Yusra was a Palestinian woman who worked with British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod in her excavations at Mount Carmel. Although little is known of Yusra's life before or after, or even her full name, she was a prominent member of the excavation team between 1929 and 1935. Most notably, she is credited with the discovery of Tabun 1, a 120,000-year-old Neanderthal skull from Tabun Cave.
It is assumed that Yusra was from either Ijzim or Jaba', in the Haifa region of what was then Mandatory Palestine. In 1929, British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod began excavating in the region around Mount Carmel and, following common practice at the time, she hired local workers from these villages to carry out the bulk of the work. Although not formally trained in archaeology, these workers were often skilled excavators with decades—sometimes generations—of experience. Unusually, Garrod hired large numbers of women to work on her excavations; more women than men. When Mary Kitson Clark visited the first season of excavations, she noted the 'feminist' work ethic at the site: men did menial tasks, whilst women did the skilled work of excavation and recording. Yusra was one of these women.
Yusra remained with Garrod throughout her excavations at Mount Carmel, from 1929 to 1935, working on important prehistoric sites such as Tabun, El Wad, Es Skhul, Shuqba and Kebara. She became "the most expert" of the women employed by Garrod, and was appointed foreman. She often worked alongside Jacquetta Hawkes, one of Garrod's students who went on to become a prominent archaeologist and writer.
One of Yusra's tasks was to screen excavated soil for artefacts before it was sent for . In 1932, whilst working at Tabun Cave, she found a tooth which turned out to be part of a fragmented but mostly complete human skull. Once recovered and pieced back together it was found that the skull, known as Tabun 1, belonged to a female, adult Neanderthal that lived between 120,000 and 50,000 years ago. It has been described as "one of the most important human fossils ever found."
Yusra shared with Hawkes her ambition to study at Newnham College, Cambridge, where Garrod was a fellow, but this did not come to pass. It is not known what became of her after the Mount Carmel excavations ended; both Izjim and Jaba' were depopulated during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, frustrating attempts to trace her. What little is known of her life is from the diaries of Kitson Clark and recollections of Hawkes, as well as papers of Garrod's that were rediscovered by researcher Pamela Jane Smith in 1997.
Yusra's discovery of Tabun 1 made a lasting contribution to science. Her story has been discussed as an example of a woman whose contribution to early archaeology went unacknowledged and has been largely forgotten since.
According to Jacquetta Hawkes, Yusra acted as foreman in charge of picking out items before the excavated soil was sieved; over the years, she became expert in recognising bone, fauna, hominid and lithic remains and had spotted a tooth which led to the crushed skull. Hawkes remembered talking to Yusra about coming up to Cambridge. "She had a dream. She was very able indeed. Yusra would obviously have been a Newnham Fellow." The villages of Jeba and Ljsim were destroyed in 1948 and I was unable to trace most members of the Palestinian team.