Senckenberg Research

Studying early Man and his Relatives

The PaGE team in the field in Megalopolis, central Peloponnese, October 2012.
The PaGE team in the field in Megalopolis, central Peloponnese, October 2012.

 

Research has been going on for decades on the origin of the human species, and it is still the subject of intensive study. Often enough, surprising discoveries are made. Who were the first Europeans? When did they arrive? What does the family tree of the Neanderthals look like? What sort of interactions took place between the first modern humans and the last of the Neanderthals? These are just a few of the questions that remain the subject of lively debate.

Katerina Harvati at the Tübingen HEP Paleoanthropology High Resolution CT Laboratory.
Katerina Harvati at the Tübingen HEP Palaeoanthropology High
Resolution CT Laboratory, one of the best equipped laboratories
of its kind in the world. The CT scanner was funded by the German
Research Foundation and the University of Tübingen.

Finding answers to these questions has been the focus of the research conducted by the palaeoanthropology group of HEP at the University of Tübingen, led by Professor Katerina Harvati since 2009. The group approaches these research topics from a quantitative perspective, availing itself of state-of-the-art computer-assisted imaging and analysis techniques such as virtual anthropology, high resolution computed tomography and geometric morphometrics. Another focal area involves fieldwork, both in Africa and in Europe, which ultimately provides all primary data for our palaeoanthropological analyses. In 2011 and 2012, Harvati’s group published twenty articles in international, peer-reviewed scientific journals and five chapters in edited volumes.

 

Visualization of a human milk tooth based on a high-resolution CT scan.
Visualization of a human milk 
tooth  based on a high-resolution
CT scan. The figure shows the
enamel cap (in white), dentine (in
yellow) and internally the pulp
cavity (in blue).

In 2011 the group applied high-resolution Computed Tomography (CT) scanning techniques and virtual anthropology comparative methodology to solving the riddle of the earliest modern Europeans. The study of the human milk teeth from the Grotta del Cavallo Palaeolithic cave in Italy was the result of an international collaborative project that also included Ottmar Kullmer’s working group at Senckenberg in Frankfurt. It was published in the journal Nature in November 2011. It showed that these previously unidentified remains belonged to modern human, and not Neanderthal, children who lived approximately 45,000 years ago. These results demonstrated that modern humans (Homo sapiens) first arrived in Europe several millennia earlier than had previously been thought, and probably first dispersed along a southern, Mediterranean, route into the European continent. The figure above shows an example of internal dental structures visualized using CT techniques.

 

Virtueller Schädelausguss eines frühmodernen Menschenschädels
Virtual endocast of the early
modern human cranium found
in Cioclovina, Romania. The
figure shows the scan of the fossil
cut open virtually, and the reconstruction  of the
internal surface and blood vessels.

The CT technique was also applied to evaluate the development of cerebral structures in fossil humans, including the 30,000 year-old modern human fossil from Cioclovina, Romania. This approach allows the non-destructive examination and analysis of the inside of fossil skulls. Our results showed a surprisingly marked development of the olfactory (smell-related) regions of the brain in modern humans compared to our fossil relatives, suggesting that our sense of smell has played a greater role in our recent evolution. These studies were published in Nature Communications and in the Anatomical Record in 2011.

 

The three-dimensional geometric morphometric surface analysis of the evolution of the human face.
The three-dimensional geometric
morphometric surface analysis of
the evolution of the human face
was based on landmark (red dots)
and semilandmark (blue and
yellow dots) coordinates, as shown
here.

Beyond the study of dental remains and of internal cranial structures, the Tübingen Palaeoanthropology group has recently focused its attention on the evolution of the distinctive Neanderthal face using 3D geometric morphometrics and surface Analysis. Several studies were published on this topic in 2011 and 2012, including ones on the influence of growth and size differences on the shape of the face throughout human evolution (Journal of Human Evolution) and the influence of climate on the internal dimensions of the nasal cavity (American Journal of Physical Anthropology). Among other findings it was established that the differences in shape between the Neanderthal and the modern human face cannot be explained by size differences alone, suggesting that climate has been one of the driving forces in the evolution of the human face.

 

Katerina Harvati and a team member surveying caves on the Mani Peninsula, Greece, during the first PaGE field season (March 2012).
Katerina Harvati and a team member surveying caves on
the Mani Peninsula, Greece, during the first PaGE field season
(March 2012).

In addition to laboratory analyses, Tübingen palaeoanthropology has a keen interest in fieldwork, and Harvati has conducted field research in both Europe and Africa. The results of collaborative studies with Professor Friedemann Schrenk (palaeoanthropology section at Senckenberg Frankfurt) in Tanzania were published in two articles in 2012 (Journal of Quaternary Geochronology and Journal of Anthropological Sciences). More recently, Harvati’s work has focused on Greece, where relatively little palaeoanthropological research has been done. Greece and the entire southeastern region of Europe stand at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Near East and are considered to represent the most likely dispersal corridor into Europe for both archaic and early modern humans. It is also one of the three European Mediterranean peninsulae that were not subjected to extreme climatic effects during the Pleistocene glacial periods. Data from this region can make a decisive contribution towards evaluating hypotheses about the course of human evolution in Eurasia. However, despite the great significance of the region for human evolution, palaeoanthropological research has been sparse and there is very little primary information about the region.

Covering this last, great gap in European palaeoanthropology is the goal of Katerina Harvati’s European Research Council Starting Grant Project ‘Paleoanthropology at the Gates of Europe’ (PaGE ), funded with ca. € 1.3 million for five years (2012-2016). The PaGE researchers see the paucity of research activities in Greece and the Balkan region to date as a unique opportunity to conduct palaeoanthropological work in virtually virgin territory, using modern, cutting-edge methodology to produce solid results. It is a groundbreaking project that will broaden the scope of palaeoanthropological field research in the Southern Balkans, while at the same time deepening its focus through the implementation of state-of-the-art archaeological methods and documentation techniques. This intensive research programme has the proximate goal of systematically exploring known palaeoanthropological localities, identifying new ones and increasing the number of hominin and palaeolithic finds known from this region. Its ultimate goal is to document the earliest human dispersals into Europe, the possible role of the region in late Neanderthal survival, the earliest migration of modern humans into the continent and the likely interactions between the two species.

Palaeolithic stone tools collected during the second PaGE field season in Megalopolis, Greece.
Palaeolithic stone tools collected during the second PaGE field
season in Megalopolis, Greece.

PaGE already conducted two field seasons in 2012. In March and April 2012, a survey of caves was undertaken in the north-west part of the Mani Peninsula, located at the southern tip of the Peloponnese. Preliminary results show that nearly 60 % of the caves documented contain cultural material. More than 1000 lithic artifacts were collected, and further excavations are planned for 2013. In September and October 2012, PaGE conducted a systematic and intensive field survey of the early to mid Pleistocene sediments in the region of Megalopolis in the central Peloponnese. The goal of this survey was to locate lithic artifacts and sites in a stratified context. Several sites were identified and lithics were collected both in situ and from the surface. Finally, in December 2012, PaGE hosted an international symposium entitled ‘Human Evolution in the Southern Balkans’, which took place from 6 - 8 December in Tübingen. Twenty-five invited international guests representing Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Greece and Turkey summarized the current state of palaeolithic and palaeoanthropological research in their respective countries, and presented new and exciting findings from their regions. A book contract has been secured with the Springer Verlag for publicaton of the proceedings of the symposium in the prestigious ‘Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology’ series. It is due to appear as an edited volume in early 2014.

 

 

Author

 Prof. Dr. Katerina Harvati

Katerina Harvati is Professor for Palaeoanthropology at the Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Archäologie des Mittelalters and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, University of Tübingen. Her research focuses on Neanderthal evolution, modern human origins and virtual anthropology methodology. Her work has been published in international scientific journals, including Nature, Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2011 she received the ERC Starting Grant ‘Paleoanthropology at the Gates of Europe‘ (PaGE).

 

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