Patrick Roberts, Stephan Schiffels, and Robert Spengler awarded ERC Starting Grants

The highly competitive grants will allow the recipients to fund research groups on their projects "PANTROPOCENE: Finding a Pre-industrial, Pan-tropical 'Anthropocene'", "MICROSCOPE: Zooming into the Population History of Iron Age Europe with Rare Genetic Variants", and "FEDD: Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal".

September 03, 2019
Robert N. Spengler, Patrick Roberts and Stephan Schiffels (left to right)

In the 2019 review cycle, the ERC has awarded highly competitive Starting Grants to two members of the Department of Archaeology, Patrick Roberts and Robert Spengler, and one member of the Department of Archaeogenetics, Stephan Schiffels. The grants will allow the recipients to fund research groups on their specified topics for five years. The highly successful application round for the 2019 grant calls, resulting on all three of this year’s applicants from this institute being funded, underlines the strength and excellency of the institute’s research environment.

PANTROPOCENE: Finding a Pre-industrial, Pan-tropical 'Anthropocene'

Patrick Roberts’ project, “Finding a Pre-industrial, Pan-tropical ‘Anthropocene’” or PANTROPOCENE, will allow him and his group to investigate the degree to which combined pre-industrial human modifications to tropical forests may have initiated earth systems changes on regional and global scales. PANTROPOCENE will focus on pre-colonial and colonial land-use across the bounds of the former Spanish Empire to provide a ‘pan-tropical’ perspective on this question. The project will undertake novel palaeoenvironmental and archaeological survey and fieldwork in the Philippine Archipelago, the often-neglected centre of the Spanish East Indies, alongside compilation of existing palaeoenvironmental, archaeological, and historical records from the Neotropics, in order to ensure full tropical coverage of the Spanish Empire.

Floating community on the Amazon River just outside of Manaus, Brazil

The resulting regional and global characterisations of land-use on pre-colonial, colonial, and industrial timescales will be used to determine how different forms of technology, subsistence, and administrative organization may have had varying feedbacks on climate, geomorphology, and the atmosphere. In turn, this will inform understandings of the pace and threat of contemporary land-use changes in the context of endemic Island Southeast Asian biodiversity and the tropics more broadly.

One of the most heavily disputed topics linking the biological and social sciences is the domestication of plants and animals; however, much of this discourse has centered arround a select handful of organisms. Robert Spengler’s project, “Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal”, steps beyond the heavy focus on cereal crops in domestication studies, to look at long-generation perennials, notably fruit and nut trees. Archaeobotanical and genetic studies illustrate that these plants followed a very different pathway towards domestication, and their early cultivation represented new concepts of land tenure and farming knowledge among people.

Many of the most familiar fruits, nuts, grains, and spices in your kitchen can trace at least part of their story back to the ancient Silk Road.

The FEDD team seeks to identify the origins of some of the most familiar fruits in your kitchen and to better understand the processes of evolutionary change that resulted from human interaction. Interestingly, many of these tree crops appear to originate in the mountains of Central Asia and are tied into the ancient Silk Road trade routes as a vector or dispersal. Therefore, Spengler and his team are exploring the mountain foothills of Inner Asia sampling archaeological sites dating from the late Pleistocene to the Mongol conquests. They are using a multidisciplinary approach to identify the ancient cultivation and eventual domestication of these trees along these ancient trade routes. Ultimately the FEDD team is tracing out the route that the fruits on your table took to arrive there.

MICROSCOPE: Zooming into the Population History of Iron Age Europe with Rare Genetic Variants

Stephan Schiffels’ project MICROSCOPE will investigate the pre-Roman European Iron Age with new genetic methods. The challenge in most periods of European prehistory since the Bronze Age is a high degree of genetic homogeneity among European populations. This is due to millennia of mixing and amalgamation of the originally diverse ancestry lines that make up Europeans today. In order to address this, a significant part of the project is devoted to the development of new statistical genomic methods, based on shared rare genetic variation, which will help investigating the subtle population dynamics needed to infer population movements in the past.

"The Dying Galatian", Roman marble work from the 1st century BC, depicting the heroic death of a Celtic warrior, showcasing interactions between Celts vs. Greeks and Romans during the 3rd century BC.

The key element of the project, beyond method development, is a reconstruction of population-level processes such as migrations and mixtures during the pre-Roman Iron Age. To this end, the project is based on close collaboration between genetic and archaeological partners to ensure i) high quality sampling throughout the period of 800-100BC in Central Europe, and ii) interpretation and contextualization of genetic results in light of archaeological data. A particular focus of the investigation will be on the so-called “Celtic world”, which reflects this period’s association with Europe’s last major cultural phenomenon before the Roman conquest.

The ERC's Starting Grant

The ERC's mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence. The ERC Starting Grant is one of the most competitive EU grants. Over 3,100 applications were submitted this year, with 408 eventually being selected (c. 13%) for funding at a total of 621 million Euros. The grant is awarded to researchers within 2 to 7 years after their PhD to fund excellent and ground-breaking ideas. The awardees receive funding of up to 1.5 million Euros per grant to establish their own research group and realize their project over the course of up to five years.

More Information about the ERC Starting Grant results 2019:

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