Projects

The late first millennium B.C. across Inner Asia is usually considered the time period when highly specialized nomads first appear: the Scythian mounted warriors. However, a growing data set is showing that the region of eastern Central Asia actually underwent a process of increased sedentism and intensification of farming pursuits in this time period. In studying this process, we are exploring links between the intensification of agriculture and increased exchange, population grown, craft specialization, and the development of an elite class. [more]
The landscape of Inner Asia may seem ‘wild’ and untamed; however, it is the direct product of thousands of years of human occupation. People have shaped the land for farming and herding and harvested the forests for fuel and lumber, ultimately reshaping every ecosystem. [more]
Human impacts on the planet are often associated with European colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. However, a narrow focus on these recent changes overlooks the time-depth and variety of human ecosystem transformations in the past, particularly in relation to animal herding and domestication, cultivation, the emergence of dense sedentary, and even urban settlements, and their impacts on diverse landscapes. [more]
There is still much to be learned from the archaeological record of Pemba Island (Zanzibar), including when the first humans arrived and what impacts they had on the island’s geomorphology, flora, and fauna. Recent excavations at MakangaleCave have uncovered a long sequence of archaeological and paleontological history that will provide new evidence towards understanding the dynamic interactions between past peoples and their environment. [more]
When, how and by whom were the Comoros islands colonized? This project explores the origins and lifeways of the earliest settlers of the Archipelago of the Comoros, which has long been part of Indian Ocean trading systems and may have played a role in the still mysterious colonization of Madagascar. [more]
While research has established that African plant and animal domesticates and Bantu-speaking populations originated in different parts of western, eastern, and northern Africa, it is not clear when or how they eventually spread into southern Africa. This project investigates these questions with multi-sited archaeological fieldwork in Zambia, the region where many of these peoples and lifeways first came together. Archaeological research is focused on understanding the timing of these processes, and their long term impacts on the cultural, linguistic, genetic, and environmental history of southern Africa. [more]
Our knowledge of human evolution and hominin behavioural adaptations is mainly derived from Africa, the East African Rift yielding long and high-quality environmental and archaeological records extending back to more than 2 to 3 million years ago. Early members of the genus Homo subsequently spread out of Africa, reaching the Loess Plateau of eastern Asia by ca. 2.1 million years ago. Thereafter, multiple archaeological sites dated between 2.1 -1.0 ma occur in the Loess Plateau and the Nihewan Basin of China. Yet, relatively little is known about the dispersal, behavioural adaptations, and survivorship of early hominin populations in Eurasia, including in Eastern Asia. Although early archaeological sites have been investigated outside Africa (e.g., Dmanisi, Ubeidiya), such sites are exceedingly rare, making it difficult to have a clear view about hominin adaptations outside Africa. [more]
Africa is one the world’s most varied regions for cultural and biological adaptations. Although Africa plays a central in our understanding of the human past, aspects of its prehistory remain poorly understood. This project will apply state of-the-art emerging methodologies to help address key questions relating to diets, subsistence strategies and population histories in African prehistory. [more]
This project applies a novel, multi-proxy approach, incorporating stable isotope analysis, dental calculus, proteomics and aDNA, to elucidate changes in diet, demography, and ecology across major cultural transitions in South Asia. [more]
South Africa has one of the longest and most-studied archaeological records of human technological, cultural, and subsistence behaviour. In this project we seek to understand the role of climate and environmental change in shaping human adaptations and innovations in this part of the world. [more]
The Comoros Islands have long played a key role in the cultural and economic world of the Indian Ocean, and the Indian Ocean’s rich history of trade and exchange is recorded in their genetic ancestry. This project draws on DNA information from contemporary populations in the islands to reconstruct the islands’ early past, and try to better understand the archipelago’s links with nearby regions of Africa as well as distant parts of Asia and the Arab world. [more]
Milk is a food of major, global importance. This collaborative research project pursues a multi-disciplinary and multi-proxy approach to reconstruct the emergence, transformation and spread of ancient dairying, and the co-evolution of dairying practices and lactase persistence. For individual projects, please see the following pages: Origins of Dairying in Ancient Africa Project Origins of Dairying in Ancient Asia Project Origins of Dairying in Ancient Europe Project [more]
Bayesian inference is a statistical method for updating the probability of a hypothesis as additional evidence becomes available. Thus, it provides a natural framework for interdisciplinary approaches and the combination of diverse sources of evidence. [more]
The black rat, Rattus rattus, has had a remarkable impact on people and ecosystems, serving as vectors for diseases such as the bubonic plague, precipitating extinctions and drastically altering the ecology of the regions they colonize alongside their human dispersers. Despite the close link between humans and Rattus rattus, the complete genome of the black rat has yet to be sequenced. This project will investigate the genomics of rats in order to better understand the coevolution of humans and rats. [more]
Historians and archaeologists have referred to Inner Asia as the pastoralist realm, arguing that a ‘nomadic’ economy dominated the region in prehistory. However, in recent years, as archaeobotanical methods are becoming more common, it is become clearer that Central Asians in the past maintained a mixed agropastoral system. A distinct package of crops spread through much of the Central Asian foothills by the second millennium B.C. [more]
Major episodes of climate change presented novel challenges to the fisher-hunter-gatherer populations of early Holocene Africa. The responses of these societies stimulated early major migrations across the continent, and encouraged the adoption and spread of pastoralism.  This project investigates fisher-hunter-gatherer responses to climate change processes through the Holocene at the site of Lothagam-Lokam in the Lake Turkana Basin of northern Kenya. Our interdisciplinary research project is applying a suite of new archeological and geoarchaeological approaches to understand changing dynamics of human-environmental responses through time, and to understand how those dynamics influenced the long-term resilience of these ancient African societies. [more]
Interdisciplinary research on Quaternary climate and environmental changes and their effects on human dispersals based on sediment cores from the Jubbah palaeolake basin (Saudi Arabia) [more]
Investigating the relationship between humans, horses, and the environment through archaeological science [more]
Sri Lanka is home to the earliest fossil evidence for Homo sapiens in South Asia and also provides some of the earliest evidence for human rainforest resource use anywhere in the world. There is also a network of urban settlements in the arid parts of the island that demonstrate sophisticated hydrological technologies to control water. The investigation of the archaeological record of this country, and its climate-environment-human interactions, is a key priority of the Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. [more]
Olduvai Gorge is one of the most famous palaeoanthropological locations in Africa as a product of a series of high profile hominin fossil discoveries and its rich archaeological record which spans the past 2 million years. These characteristics mean that Olduvai Gorge is an excellent place to examine the biological and cultural emergence of our genus, Homo, as well as the environmental backdrop. [more]
Isotopic tracers are an invaluable source of historical information. These can contribute greatly to the study of past human lifeways (e.g. diet, nutrition, and mobility), trade, anthropogenic impacts (e.g. farming, pollution), climates and environments, and chronology. However, lack of centralized storage limits efficient data use. To tackle this issue, the IsoMemo initiative brings together multiple repositories of isotopic data within the fields of archaeology, ecology, and environmental & life sciences.  [more]
The Graeco-Roman world corresponds to the regions, mostly within the Mediterranean area, that during centuries adopted the ancient Greek and Latin languages and culture. From written sources much is known on the political, economic, and military history of the Graeco-Roman world. However, the lifeways of common people remain largely unknown. It is the goal of this project to give voice to those that represented the vast majority of ancient Greeks and Romans through the isotopic analysis of osteological remains. [more]
While many of us are familiar with the blatant impacts of climate change on large, migratory species such as polar bears and whales in the Arctic, we are often less familiar with the changes wrought on the ecological webs of smaller, though no less important, marine animals in these changing environments. Project LOMVIA seeks to close this knowledge gap by investigating the impacts of climate change on competition between a pair of closely related seabird species in Iceland, the Brünnich’s guillemot (Uria lomvia) and the common guillemot (Uria aalge). The [more]
The extinction of megafaunal populations during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene are a prominent part of discussions relating to the timing and nature of human impacts on environments, particularly in the context of the Anthropocene. This project seeks to bring together novel chronological, palaeoenvironmental, and zooarchaeological methodologies, from regions across the tropics, to better understand the role of Homo sapiens in the extinction of large mammalian taxa in the tropics. [more]
Long-distance trade of commodities played a major role in forming political structures and transferring socio-cultural practices among the major centers of ancient civilization in the Old World. Some of the most high-value products that moved along ancient routes of dispersal and trade were not substantive, calorie-laden foods, but powders, extracts, and obscure dried plant components that nonetheless packed substantial flavor and aroma. [more]
At the dawn of the Iron Age, a dramatic shift in the scale of interactions occurred across Eurasia. Networks expanded to include vast expanses of Central and Inner Asia and were accompanied by the emergence of a shared cultural retinue associated with nomadic warriors. Until recently, these changes were believed to be related to the development of nomadic pastoralism as the foundation of a pastoral economy. However, recent research suggests that pastoralists were supplementing their diets with domesticated cereals and that many communities were sedentary. [more]
The Mongolian Pleistocene archaeological record is relatively unknown and characterised by a few key open air sites in the north and two cave sites in the Gobi-Altai Mountains in the south. The presence of anatomically modern humans from at least 32 thousand year ago (Salkhit skull), and proximity to the Russian Altai, suggests it could be both a vital region for understanding the interactions between past species, and the survival of our species. Palaeoclimatic research has provided an initial understanding of the variability in Mongolia’s climate for the last 150 thousand years. The alternating wet and dry periods suggests that ancient lakes and rivers should have formed and disappeared. [more]
The Mongol Empire stretched from eastern Asia to the borders of Eastern Europe. This period was marked by globalization of commodities, technologies, and ideas, which spread alongside invisible pathogens and microbes. However, we know little of the cuisine and health of Mongol period populations, even as historical texts document goods flowing into modern day Mongolia from across the Empire. Our excavation and analyses of human remains will focus on clarifying the dietary intake, cuisine, and health of a population that lived under the Mongol Empire. [more]
Past human lifeways such as diet or mobility intercept multiple social, economic, cultural, and environmental phenomena. Thus their study is of great interest and these can be quantitatively reconstructed using isotopic data. However, by employing an approach in which multiple isotopic proxies are combined it becomes possible to considerably extend the variety of estimates and to improve their quality.  [more]
In order to properly understand the nature of past human-environment interactions, it is essential to build up palaeoenvironmental proxies of immediate relevance to the archaeological record of interest. In this project, we seek to develop palaeoenvironmental methods tailored to archaeological needs. These focus on a) developing ‘on-site’ proxies of immediate relevance to human behaviour and b) directly guiding the coring of long-term terrestrial sequences, such as lakes, with archaeological knowledge and questions. [more]
How did past climatic fluctuations shape the emergence of humans out of Africa, and their subsequent success in dispersing around the rest of the world? The Palaeodeserts Project is taking a multidisciplinary approach to addressing these critical human evolutionary questions in a key region: the Arabian peninsula. [more]
Iran had been a focus for archaeological investigations as Paleolithic studies began there from the 1950s onwards. Excavations in caves have revealed a rich prehistory, with findings consisting of a range of Palaeolithic stone tool assemblages and faunal remains. However, the dispersal and adaptation of multiple hominin species across Iran over the past 100,000 years remains poorly known. [more]
All living people have a genetic origin in Africa, but less is known about the cultural, social, and cognitive changes that facilitated our species’ success. Over the past 100,000 years, the archaeological record shows an increase in technological and behavioral complexity, signaling that an important change is taking place within the minds of early people. These early innovations likely assisted the exodus from Africa and helped humans thrive in diverse environments from desert savannahs to tropical rainforests to frozen tundras, so documenting these early stages is key to the interpretation of our evolution. [more]
When did humans begin to herd animals in Saudi Arabia and how did these herders respond to the onset of aridification in the middle Holocene? The Palaeodeserts Project is taking a multidisciplinary approach, in which data from the excavation of settlement and burial sites, rock art, palaeoenvironmental and –climate archives, and climate modeling are used to close a substantial gap in our current knowledge of the prehistory of the Arabian Peninsula. [more]
Tropical rainforests are some of the most diverse terrestrial environments in the world, yet the extent of past human interaction with these habitats has been debated. In this project we apply stable isotope and dental calculus approaches in order to understand the degree of human rainforest reliance, in different parts of the world and different time periods, and gain more detailed insight into the strategies used by our ancestors to survive in these environments. [more]
Diverse forms of plant agriculture emerged across Africa through the Holocene, contributing to origins of urbanism, social complexity, and the development of major African states. Over the last c. 2000 years, populations across sub-Saharan Africa increasingly relied on access to domesticated grains to ensure community level food security.  Indigenous African domesticates including sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), finger millet (Eleusine coracana) and pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) continued to be vital crops across the continent before European colonialism due to their resilience to aridity and climatic unpredictability. [more]
The pervasive narrative of the rise of a nomadic warrior culture in the Eurasian steppe at the end of the Bronze Age has muted growing evidence for settled communities and proto-urban centers. Mounting evidence suggests that aggregated populations were occupying the semi-arid Kazakh steppe in a cluster of neighboring regional centers. The growth of large settlements in central Kazakhstan dating to the Final Bronze Age (1500-1300 cal BC) counter notions of extensive nomadism. The semi-arid steppe, known colloquially as the ‘hungry steppe’, is a region where mobile pastoralism is considered a necessity. Thus, evidence for densely populated regional centers raise questions about the subsistence economies of these communities. [more]
This project aims to contribute to the knowledge of how humans present in Island Southeast Asia adapted to environmental and climatic fluctuations following the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). The project will focus on the zooarchaeological analyses of faunal assemblages from several cave sites in Java, Indonesia and Luzon, the Philippines. Careful analyses of animal remains provide an opportunity to look at changes in the subsistence economies of prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities in these islands through time. They could also allow the description of the hunting and foraging techniques employed by these communities. The project will also look at faunal dental wear signatures and stable isotopes to reconstruct local paleoenvironmental contexts. [more]
Fragments  of  ceramic  vessels  litter  the  archaeological  record  as one  of  the  main  surviving  remnants  of  past  food  preparation  and consumption. In this project, we are applying recent advances in ancient protein analysis to explore the culinary practices of a diverse array of ancient populations. [more]
How did cultural and economic interactions between Mainland Southeast Asia and Island Southeast Asia shape these regions prior to and after the Austronesian expansion into the Pacific? This project aims to shed light on aspects of these interactions using microparticle, proteomic and genetic analyses of human dental calculus. [more]
As pastoralism spread through East Africa, herders and their livestock encountered new wildlife species and new diseases. Epizootiological challenges likely had significant consequences for both the trajectory of pastoral expansion and wildlife biogeographies. This project uses stable isotope analysis of ancient wildebeest teeth to examine the role of pastoralism in the disappearance of wildebeest from Central Rift Valley grasslands. [more]
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