studies, in 1955 he was awarded an M.Litt. for a thesis entitled Water resources and land use in Tunisia. David then received a King George VI Memorial Fellowship to study in the USA, and in 1955 he enrolled as a research student at the University of California at Berkeley. The structure of the graduate study programme at Berkeley gave him the opportunity to take courses across a range of traditional disciplines, specifically in botany, anthropology and geography. He was especially influenced by the celebrated cultural and ecological geographer Carl Sauer and his colleagues in the Department of Geography, so David's PhD research examined the history and ecology of land use in the Leeward Islands, in the West Indies. His thesis, Plants, animals and man in the outer Leeward Islands, West Indies: an ecological study of Antigua, Barbuda and Anguilla, was later published in 1965 by the University of California Press and endures today as a vital source for ecological anthropologists and archaeologists interested in this part of the Caribbean archipelago.
After completing his PhD in 1963, David returned to London to lecture geography at Queen Mary College and by 1964 had advanced to become a Reader in the Geography Department at University College London. Over time, he became increasingly interested in the inter-disciplinary research themes which overlap between archaeology, anthropology and geography. Taking part in an expedition in the American tropics, David made detailed observations on the traditional subsistence practices of various agriculturalist settlements, observing that the inhabitants combined cultivation of root crops and fruit trees with fishing and hunting. This led him to realise that the clear distinction that had conventionally been made between hunter-gatherer and agricultural modes of subsistence was a great oversimplification. Beginning in 1974, David embarked upon a major field project on present and past human subsistence in the Torres Strait region between Australia and New Guinea. The project was later expanded to include archaeological surveys and excavations of relict field systems and coastal middens in the western islands of Torres Strait and coastal Papua New Guinea. David began his last major overseas research project at the Neolithic site of Jeitun in the Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan, in 1989. He recalled that this project enabled him to combine his long-lasting interest in the beginnings of agriculture with his early (geographer's) love of desert landscapes.
In January 1980 David Harris joined the Institute of Archaeology as Professor of Human Environment: at this time the Institute was one of a number of Senate Institutes of the University of London. His first academic priority as Professor of Human Environment was to develop research and teaching in the archaeobotany of plant macro-remains. By the following year, he had obtained a three-year research grant that enabled Gordon Hillman (then in the Botany Department at Cardiff) to work full-time at the Institute on the archaeobotany of Tell Abu Hureyra, an important pre- and early Neolithic site in Syria. As part of this research, in 1983, David, Gordon and Sue Colledge travelled extensively in Syria (accompanied by Tony Legge and Peter Rowley-Conwy) and also in Turkey, making ecological surveys and collecting herbarium specimens to develop the Institute's renowned Near Eastern botanical and archaeobotanical reference collections. That same year, David secured a lectureship in archaeobotany through a University of London New Academic Initiatives scheme, to which Gordan Hillman was appointed.
In 1986, after a series of negotiations in which David Harris played a major part (alongside the then Director Professor John D. Evans), the Institute merged with University College London. During his period as Director of the Institute, from 1989 to 1996, David Harris initiated a wide range of important innovations and reforms. The Wolfson Archaeological Science Laboratories and secure artefact store, built following David's major fund-raising effort, were opened in 1991. Another significant achievement was to bring about a 'culture shift' in the Institute, with a clearer focus on excellence in research and teaching, and in particular an expansion of the range of graduate level courses offered. As well as these enduring contributions to the Institute of Archaeology, David was also active in contributing to the academic and administrative affairs of UCL and the University of London, and also externally. Among the latter, two especially important contributions to the discipline must include the chairmanship of the Science-Based Archaeology Committee (1989–1992) (then part of the Science and Engineering Research Council, now under the aegis of the Natural Environment Research Council) and the presidency of the Prehistoric Society (1990–1994).
The excellence of David's academic contributions has been recognised in various ways throughout his career. In 1972 he received the Back Award of the Royal Geographical Society for 'Contributions to Biogeography, especially of Middle America'. He was invited to convene a prestigious Wenner-Gren Foundation conference on human ecology in savanna environments (the 79th Burg Wartenstein Conference), which took place in 1978, leading to the publication in 1980 of Human ecology in savanna environments, which he edited. Elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1982, David was also made an Honorary Fellow of University College London in recognition of his services to UCL in 2000; and his many and varied distinguished contributions to scholarship were recognised in 2004 when he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.
An Emeritus Professor of Human Environment since his retirement in 1998, David Harris continued to be actively involved with the Institute of Archaeology, undertaking research and publishing, attending seminars and public lectures, and encouraging younger colleagues. For generations of archaeologists he was an influential teacher on past resources and human subsistence, drawing on his global, and mostly first-hand, knowledge of traditional subsistence systems and world archaeology. Through his writings, edited volumes and conference organisation, he influenced generations of environmental archaeologists, ethnobotanists and archaeobotanists by promoting a global comparative approach to the diversity of pathways from foraging to farming. His papers on tropical agriculture and the importance of vegeculture were highly influential in encouraging the development of tropical archaeobotany across the world, from the American tropics to Africa to New Guinea. His fieldwork and research contributions were significant in many world regions, from early work in the Caribbean and Neotropics, the American Southwest, the Torres Straits islands, and the Fertile Crescent, to his more recent work on Jeitun in Central Asia. He is renowned for the clarity of his thought and for his monumental syntheses of the origins of agriculture in various regions. He was also a dedicated and knowledgeable historian of former members of the Institute of Archaeology, most particularly of V. Gordon Childe and Frederick Zeuner. In addition to numerous noteworthy chapters and journal articles he published many books, among the most important of which are: Origins of agriculture in western Central Asia: an environmental-archaeological study (2010), The origins and spread of agriculture and pastoralism in Eurasia (1996), The archaeology of V. Gordon Childe: contemporary perspectives (1994) and Foraging and farming (1989). On his retirement, David became the founding editor of Archaeology International, the in-house journal of the Institute of Archaeology.
David Harris was an innovative researcher and thinker, an inspirational teacher, and a supportive colleague, who had a profound influence on the academic careers and outlook of numerous scholars across the world. He was also a devoted family man and will be greatly missed by Helen, their four daughters and eight grandchildren.