Weizmann Institute and Max Planck Society establish a joint center for archaeology and anthropology

January 11th, 2012
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 ours? 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 for the establishment of the Center is being signed today at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot – for the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, by Prof. Peter Gruss, President; and for the Weizmann Institute, by Prof. Daniel Zajfman, President. Serving as the Center's Directors will be Prof. Stephen Weiner of the Weizmann Institute and Prof. Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The creation of the Center marks more than five decades of collaboration between the Max Planck Society and the Weizmann Institute. This collaboration, which originated in the late 1950s, led to the historic 1964 agreement whereby the Minerva Foundation for Research, a subsidiary of the Max Planck Society, channeled funds provided by the German government to Weizmann Institute research projects, thus fostering a wide range of scientific exchanges between the Institute and the Max Planck Society and other German Universities. These ties helped lay the foundation not only for German-Israeli scientific cooperation, but also for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries one year later.

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 Weizmann Institute's Prof. 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 of scientists in Israel and Germany, each numbering approximately 10 scientists and students. 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 the research track entitled 'The Timing of Cultural Change.' Its goal: to shed new light on such fascinating aspects of human history as the spread of ideas, the changes in lifestyles, the different rates of development in various parts of the world and the migration of people from one geographical area to another. Traditionally, these questions have been explored by relative dating – that is, comparing changes in tools or pottery in different regions. However, absolute dating – determining the actual age of objects and strata – is needed in order to establish when a particular change occurred and how fast it spread throughout the region. To document the distribution of cultural changes in the last 50,000 years, the scientists will conduct much of the work in the field, performing a scientific analysis of findings at the archaeological site itself, to be followed up by laboratory studies. They will use high-resolution radiocarbon dating, which makes it possible to date specimens with a precision of 20 to 40 years, taking advantage of such advanced techniques as accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS—see below) analysis of radiocarbon content.

The group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig will mainly conduct research along the track entitled 'Physical Anthropology through Bone and Tooth Structure-Function Studies.' Scientists in this group will investigate issues in recent human evolution, particularly those relating to the co-occurrence of Neanderthal and early modern human populations in the Levantine region, at the crossroads between Africa and Eurasia. The study of fossil remains of these two populations has been traditionally based on the shapes of bones and teeth, examined more recently with the help of 3D computer reconstructions. Scientists in this track will make use of high-resolution computer tomography both at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and at the Weizmann Institute, a technology that makes it possible to perform such reconstructions down to the level of micron-sized details. The scientists will examine the relationship between structure and function in bones and teeth, which is essential for understanding evolutionary changes. Since this relationship is difficult to establish using fossils alone, the focus of the studies in the new Center will be on modern bones and teeth.

Particle Accelerator for the Study of the Past

The new AMS equipment is expected to have a major impact on archaeology research both locally and internationally, as the only machine of its kind in the entire Middle East. Designed especially for conducting mainly archaeological research, it will be installed at the Weizmann Institute in a designated laboratory in the Physics Faculty, in the end of 2012. Archaeological dating used to rely on counters tracking the decay of the radioactive carbon isotope called C-14, a time-consuming process that requires large quantities of material. In contrast, AMS performs direct measurements of C-14, by accelerating the carbon atoms to a high speed and separating out the C-14 even when it is present at the minute concentrations of one in a quadrillion (1 followed by 15 zeroes) carbon atoms. This approach makes it possible to perform the dating very fast and on minute quantities of material, such as a single lentil, a grain of wheat or a small trace of collagen in bones – an essential feature, since over thousands of years, organic matter on which radiocarbon dating is based tends to disappear.

The gift that enabled the purchase of the accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) came from Dr. Naim Dangoor CBE of London, founder and head of the Exilarch Foundation. The Exilarch's Foundation supports community and educational causes. The new AMS lab will be named DREAMS, for Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Laboratory, and is expected to be the first radiocarbon-dating laboratory in the world dedicated to research rather than to providing a service.

Prof. Stephen Weiner's research is supported by the Exilarch's Foundation; the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation; the Estate of Hilda Jacoby-Schaerf; the Ilse Katz Institute for Material Sciences and Magnetic Resonance Research; the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science, which he heads; the European Research Council; and the J & R Center for Scientific Research. Prof. Weiner is the incumbent of the Dr. Walter and Dr. Trude Borchardt Professorial Chair in Structural Biology.

Provided by Weizmann Institute of Science

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