Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Origins Of Human Settlement: Mainz University Coordinates A New EU Project For Young Researchers

"BEAN – Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic" is the name of a new multinational educational network which has received funding from the European Commission for the next four years. It is classified as a so-called Initial Training Network (ITN) in the EU Marie Curie Actions program, which allows young scientists early access to research activity at top international institutions. A basic requirement for funding is that the researchers involved leave their home country and conduct their research in another European country.

Junior researcher Zuzana Fajkošová passes international selection procedure and begins her doctorate in the Palaeogenetics Group at the JGU Institute of Anthropology

Zuzana Fajkošová 
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Credit:  Johannes Gutenberg University

The BEAN Network consists of several European partners in England, Switzerland, France, Germany, Serbia, and Turkey, and has set itself the goal of enhancing the skills of a new generation of researchers in the subjects of anthropology, pre-history, population genetics, computer modeling, and demography. Many different disciplines are participating in the initiative. An important associate partner on the German side is the German Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden. The common focus of the project partners centers around questions associated with the origin of first farmer settlements, which were established some 8,000 years ago in West Anatolia and the Balkans. Where did they come from? Were they migrants from the Middle East? Are they our ancestors?

Anthropologists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have been meticulous in their preparation of the project over the last years and have entered into various cooperations to underpin it. Seven research institutions and two commercial companies are now working together on the BEAN project. Two leading researchers serve the network in an advisory capacity. These are archaeologist Ian Hodder from Stanford, who established his reputation with his excavations in Catal Höyük, and Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural History Foundation, who spent many years excavating and researching in European Turkey. 

Since he appeared about 200,000 years ago, anatomically modern man has lived not only as a hunter, but also from gathering fruit, grass, wild vegetables and roots. About 11,000 years ago, a change in lifestyle took place in the territories of present-day Iran, the Levant region and south-east Anatolia, which is characterised especially by four factors: the people founded permanent settlements with buildings for various functions, plants such as Einkorn and beans were cultivated, goats, sheep, pigs and cattle were domesticated – and a new kind of culture was created, that became obvious especially with the appearance of ground stone tools and later also from pottery products and the use of copper. The transition from the partly nomadic hunter-gatherer culture to a settled lifestyle based on farming is also known as the “Neolithic Revolution”. For 2,000 years, the Neolithic culture remained in its region of origin. After this, meaning about 9,000 years ago, it spread to western Anatolia and to the Aegean (see figure). Here at the latest, it splits into two trajectories, i.e. into the Mediterranean and into the Danube-Balkan route.

 The spread of farming across Europe (from Burger et al. 2011). 

Credit:  Johannes Gutenberg University 

The Mediterranean colonisations took place by ship. Their paths led across southern Italy, the Tyrrhenian islands, the south ofFrance and north Africa as well as across the Iberian peninsula. It is highly likely that a version of the Mediterranean Neolithic about 7,000 years ago reached the Rhine and met the second route of the Balkan Neolithic. About 8,500 years ago, this second route stretched spasmodically from south-east Europe across central and northern Europe. Subsequently, the origins of the Central European Linearbandkeramik culture can be determined as going back 7,600 years. It has its beginnings in the north-west of Hungary /south-west of Slovakia respectively, and spread relatively quickly into central Europe. Only much later, approximately 6,100 years ago, were the low plains of northern Germany and other parts of northern Europe “neolithisised”.

As of July 2012, doctoral candidate Zuzana Fajkošová, who completed her undergraduate studies at Masaryk University in Brno and at Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic, will be the first of two BEAN researchers to start work at JGU's Institute of Anthropology and in the new palaeogenetic laboratory, which is currently in the final stages of construction on the edges of the university's Botanic Garden. She will analyze DNA from the bones of the last hunter-gatherers and the first settled farmers in the region between West Anatolia and the Balkans using the new cutting-edge technology of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). Together with her colleagues in Dublin, London, and Geneva, she will use the genomic data to compile a model for the settlement of Europe.

"It is both a great honor and a huge opportunity for me that I can work together with such renowned researchers. I'm looking forward to Mainz, the university and the institute's new building," comments Fajkošová, who turned down a number of other offers in order to work at JGU. "A major factor leading to her appointment was the fact that besides mastering biomolecular techniques she also has good programming skills,” explains Professor Dr. Joachim Burger, the Network Coordinator. "A few years ago we more or less founded the discipline of Neolithic Palaeogenetics single-handedly. However, undertaking genomic projects is possible only with the help of international colleagues. That is why we are so pleased that such networks give us and our colleagues the chance to train young research talents."

Besides academic training, the young researchers will be able to do practical work for the two commercial companies within the network and thereby gain work experience in a non-university environment. "This is important as not all of the candidates will opt for a pure research career," explains Karola Kirsanow, who moved from Harvard to Mainz last year and now administrates the network together with Burger. "Our young colleagues have to attend many workshops, courses, and internships, most of them abroad. While this makes for a very tough program, we believe that it significantly enhances the quality of the training and similarly enhances candidates' career prospects."

Contacts and sources: 
Dr. Karola Kirsanow
Institute of Anthropology 

Related links
Palaeogenetics Group Mainz
BEAN - Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic

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