Abstracts of Research Projects

Each Fellow of the Center "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools" aims to conduct a research project during the time at the Center. This includes interdisciplinary projects, collaborations between other fellows, current and associated members of the center. On this site, the abstracts of the projects are sorted in alphabetical order according to the lastname of the fellows.

Prof. Dr. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann

Professor Ackermann is a palaeoanthropologist who specialises in the roles that various evolutionary processes play in shaping hominin morphology through time.
She is working with Prof Katerina Harvati to investigate the current evidence for hybridization among hominins and how it manifests in the skeleton, particularly in the fossil record of Late Pleistocene humans.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ahmet İhsan Aytek

The Assessment of Mammalian Fossils from a new Turolian Fossil Locality of  Kayaca (Sw Anatolia, Denizli)

Anatolian peninsula constitutes a migration pathway for faunal groups due to its geographic
position being a land-bridge extending between Asia, Africa and Europe. Its special geographic
setting enables to host mammalian groups and serves a pathway as a natural land-bridge
allowing the migrations for the terrestrial biota throughout the time. To reveal Pleistocene
and Miocene mammalian (especially hominin and hominoid) movements in Aegean and thus
Anatolia, I conducted intensive fieldwork between 2017-2021 in Denizli province with a
multidisciplinary team. We visited known Pleistocene and Miocene localities and found new
ones during this fieldwork. After 5 years, we found hundreds of fossils belong to 39 different
mammalian species in 9 different localities. Although most of localities are potential areas for
an excavation, one of them -Kayaca Locality- yielded numerous fossils in very good
preservation conditions. In 2022, we conducted a preliminary excavation for 15 days, to see
the potential of the site. Despite its short duration, a total of 159 identifiable fossils in very
good preservation were unearthed. Initial morphological observations on the fossils suggest
the existence of 13 different families in the site (Hyenidae, Mustelidae, Mephitidae, Ursidae,
Gomphoteridae, Deinotheriidae, Bovidae, Giraffidae, Suidae, Equidae, Rhinocerotidae,
Orycteropodidae, Testudinidae).
Studies on the potential of mammalian fossil deposits in Turkey over the last 50 years have
revealed numerous new fossil deposits; hundreds of others are waiting to be explored. Having
very few researchers working in mammalian paleontology and paleoanthropology in Turkey
had a limiting effect on research in these fields. National funding is limited to excavations,
making survey, a critical part of the discovery process, very difficult to undertake. Despite its
potential to contain mammalian fossil bearing sites, it is not always easy to find relevant
comparative material for palaeontological studies in Turkey. The other important problem
about the paleontology of Turkey is the deficiency of trained experts on this field.
To overcome these problems, I collaborate with very experienced scholars Prof. Dr. Katerina
Harvati-Papatheodorou and Dr. George Konidaris from University of Tübingen, DFG Center.
Visiting Tübingen will provide me; (1) experience and knowledge about fossils from different
localities in the world (especially in Europe), (2) to classify the fossils (3) new ideas about my
excavation in the site and (4) a new literature database.

Dr. Christin Beck

Christin Beck is a post-doctoral researcher in Computational Linguistics at the University of Konstanz. Her research focuses on developing novel computational approaches for the investigation of historical language change by combining methodologies from historical linguistics, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Visual Analytics. She is further interested in computational lexical semantics, the interaction between lexical semantic and syntactic change and the syntactic encoding of information structure.

During her fellowship at the DFG Center "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools", Beck intends to investigate the linguistic capacities of neural language models such as BERT, which have become popular for investigations into lexical semantic change (changes in word meaning), by testing their usability for historical linguistic research more broadly. The project will combine computational phylogenetic methodologies developed for the study of language evolution with neural language models, exploring the potential which phylogenetic methods have to offer for neural language model based investigations into syntactic change. For example, by including a neural language model into the phylogenetic workflow, novel insights about the model's ability to reconstruct linguistic structures could be generated. In addition, the project will address a relevant shortcoming of the existing computational work on lexical semantic change using neural language models: the existing studies focus on identifying change in the more recent past (c. 18th-20th century), exploring change within the same language stage. However, historical linguistic studies typically aim at identifying change across several different historical stages of a language (e.g., Old and Middle English) to understand how a specific linguistic phenomenon came into being. With respect to this issue, phylogenetic methods, e.g., for cognate identification and loanword detection, provide a major research opportunity, potentially allowing us to track how neural embeddings representing a specific linguistic construction are propagated across different language stages.

Dr. Judith Beier

Dr. Judith Beier is a biological anthropologist interested in prehistoric hunter-gatherer lifestyles and behaviours, injury and violence, health and disease, mortality, resilience, and population history. Her previous research focused on injury rates in Neanderthal and Upper Paleolithic human skeletal remains and tackled the challenge of a comparative investigation of trauma rates in sparse and incomplete fossil remains. She completed a PhD in Archaeological Sciences and Human Evolution at the University of Tübingen in 2021, worked in science management since 2020, and conducted a research fellowship at the University of Cantabria in 2022/23. Using qualitative macroscopic and 3D virtual imaging techniques as well as statistical modeling approaches, during her time at the Center she will conduct research revolving around reconstructing Late Pleistocene to early Holocene human population history, violence and trauma, social organization, and methodological considerations and advancements in paleoanthropological trauma research.

Prof. Jane Buikstra

Jane Buikstra is a Regents’ Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University (US), where she was the Inaugural Director of the Center for Bioarchaeological Research. She received MA and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago and holds an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Durham University (UK).  She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the American Association of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), and a Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Sciences.  She was the Inaugural Editor of the International Journal of Paleopathology and is the President of the Center for American Archeology. She is past-President of the American Anthropological Association, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), and the Paleopathology Association.  She has received the Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award (AAPA), the Fryxell Award for Interdisciplinary Science (Society for American Archaeology), the T. Dale Stewart Award (AAFS), the Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology (Archaeological Institute of America), The Lloyd Cotsen Prize for Lifetime Achievement in World Archaeology, the Gorjanovic-Kramberger Medal in Anthropology, Croatian Society of Anthropology, the Aleš Hrdlička Memorial Medal, Anthropology Society of the Czech Republic, the Shanghai Archaeological Forum Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Midwest Archaeological Conference, Distinguished Career Award.

Credited with the establishing the field of (human) bioarcheology, Prof. Buikstra is actively engaged in collaborative research on the global history of infectious diseases, the application of “one health” concepts to the human condition today and in the past, the sacrifice of children in the Ancient Americas, juvenile sex ratios as measures of human health and gender-based neglect,  the role of worldview in human resiliency,  structural and physical violence during the formation of the Greek democracy, and occupational specialization as recorded in the human skeleton.  Her research foci thus include bioarchaeology, paleopathology, forensic anthropology, and paleodemography. Prof. Buikstra has conducted bioarchaeological research in mid-continental North America, the Iberian Peninsula, Colonial Argentina, the west-central Andes, and Mayan Mesoamerica.  A current project focuses upon the Eastern Mediterranean, anchored by the Phaleron Bioarchaeology Project (PBP) at the Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (http://phaleron.digital-ascsa.org/project/).  During her fellowship at the DFG Center for Advanced Studies Prof. Buikstra plans to advance collaborations with the PBP, focused upon reconstructing physical activities and occupational specializations in the past and distinguishing peri-mortem from post-mortem blunt force trauma. 

Dr. Costantino Buzi (2022)

Dr. Costantino Buzi’ s research interest is on human cranial cavities and inner structures by means of virtual anthropology, with a focus on paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity and their influence on mid-facial morphology. This, with reference to the early Neanderthals and, more in general, to the pre-modern human populations of Europe and Italy from the Middle to Late Pleistocene. Dr. Buzi is also interested in the digital reconstruction of human fossils and the design of virtual methodologies of analysis. Dr Buzi has combined his laboratorial activities with fieldwork on major fossil sites in Europe and Africa.

Dr. Costantino Buzi (2024)

Dr Costantino Buzi’s research interest is on human cranial cavities and inner structures using virtual anthropology, with a focus on paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity and their influence on mid-facial morphology. This, with reference to the early Neanderthals and, more in general, to the pre-modern human populations of Europe and Italy from the Middle to Late Pleistocene.

He achieved his European Doctorate at Sapienza University of Rome (Italy) in 2020, with a doctoral thesis on the Neanderthal skeleton from Altamura (Southern Italy). After the PhD, he has been working as a Postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Environmental Biology of Sapienza University and subsequently at the DFG Center for Advanced Studies "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools" of the University of Tübingen (Germany).

He obtained a Post-Doctoral Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellow at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) of Tarragona in Spain, with the project "N-SPIRE - The Neanderthal nose: reconstruction of shape, function and adaptations" focusing on the upper respiratory tract of Neanderthals.

Dr. Buzi is also interested in the digital reconstruction of human fossils and the design of virtual methodologies of analysis and has combined his laboratory activities with fieldwork on major fossil sites in Europe and Africa.

Prof. Dr. Fernando O. De Carvalho

Fernando O. de Carvalho is a professor at the Linguistics Section of the Anthropology Department of the Museu Nacional, in the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (MN/UFRJ), Brazil. His expertise lies in the field of historical linguistics, in particular of the indigenous languages of South America, in the field of descriptive linguistics, and in the use of linguistic evidence for the study of the past of human populations.

His research at the Words, Bones, Genes, Tools Centre will address the relevance of Farming/Language Dispersal Hypothesis for lowland South America and, specifically, to the case of the Arawakan language family. The so-called 'Arawakan Diaspora', a label conventionally attached to the population-level events that have led to the diversification of this language family, has been traditionally conceptualized as being either enabled by plant domestication, or, alternatively, envisaged as a major vector for the spread of cultivated genera in the continent. Although linguistic evidence is often presented as converging with archaeological and ethnohistorical information in support of these scenarios, careful examination of the data and argumentation presented so far raises a number of issues. The project will examine the assumptions behind the use of 'linguistic paleontology' to this specific case, focusing on the application of the comparative method to the Arawakan family. The focus will naturally lie on the domain of lexical reconstruction, notably the reconstructibility of Proto-Arawakan vocabulary related to domesticated plants and their use. Preliminary evidence suggests a more complex picture than has been assumed so far, with non-trivial and problematic etymologies casting doubt on the reconstructibility of certain terms, both at the Proto-Arawakan level and at the level of intermediate proto-languages.  Many of the case studies bring to fore hitherto ignored diffusional relations with non-Arawakan groups, which suggests a converging picture with recent findings and interpretations in Amazonian archaeology.

Dr. Chundra Cathcart

Towards richer phylogenetic models of the evolution of sound patterns
The world’s languages vary significantly in terms of the static sound patterns they display. At the
same time, a number of recurrent patterns have been identified in large numbers of genetically
diverse languages, putatively rooted in articulatory and perceptual constraints as well as other
pressures, such as iconicity. Little is known, however, about the specific mechanisms of
language change that shape these tendencies.
I aim to gain a closer understanding of the extent to which lexical change facilitates the creation,
renewal and maintenance of certain sound patterns. This work will involve designing flexible
phylogenetic models designed to investigate nuanced linguistic questions of this nature.
This research serves several purposes. On one hand, it allows us to empirically test hypotheses
regarding the role of communicative pressures in shaping the vocabularies of languages using
state-of-the-art phylogenetic methods. On the other, it has the potential to refine our
understanding of lexical change with an eye to reconstructing linguistic relationships and
prehistoric contact networks. A better understanding of the various constraints that shape
vocabulary replacement can assist us in making informed conjectures regarding the nature of
human language at time depths inaccessible to the comparative method.

Prof. Dr. Nina Dobrushina

Nina Dobrushina is a linguist working in typology and sociolinguistics. Her native language is Russian, and part of her research has been devoted to Russian, but she is also interested in the study of the evolution and dynamics of linguistic diversity. For years, she conducted field research in Daghestan, Northern Caucasus, the area of a very high language density, where more than 50 languages are still spoken in everyday life and transmitted to the children. In her opinion, linguists need to understand mechanisms of language contact, linguistic variation and language change, and this requires a combination of the methods of cross-linguistic comparison and anthropological analysis with the use of quantitative data. She is dedicated to collecting and processing language data, and contributed to and supervised creation of a series of linguistic databases and corpora.

personal website: https://ninadob.github.io/page/

email: nina.dobrushinaspam prevention@gmail.com

Dr. Jérémy Duveau

Jérémy Duveau is a postdoctoral fellow in paleoanthropology supported by the the FYSSEN Foundation. His research focuses on the paleobiology and locomotor behaviours of hominins, and in particular Neandertals, based on the study of postcranial skeletons and footprints. To do so, he uses a multidisciplinary and experimental approach combining comparative and functional anatomy, ichnology, virtual anthropology, morphometry and phylogeny.

After completing a Master's degree in paleontology at the University of Poitiers (France) in 2015 and a second Master's degree in prehistory in 2016 at the French National Museum of Natural History (Paris) in 2016, he completed a PhD in paleoanthropology at the French National Museum of Natural History defended in February 2020. During his PhD, he was mainly interested in the Neandertal footprints discovered on the French site of Le Rozel and the biological information they provided about the groups that lived on this site 80,000 years ago. Since the end of his PhD, he is particularly interested in the simulation and modeling of the locomotion of hominins (recent such as Neandertals or older such as Australopithecus) using the complementary information provided by osteological remains (anatomical robustness, body proportions, joint angles, center of mass) and footprints (distribution of plantar pressures, stride lengths, foot angle).

Prof. Nicholas Evans

Linguistic Palaeontology of Plant Use in Sahul

Many disciplines touch on aspects of the deep human past. But like the proverbial six blind men and the elephant, they risk drawing quite different conclusions if transdisciplinary integration cannot provide ‘kissing points’ which we can use to fasten together dates, locations, technologies or transformational processes between languages, archaeological remains, genetic markers, anthropological distributions and so forth. The proposed project will investigate one such ‘kissing point’, which is a neglected area for human prehistory – the use of plants in Sahul (Australia and New Guinea), stretching back in time, both as foodstuffs and as technological agents (from paint fixatives in Arnhem Land to fish poisons to hafting resins on woomeras). This can be achieved through ‘linguistic palaeontology’ – the linking of word-histories (both reconstructed terms, and inferences from horizontal transfer) to elements in the archaeological record (ancient rock art, pollen cores, preserved artefacts) and to distributions through cultural space recorded in ethnographic databases. The fact that both Australia and New Guinea still maintain cultural continuity with many aspects of the ancient past allows us to tap into knowledge of, and language about, plant use by contemporary populations. While at the Centre, my primary research goal will be to advance our understanding of how the linguistic and cultural trajectories of plant use in Sahul are linked, can be reconstructed linguistically, and tied to a range of models of human adaptation to their environment, sometimes through their technological use, and sometimes through their domestication or exploitation of food plants (bananas and sugar cane are both likely to have been domesticated in New Guinea and thence exported to the rest of the world).



Prof. Dr. Rainer Grün

During his stay in Tübingen, Prof. Rainer Grün will work on two projects. 
First he will wirte a review paper on the direct dating of human fossils and their implications for the story of human evolution. This century has seen a dramatic expansion of our knowledge of human evolution. At least four new species were discovered and rapid progress in genetic analysis has given us insights into the complex relationships between some of them. The last review of Prof. Grün on this topic has been published in 2006 (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 49: 2-48). 

Three important human species were discovered after that point of time. Prof. Grün has personally worked on most of the human fossils that were directly dated (beyond the radiocarbon dating range) in the 2000s. Most genetic and results were also obtained well after 2006. Prof. Grün plans to write the paper with Chris Stringer and they will review the present status of genetic evidence and geochronological results and discuss the implications for human evolution for which the journal Quaternary Science Reviews has committed a full volume. It is expected that Prof Harvati will provide crucial inputs.

Furthermore dating strategies for the sites in Greece that are presently excavated under the leadership of Prof Harvati will be outlined.

Prof. Dr. Terry Harrison

The project aims to carry out a study of the faunal material collected by Ludwig Kohl-Larsen in 1935-39 from the paleoanthropological sites of Mumba-Höhle, Eyasi, and Garusi (now Laetoli) in northern Tanzania, housed at the University of Tübingen. Three research themes will be investigated: (1) The faunal collection from Mumba Höhle has not been the subject of detailed study.  An analysis of the non-human primates would add to our relatively poor understanding of later Pleistocene primate communities, including whether or not the Mumba fauna includes chimpanzees.  In addition, a preliminary study has indicated that the fauna contains undescribed extinct large mammals.  With so few known instances of later Pleistocene extinctions in eastern Africa, new mammal taxa from this time period would provide important insights into faunal diversity, biogeography, and extinction; (2) In 1936, Reck and Kohl-Larsen identified several species of monkeys from the Middle Pleistocene fauna from Eyasi, but these have not been reanalyzed or described.  A more comprehensive analysis of the Eyasi fauna, including the fossil primates, would contribute to a better understanding of the paleoecology and biodiversity of the Middle Pleistocene of East Africa; (3) In the 1940s and 1950s, Dietrich described many of the fossil vertebrates collected by Kohl-Larsen from Pliocene deposits in the Garusi area. However, a substantial part of the Kohl-Larsen collection from Garusi has not been analyzed or described.  A detailed systematic analysis of these collections will add to our understanding of the diversity, systematics and paleoecology of the Pliocene faunas from Laetoli.

Dr. Kenan Hochuli, 2021

We almost entirely live and move in spaces that have been established, shaped and transformed by our predecessors. Human environments do not simply provide the framework in which sociality can take place, they can be understood as artifacts that reflect the way of life for which they were created. But where has this process begun, and what significance must be attached to it? In my research, I examine the emergence and development of prehistoric architectures from an interaction-analytical perspective and with a special interest in the emergence of human (and therefore also: linguistic) communication. The focus of my stay in Tübingen is the exchange with archaeologists and the visit to caves in the Swabian Jura.

Dr. Kenan Hochuli, 2023/2024

My project investigates the transformation of social interaction environments throughout human evolution. This is examined through three empirical research fields: 1. The importance of the material environment for organizing co-presence and social behavior in non-human primates, 2. Interactions among modern humans in prehistoric environments (currently in focus), and 3. communicative challenges in interactions on digital platforms.

During my stay at the DFG Center for Advanced Studies "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools," the focus is on research field 2. I will video record groups of people visiting the caves of the Swabian Jura and participating in reconstructed camps, with a particular emphasis on the organization of interaction around fireplaces. My stay will also be an opportunity for interdisciplinary exchange with colleagues from archaeology, paleoanthropology, and linguistics, building on discussions that began during my visits in 2021.

The juxtaposition of the beginnings of human spatial design with social forms based on video technology opens up perspectives for shaping the spatial-material and thus social future.

Dr. Mark Hubbe

Dr. Mark Hubbe's research agenda in biological anthropology has been largely focused on two major topics, primarily explored in the context of South American prehistory. The first one relates to early human expansion across the continent, and the second explores the rise of structured social inequality in the South-Central Andes. Recently, these two foci have been complemented by his interest in pursuing a critical review of some of the theoretical and critical assumptions we have in Biological Anthropology and associated disciplines.
More details can be found here: https://anthropology.osu.edu/people/hubbe.1

Dr. David Inman

My project will investigate the proposed typological evidence of a migration corridor from California to the Western Andes, subsequent to the first colonization of the continents. The greater digital availability of linguistic literature, large typological databases (such as Grambank, PHOIBLE, and ATLAs), and statistical toolkits (such as sBayes (Ranacher et al 2021) and the work of Guzmán and Becker (2022)) allow for the first time robust testing of specific hypotheses regarding typological distribution. Through the selection of typological phenomena that are believed to change slowly, I will evaluate the likelihood of an ancient human migration path from California to the Peruvian coast, based on available linguistic data.

Dr. Gereon Kaiping

Gereon Kaiping is a language phylogeographer, working as postdoc in
geoinformation science at the University of Zürich. During his
fellowship in Tübingen, his two main research questions relate to
quantifying language contact and estimating the territories or ranges of
different languages, based on geographical factors.

The first project is to look into method to help linguists judge whether
the connection between different languages as donors or recipient in
language contact is likely. It may be possible to provide
likelihood-based suggestions for contact between languages within the
same time period. We would start from a simple sigmoid likelihood
function describing the likelihood of contact, and calibrate it using
known or inferred contact events on the basis of such a travel effort
network. This approach could be extended vice versa to suggestions for
inferred historical locations based on (attested or inferred) borrowing

The second project is inspired by calibrating linguistic phylogenies.
Working on temporal calibrations for Arawakan languages with some
collaborators, we noticed that it is sometimes helpful to treat
archeological ‘cultures’ as proto-languages with no associated data, but
temporal and geographical locations. A probabilistic suggestion of these
connections is a useful long-term goal – likely not achievable within
the time of the fellowship, but it would provide a focus for
discussions, which might lead to a formal model.

Prof. Dr. Ammie Kalan

Dr. Ammie Kalan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria in BC, Canada. She is the PI of the Great Ape Behaviour Lab (GAB Lab: www.ammiekkalan.com/team) where her research group investigates diverse aspects related to great ape tool use, communication and culture. Dr. Kalan is visiting the DFG Center for Words, Bones, Genes and Tools in the summer of 2023 to collaborate with Dr. Alexandros Karakostis on a comparative kinematic analyses of chimpanzee tool use to potentially inform hominin models. Dr. Kalan will also be working with Dr. Claudio Tennie to discuss theoretical considerations of how field primatologists and comparative pscyhologists can work together for an improved understanding of cultural evolution.

Dr. Maciej T. Krajcarz

Dr. Maciej T. Krajcarzis a Quaternary geologist. His primary focus is clastic cave sediments:
the deposition environment, post-depositional disturbances, and fossil fauna that records the
paleoclimatic and paleoecological information about the deposition environment. He studies
caves in Poland, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. In his research he uses micromorphology and
geochemistry, including stable isotopes.

In the "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools" project he focuses on the biochemical record of
ecological aspects of Late Pleistocene hominins who inhabited a key hub for the human
dispersal, the Altai mountains: Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Anatomically Modern Humans.
Together with Prof. Hervé Bocherens (University of Tübingen, Biogeology) he builds a
database of published and unpublished carbon and nitrogen stable isotope data for Altai
ancient humans and fauna, and exploit it for tracking trophic similarities and differences
between hominins and wild carnivores, such as cave hyena, cave lion and wolf.

The final goal of the project is to compare the isotopic ecology of the Altai ecosystem and
well-studied Late Pleistocene ecosystems of Europe. This will provide key information for
our understanding of the Neanderthal adaptability to the extreme conditions at the fringes of
their ecumene. This will also allow to compare the ecological characteristics of the three
hominins – the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and the Anatomically Modern Humans – who
all inhabited variable parts of the Eurasian steppes in the Late Pleistocene and who finally met
together in Altai to fight against each other, or maybe to coexist and assimilate?

Personal website: www.ing.pan.pl/en/staff/maciej-krajcarz

Prof. Dr. Amina Mettouchi

Prof. Dr. Amina Mettouchi holds the chair of Berber Linguistics at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, and is a member of the LLACAN (Languages and cultures of Africa) CNRS research unit.  Her central focus of interest is orality, and she has been exploring it under several angles: analysing prosody and gesture as core linguistic structuration, leading two international projects on spoken corpora in under-described languages, and exploring Berber/Amazigh oral tradition as a window to the (deep) past, and a rich basis for language maintenance and revitalization.

In the last four years, she has created and is currently implementing a grassroots project supporting the auto-documentation of Amazigh communities of North Africa (https://llacan.cnrs.fr/amazigh/). She has also been developing a research programme connecting the language of food to the reconstruction of the evolution of and contacts among Berber/Amazigh languages.

Website: https://llacan.cnrs.fr/pers/mettouchi/

Fellowship project: Milky ways in the Sahara

In culturally conservative societies, what people traditionally eat, and the way they eat it, can be traced far back in time, providing insights into the (deep) past. Bringing together linguistics, anthropology and archaeology, I will trace the trajectories of milk in North Africa, from bos and caprine domestication and diffusion, to traditional preparation and conservation techniques of milk and cheese, through churn, pot and ladle types, mentions in oral literature, representations in rock art, associated rituals, and crucially, a linguistic study of the lexical domain associated to milk, and a dynamic study of preparation techniques as chaînes opératoires. I am particularly interested in the systematic analysis of variation in these domains. The aim of the fellowship project is to reconstruct one of the many threads leading to a fuller understanding of human settlements, migrations, and contacts in North Africa.

Prof. Dr. Steven Moran

Comparative phonetics: Towards insights into the evolution of speech

The comparative phonetics paradigm combines phonetic, acoustic, and morphological analyses of extant great apes’ speech-like behavior with the aim of being able to reconstruct the would-be speech articulatory complexes of our human ancestors.

First, we apply methods from phonetics to analyze great ape vocalizations. This, combined with morphological and anatomical data, lets us derive species’ articulatory capacities through speech acoustics-based reconstructions of likely vocal tract shapes. For example, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and orangutans (Pongo abelii) both produce “hoots” – the acoustic and perceptual qualities of which overlap with human back vowels. By reverse engineering the vocal tract shapes involved in the production of hoots, we show that the apparent evolutionary continuity of vowel-like sounds is likely the result of acoustically fortuitous phenomena that are reached through different articulatory means (e.g., great apes possess large fleshy and extendable lips, which are readily used in the production of /u:/-like sounds by elongating the vocal tract). Continuity with human speech appears to be more clearly captured by our shared morphology, including bilabial consonants. We also analyze learned vocalizations of chimpanzees in captivity, demonstrating that both (1) the essential morphological underpinnings of human syllables and (2) the imitative abilities that underlie speech acquisition, were likely present at a much earlier stage of evolution than previously thought.

Second, archaeological data suggests that capacities suggestive of spoken language in early humans coincided in evolution with widespread morphological changes in the would-be speech articulators, which have led, for example, to vocal tract morphology that affords the modern vowel space. We review archaeological findings in search of a timeline during which features of the modern human articulatory morphology emerged. The incorporation of processed food in the Homo lineage likely facilitated the reduction in size of the jaw, oral cavity, teeth, and face. A mutation leading to inactivation of predominant myosin heavy chain expressed in masticatory muscles may have removed a constraint on brain expansion; and was possibly maintained in the lineage because food processing had already been outsourced to the hands and rudimentary stone tools during the Oldowan cultural niche (removing selection pressure for heavy jaws). The chain of events allows us to posit early Homo as a change-point in articulator evolution.

Prof. em. John Nerbonne

John Nerbonne has developed a research line applying edit distances to phonetic transcriptions in language variation data. The focused application area has been dialectology, but Jäger's work at Words, Bones, Genes and Tools on historical linguistics uses similar techniques, and there are more. The application to dialectology has used the sum of edit distances based on pairs of pronunciations of the same word in different varieties, but this is quite different from traditional historical work, which emphasizes the importance of regular sound correspondences as clues to historical relatedness.  The current project aims to compare these approaches, first in dialectology, and if some collaboration can arise, on historical data, too.

Dr. April Nowell

Until recently, children have been understudied in the archaeological
record and this is particularly true of Paleolithic children.  Yet, they
likely comprised 40-65% of prehistoric populations and evidence from
burials, stone tools, parietal art, textiles, handprints, footprints and
possible toys strongly suggests that these children made important
contributions to the social, economic and spiritual wellbeing of the
communities of which they were apart.  Focusing on a large sample of
Gravettian ceramics, the proposed project addresses three research
questions--can the ceramic products of novices be distinguished from
those made by experts?  If so, can we tell if these novices were
children? In what ways do the chaînes opératoires of ceramic production
differ from ivory artifact production and what can these similarities
and differences tell us about learning and apprenticeship in the

Dr. Ronald Planer

Ronald Planer received his PhD in Philosophy and Cognitive Science from Rutgers University, New
Brunswick, in 2015. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Melbourne in the
School of Languages and Linguistics and a Lecturer at the University of Wollongong in the School of
Liberal Arts. Planer’s research might be described as the philosophy of human nature: it attempts to
understand—and ultimately develop testable models of—the biocultural evolution of some of the
most fundamental aspects of human beings; for example, our linguistic abilities, our social-cognitive
abilities, and our moral and political attitudes. Planer takes a highly interdisciplinary approach to this
research, drawing upon ideas from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, neuroscience,
linguistics, developmental biology, computer science, and other fields. Recently, Planer published his
first book, co-authored with Professor Kim Sterelny, entitled, From Signal to Symbol: The Evolution
of Language (MIT press).
Planer’s research project with the “Words, Bones, Genes, Tools” Centre will aim to illuminate the
evolutionary connections between stone-tool manufacture and the evolution of our theory-of-mind
abilities, of which there are plausibly many. It will do so with an eye towards better understanding,
among other things, the biocultural origins of human language. More specifically, the project will
focus on connections between stone-tool manufacture our theory-of-mind abilities in three
domains, namely: the individual learning of stone-tool making skills; the learning of stone-tool
making skills by observation; and finally, apprenticeship forms of learning stone-tool making skills.
The project will include an attempt to chronologically order and approximately date changes in our
theory-of-mind abilities by linking those changes to the learning demands of particular lithic
technological industries. The results of this research will then be used to update our current best
thinking about the evolution of language in general, and of our ability to create and process
syntactically complex language, in particular.

Prof. Dr. Gustavo Politis, 2022

My research during my participation in the project "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools" will concentrate on
the peopling process of South America and on exploring the evolutionary patterns that operated in
the adaptive radiation of Homo sapiens in the continent. The early peopling of the Americas has
been one of the most hotly contested topics in American anthropology. In South America, although
the quantity and quality of data related to this issue have increased exponentially in recent decades
and fostered a growing interest in comprehensive and multi-proxy data, most of the core questions
related to the timing of human arrival and temporal patterns of the colonization process still remain
open. In the last decades, archaeological, bioarchaeological, and paleogenomics research
consolidated the pre-Clovis post-Late Glacial Maximum (LGM) model in one or two expansion waves.
Despite claiming a pre-LGM human occupation, the archaeological record suggests that humans
arrived in South America roughly 14.5 thousand years ago (Prates et al. 2020), shortly after the initial
colonization of the continent. It indicates a rapid spread southwards, several parallel micro-
evolutionary processes, and a fast biological and cultural adaptation to different environments. This
situation opens several fascinating questions which I will approach during my stay in Tübingen.

Prof. Dr. Gustavo Politis, 2023

My research during my participation in the project "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools" will concentrate on the peopling process of South America and on exploring the evolutionary patterns that operated in the adaptive radiation of Homo sapiens on the continent. The early peopling of the Americas has been one of American anthropology's most hotly contested topics. In South America, although the quantity and quality of data related to this issue have increased exponentially in recent decades and fostered a growing interest in comprehensive and multi-proxy data, most of the core questions related to the timing of human arrival and temporal patterns of the colonization process still remain open.  In recent decades, archaeological, bioarchaeological, and paleogenomics research consolidated the pre-Clovis post-Late Glacial Maximum (LGM) model in one or two expansion waves. Despite claiming a pre-LGM human occupation, the archaeological record suggests that humans arrived in South America roughly 14.5 thousand years ago (Prates et al. 2020), shortly after the initial colonization of the continent. It indicates a rapid spread southwards, several parallel micro-evolutionary processes, and a fast biological and cultural adaptation to different environments. This situation opens several fascinating questions I will approach during my stay in Tübingen.

Dr. Antonio Profico

Antonio is a biological anthropologist and morphometrician interested in human evolution and virtual anthropology. His research concerns the application of geometric morphometrics and multivariate statistics for the study of the human fossil record.
He is also developer of different R packages widely used in virtual anthropology (Arothron), dental microwear analysis (MicroWeaR) and cross-sectional geometry (morphomap).

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ProficoA
ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Antonio-Profico
GoogleScholar: https://scholar.google.it/citations?user=qMttLZsAAAAJ&hl

Dr. Ivan Roksandic

This project focuses on Xavante toponomastics in central Brazil, its morphophonological features, socio-cultural naming practices, and relevance for supporting Xavante territorial rights. It is a part of a larger international project “Colonization of the sacred places of the Xavante territory,” whose main objectives are to apply different fields of inquiry (linguistics, archaeology, bioanthropology, genetics) in order to document colonial history of the Xavante people on their traditional territory and to contribute to the understanding of the social, political and cultural dynamics that reconfigures their way of life.
The Xavante are an indigenous group which inhabited the Central-West region of Brazil (the north-eastern portion of the State of Mato Grosso) at least since the 1840s. They originally lived in the province of Goiás some 500 km to the east, but gradually moved westward under the pressure of European colonizers, and settled in a dense riparian forest on the banks of the Maraiwatsé'pa River. The village of Maraiwatsé'pa became the political and ceremonial center of the Marãiwatsédé territory, where they lived in relative isolation until the 1930s. After that, however, their territory was continuously encroached upon and invaded by both landless peasants and big land-owners. The acceleration of the socio-economic changes which  characterized the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985) had profound negative impact on their society: in addition to extreme violence, there was a continuous process of erasing their memory, history, and culture, which legitimized the loss of their rights.  
The Xavante language (autonym: A'uwẽ) belongs to the Macro-Jê linguistic stock and to Jean (Gê) linguistic family. Although Xavante – in contrast to most other languages of Brazil – is not endangered, with a relatively healthy number of speakers (estimated at around 9,600, with 7,000 of them monolingual), its position as a minority indigenous language is vulnerable as it lacks comprehensive documentation. The linguistic portion of the project, has four main goals: 1) To document Xavante toponyms on their larger traditional territory and to map their distribution as it was in the times before the dictatorship in order to delineate the extent of traditional Xavante lands and the range of territorial losses. 2) To examine morphophonological characteristics of Xavante place names; this will include comparative analysis with sister languages from the Cerrado (Northern and Central) branches of Jean family, primarily Timbira and Membengokrê. 3) To examine sociolinguistic and referential features of the collected toponyms in the context of Xavante naming practices, as well as their cultural importance, and stories and legends connected with individual locations. 4) To combine results of linguistic investigation with those from other fields of inquiry so as to achieve the main goals of our project. 

Prof. Dr. Mirjana Roksandic

The palaeoanthropological community is increasingly recognizing the critical role of the Eastern Mediterranean in the peopling of Eurasia. We now know that humans populated Europe multiple times during the Pleistocene, but the questions of “who,” “when,” and “how” remain unanswered. As part of the Eastern Mediterranean Area, the Balkan Peninsula sits at an important crossroads between Europe and Western Asia. As a potential route of human migration between the Levant, Anatolia, and Western Europe, it holds the key to resolving several major questions about the evolution and population movements of ancient humans. The Peninsula is also a hotspot of biodiversity which served as refuge for plants and animals during the Pleistocene Ice Ages, when glaciers expanded southwards (between 2.6 ma and 10 ka). While adjoining areas (Western Europe and the Near East) have been studied extensively, Palaeolithic evidence from the Balkans is still scarce. Recent surveys and excavations of Palaeolithic sites in Greece and the Central Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia, and Northern Macedonia) have resulted in important discoveries, demonstrating the potential of the region to change the narrative of human evolution in the Pleistocene.


In the Central Balkans Prof. Roksandic works with the team of Prof. Dusan Mihailovic (University of Belgrade). The last 15 years of collaboration have resulted in survey and excavation of numerous sites of which four are hominin bearing sites. They cover the last 500 thousand years of human occupation of the region. The fossils include a partial mandible of a non-Neanderthal hominin from Mala Balanica cave, potentially linked to the Middle Pleistocene of SW Asia and Africa; four 300 ka teeth from Velika Balanica cave assigned to an early Neanderthal group similar to Sima de los Huesos; two more teeth from the same cave that are awaiting analysis; a 100ka tooth, and a somewhat younger juvenile radius from Pešturina cave, both assigned to Neanderthals. All three sites are within 5 km of each other in southern Serbia on the Vardar-Morava corridor. In eastern Serbia, linked to the Danube corridor, we have recently recovered a fragment of a mandible that is still awaiting dating and analysis. Continued excavation, the analysis of the recovered material and establishing the role of these diverse hominins in human evolution in Eurasia will be the main focus of my research while at the DFG Word Bones Genes Tools at the University of Tübingen.

Prof. Dr. Lauren Schroeder

Prof. Dr. Lauren Schroeder is a palaeoanthropologist whose research focuses on understanding the evolution of cranial and mandibular diversity across fossil hominins. This research agenda combines a variety of quantitative methods, including statistical analyses of 3D models, with the analytical approaches of quantitative genetics to address questions about the evolutionary processes underlying morphological variation.

In collaboration with Prof. Dr. Katerina Harvati and Prof. Dr. Mark Hubbe, Prof. Dr. Schroeder will be working on the project entitled "The evolution of the genus Homo: building methodological bridges" where she will be applying methodology from evolutionary quantitative genetics to investigate the evolutionary processes underlying cranial divergence across the genus Homo.

Prof. Dr. David Strait

David Strait will be collecting data on European fossil hominins as part of a long-term project reconstructing the evolutionary relationships of all fossil hominin species. It is a well-established principle in evolutionary biology that the pattern of evolution (i.e., phylogenetic relationships among taxa) must be understood before hypotheses regarding evolutionary processes (i.e., adaptive and/or biogeographic scenarios) can be rigorously evaluated. The reason underlying this principle is that phylogenetic relationships constrain the spectrum of plausible evolutionary scenarios. Accordingly, phylogenetic analysis (i.e., the reconstruction of evolutionary relationships) is a critical endeavor in Paleoanthropology.