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22.05.2015 - 19:39 Uhr  
Department of Human Evolution

Breaking News

March 18, 2015
Protein is the clue to solving a Darwinian mystery

Toxodon platensisThe South American native ungulates Toxodon and Macrauchenia were first found by Darwin 180 years ago in Uruguay and Argentina, yet their place in the phylogenetic tree of the mammals has long been an issue of debate. An international team of scientists from the University of York and the Natural History Museum in London, UK, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, USA, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has now provided the key to solving the evolutionary puzzle surrounding what Charles Darwin called the ‘strangest animals ever discovered’. Their remarkable technical feat in obtaining a molecular phylogeny based on Pleistocene protein sequences is a first, which could herald a new chapter in palaeontology.



Link to Max Planck Press Release

Welker, F., Collins, M.J., Thomas, J.A., Wadsley, M., Brace, S., Cappellini, E., Turvey, S.T., Requero, M., Gelfo, J.N., Kramarz, A., Burger, J., Thomas-Oates, J., Ashford, D.A., Ashton, P., Rowsell, K., Porter, D.M., Kessler, B., Fisher, R., Baessmann, C., Kaspar, S., Olsen, J., Kiley, P., Elliott, J.A., Kelstrup, C., Mullin, V., Hofreiter, M., Willerslev, E., Hublin, J.-J., Orlando, L., Barnes, I., MacPhee, R.D.E. (2015) Ancient proteins resolve the evolutionary history of Darwin’s South-American Ungulates. Nature, 18 March 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nature14249.





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Led by Jean-Jacques Hublin, the Department of Human Evolution was founded in 2004 as part of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA). The department primarily studies fossil hominins and aims to reconstruct their biology, behavior and cultural evolution. Hominins are an extremely successful group of species that have expanded across the entire planet and have succeeded in coping with virtually all eco-geographical niches. Hominins have modified their environment to a spectacular extent, provoked one of the most major mass extinctions in the earth’s history, and have developed some degree of control over their own genome and those of other species. For the first three or four millions years of their evolution, like other mammals, hominins competed with other species and adapted to environmental changes primarily through biological adaptations; that is, by modifying their size, diet, locomotion and reproductive pattern. However, during the last two million years, the development of complex behavior related to the emergence of technology and more broadly, to human culture, has opened an entirely new chapter of primate evolution. Human evolution is unparalleled in life history because it is a bio-cultural process. What makes this process unique is the increasing importance of culture in the adaptive strategy of the species and, even more so, the increased interaction between culture and biology.

Addressing questions such as:
“What factors led to the emergence of humans?”,
“What makes them different from other primates?” or
“What is anatomical and cultural modernity?”
requires the interdisciplinary perspective of researchers coming from very different backgrounds. Also of importance is the study of extant and fossil apes in order to access the entire spectrum of adaptations covered by our closest relatives.


The Department of Human Evolution hosts two associated Research Groups:

Max Planck Research Group on Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology

Max Planck Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology (MPWC)


In addition to research at the MPI-EVA, there is a strong commitment to education and training. Prospective Ph.D. candidates are encouraged to consider the
Leipzig School of Human Origins, (IMPRS - International Max Planck Research School) which started in 2005.