Back to School: New German-Israeli collaboration on anthropology, archaeology

rehovot, israel   |   When did modern humans arrive in Europe and Asia? At what rate have cultural changes spread from one region to another throughout history? How did Neanderthal teeth and bones differ from our own?

These are examples of topics to be investigated at the new Max Planck-Weizmann Institute of Science Center in the Field of Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology.

The agreement to establish the center was signed earlier this year at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot by professors Peter Gruss, president of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, and Daniel Zajfman, president of the Weizmann Institute.

The creation of the center follows more than five decades of collaboration between Germany’s Max Planck Society and Israel’s Weizmann Institute.  Serving as the center’s directors will be professors Stephen Weiner of the Weizmann Institute and Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Mobile lab at the archaeological site in Tel es Safi

These ties helped lay the foundation not only for German-Israeli scientific cooperation, but also for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and West Germany in 1965.

Apart from promoting the ties between the Max Planck Society and the Weizmann Institute, the new center might serve as the basis for expanding scientific ties between Israel and its neighbors. “It would be natural to collaborate with our neighboring countries because we share roughly the same archaeological record,” said Weiner. “ Just as happened in relations with Germany, now, too, scientific collaboration could have a broader impact, helping to promote peaceful ties in the Middle East.”

Activities in the center will be performed by two new groups — each numbering approximately 10 scientists and students — in Israel and Germany. In addition to performing their own research, the groups will engage in collaborative activities between the Weizmann Institute and the Max Planck Institute.

The group at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot will mainly follow a research track called “The Timing of Cultural Change.” Its goal: to shed new light on aspects of human history such as the spread of ideas, changes in lifestyles, different rates of development in various parts of the world, and the migration of people from one area to another. To document the distribution of cultural changes in the last 50,000 years, the scientists will conduct fieldwork, performing scientific analyses at archaeological sites, as well as laboratory study. They will use high-resolution radiocarbon dating, which allows dating  specimens with a precision of 20 to 40 years, taking advantage of such advanced techniques as accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) analysis of radiocarbon content.

The group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig will mainly conduct research along a track called “Physical Anthropology through Bone and Tooth Structure-Function Studies.” Scientists in this group will investigate issues in recent human evolution, focusing on the Levantine region, at the crossroads between Africa and Eurasia, where Neanderthal and early modern human populations co-existed. The study of fossil remains of these two populations has been traditionally based on the shape of bones and teeth, examined more recently with the help of 3D computer reconstructions. These scientists will use high-resolution computer tomography both at the Max Planck Institute and at the Weizmann Institute, a technology that allows reconstructions down to the level of micron-sized details. The scientists will examine the relationship between structure and function in bones and teeth, to help understand evolutionary changes. Since this relationship is difficult to establish using fossils alone, studies in the new center will focus on modern bones and teeth.