The processes that have led human populations of the past to develop the cultural innovations that make us different from our phylogenetically closer relatives (e.g., making composite tools, creating symbolic items, developing numerical symbol systems etc.) are the subject of an intense debate. The emergence of cultural innovations implying the use of organic material (resins for hafting, poison for hunting, binders to produce paints, etc.) are highly relevant to these debates since the preparation of such compounds is often cognitively demanding and complex to transmit to new generations. We know that complex organic compounds were produced by both Middle Stone Age populations in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe and the Near East since at least 180 ka, but evidence for these innovations remains circumstantial. The PUSHH doctoral fellow will substantially contribute to filling this gap by conducting analyses on key artifacts and introducing new standards in the study of ancient material culture. As part of the application process, candidates are required to devise a project using palaeoproteomic methods to further our understanding of the use of organic compounds in the African Middle Stone Age. Potential research aims might include: 1) Identification of the protein binders used liquefied ochre-rich mixtures from Blombos Cave, South Africa, dated to ~100 ka ago and considered among the first hallmarks of complex modern human cognition and/or 2) Analysis of the inner surface of ostrich eggshells from the key site of Klipdrift, South Africa, to identify possible protein residues deriving from foodstuff or beverages originally contained in the eggshells.
This fellowship is also a part of the European Training Network PUSHH: “Palaeoproteomics to Unleash Studies on Human History - PUSHH”, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 861389. The PUSHH project will provide international doctoral training on palaeoproteomics applied to palaeontology, palaeoanthropology and archaeology. It builds on the recent exciting advances in palaeoproteomics, i.e. mass spectrometry-based ancient protein sequencing. PUSHH will develop new proteomic methods, optimised for ancient protein analysis, that will be applied to address outstanding evolutionary questions in human and hominoid evolution.
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