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Harold L. Dibble, age 66, an influential archaeologist who pioneered widely used methods in the field, died of neuroendocrine cancer Sunday, June 10, 2018 at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania.
A Penn professor and Penn Museum curator, Dr. Dibble led 11 excavations in France, Morocco, and Egypt, including one in 2010 in which the skeleton of the “world’s oldest child” dating back 108,000 years was discovered.
“He was well-known for his discoveries, but what made him most famous were his methods that have become ingrained in everyday archaeological sites,” said Dr. Dibble’s son Flint, who was named after the prehistoric stone tool.
Born in California, Dr. Dibble was exposed to the world of science at a young age. His father, Harold L. Dibble Sr., was a rocket scientist and the first dean of the engineering college at Florida Institute of Technology.
Dr. Dibble moved to Arizona to pursue a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Arizona. Around the same time he went on his first excavation. He married his wife, Lee, in 1975, after meeting her in an anthropology class while studying for his master’s at the University of Arizona, where he also earned a doctorate in anthropology.
In 1982, Dr. Dibble and his wife moved to Narberth. The family, including Dr. Dibble’s other son, Chip — named after the chipped stone tools used by Neanderthals — traveled around the world to work on dig sites almost every summer from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Flint Dibble said.
[Camera icon] SHANNON MCPHERRON
Harold L. Dibble, 66, a famed archaeologist, died of pancreatic cancer on June 10.
“My dad was keen on taking care of everyone,” he said. “He always made sure everyone working in the heat on the site was fed and comfortable.”
For the last several years, Dr. Dibble had worked at Pech de l’Azé IV in France, where Neanderthals lived during the Ice Ages. Dr. Dibble’s research led to new questions over how Neanderthals created and used fire.
In 2010, Dr. Dibble led a team of archaeologists at a site called Smuggler’s Cove in Morocco, discovering the skull and upper-body bones of the “world’s oldest child,” according to a 2011 article published in the Inquirer. The team analyzed the child’s teeth to determine he or she was 6 to 8 years old.
“This will fit into the global debate on how and where and when modern humans arose,” Dr. Dibble said at the time. He gave the child the name Bouchra, meaning good news in Arabic.
Above all, Dr. Dibble practiced “scientific archaeology,” the practice of rigorously testing hypotheses through experiments.
Dr. Dibble directed a laboratory project at Penn that used a robot named Super Igor to pinpoint more precisely how early humans made stone tools. The hydraulic-powered machine consists of a hammer that strikes a tightly gripped stone core while controlling for certain variables, such as angle and speed.
Using his computer coding skills, Dr. Dibble created a program in the 1990s called NewPlot that is frequently used by archaeological teams. The tool spatially maps the artifacts found during excavations with 3-D imaging.
“Harold was one of the rare individuals in the archaeology field who could write his own code,” said Penn colleague Deborah Olszewski. “Many of us still use his programs today.”
“Harold was about the science of doing things … going out and testing his theories.” Olszewski said. “He was very scientific in his approach and testing his methods.”
Dr. Dibble brought his passion for archaeology to the big screen when he made stone tools for the 1986 film The Clan of the Cave Bear, about a woman raised by Neanderthals. He has been featured in several documentaries, articles, and books.
Away from the dig sites, Dr. Dibble loved cooking and playing guitar.
The family plans to hold a celebration of Dr. Dibble’s life at the Penn Museum in the fall. In addition to his wife and two sons, Mr. Dibble is survived by a sister, Christine Burke.
Memorial donations can be made to the Harold L. Dibble Mini-Me Fund at the Paleoanthropology Society and to Penn’s anthropology department. The donations will be used to help students and colleagues attend Paleoanthropology Society meetings and for student archaeological research at the University of Pennsylvania.