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In Memoriam: Katharine MacDonald (1976-2022)

Our dear colleague and friend Kathy MacDonald passed away unexpectedly on August 9th, 2022, a few days after her 46th birthday. Her sudden passing came as a tremendous shock to her colleagues and friends at the Faculty of Archaeology and to colleagues and former students both in The Netherlands and abroad.

Kathy MacDonald (1976-2022). Picture by Helen Macdonald

Kathy joined the Faculty of Archaeology in 2004, participating in an N.W.O.-funded project in which she performed a cross-cultural study of the knowledge and skills required for a successful hunting-gathering niche, and  how such knowledge was passed from one generation to the next. With a strong background in palaeolithic archaeology and ecology obtained at Southampton University (UK), she embarked on a long-term and very productive affiliation with our faculty. Soft-spoken and unpretentious, extremely knowledgeable, and a brilliant scholar, she became one of the stable centers of the Human Origins group. She very much enjoyed contact with students in her teaching and supervision of MA- and PhD candidates.

There were many high-quality research projects she was involved in over the years: last year, for instance, she was the first author of a high-impact paper on cultural interactions in the Middle Pleistocene, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS); she co-authored a paper on the earliest case of landscape modification in our past that appeared in Science Advances and raised great interest from scholars and the general public alike. And on her birthday just a few weeks ago, a potentially ground-breaking study of the hominin hunting niche, co-authored with German colleagues, went into review. 

But beyond her academic accomplishments, we will remember Kathy as one of the kindest colleagues we ever knew, very committed to her students and close collaborators, and a very well-organized worker – the more so once Morag had arrived in her and Alec’s life. The future of our planet was high on her agenda, within and outside her academic life. She was strongly convinced about the relevance of the past for creating a liveable planet, and an enthusiastic co-initiator of our recent graduate course The Human Planet.  A gifted artist, she always carried her sketchbook with her and would sit unnoticed at excursions, excavations and conferences, turning her observations of landscapes, people, and things into beautiful drawings and watercolours.

She was a witty, modest, lovely person, a distinct haven of calm and kindness in a competitive academic world. But when necessary, she could also be “kordaat” as our emeritus Corrie Bakels put it (in Dutch) after her passing: Kathy was stout-hearted, resolute and crystal-clear in expressing her thoughts. Science and academia could do with more “Kathyness”: it would be a much nicer place.

No matter how much we will miss her as a close colleague and a friend, our losses are nothing compared to those experienced by Alec and Morag, and Kathy’s sister and parents. Our deepest sympathies are with her family.

Wil Roebroeks

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