Sunday, 15 January 2012

Neanderthal archaeology - watch this space
Frae the press release:
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.

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