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Press releases 2015 (archive)

Contact: Sandra Jacob (e-mail: info@[>>> Please remove the brackets! <<<]eva.mpg.de, phone: +49 (0) 341-3550 122)

November 17, 2015: Cetacean strandings increase dramatically at times of rapid climate change
Grotta dell'Uzzo

Researchers of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from different Italian institutions, have uncovered evidence that strandings of different cetacean species increased in the Mediterranean as a result of environmental changes linked to the rapid climate change that took place around 8,200 years ago. The findings imply that abrupt climate change, of similar entity as worst-case scenarios for global warming, dramatically affects strandings and may represent a serious threat for cetaceans in the next few decades.

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November 09, 2015: 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for Svante Pääbo
Svante Pääbo

Sequencing of ancient DNA and genomes honoured as scientific breakthrough

One of the 2016 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences was bestowed to Max Planck director Svante Pääbo for pioneering the sequencing of ancient DNA and ancient genomes, thereby illuminating the origins of modern humans, our relationships to extinct relatives such as Neanderthals, and the evolution of human populations and traits. The seven prizes, each endowed with 3 Million US dollars, were awarded on 8 November in Silicon Valley, USA.

Link to press release

Link to the website of the Breakthrough Prize

October 19, 2015: Food-leftovers in the dental calculus

Markers of diet and behaviour in chimpanzee dental calculus

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have identified new information about chimpanzee diets and diet-related behaviours, based on the record of plant remains preserved in the dental calculus (calcified dental plaque) on the teeth of deceased individuals. The research team found that the plant remains recovered from the dental calculus record of wild Taï Forest Chimpanzees (Côte d’Ivoire) broadly match the feeding data collected over the past twenty years as part of the Taï Chimpanzee Project. Moreover, the plant remains may provide information on behaviours important in chimpanzee life histories. These life-history traits are otherwise largely invisible in populations where it is impossible to directly observe the individuals.

Link to press release

September 23, 2015: The oldest case of decapitation in the Americas
Human burial

A 9,000 year-old case of human decapitation has been found in the rock shelter of Lapa do Santo in Brazil

Few Amerindian habits impressed the European colonizers more than the taking and displaying of human body parts, especially when decapitation was involved. Although disputed by some authors, it has become widely accepted that decapitation was common among Native Americans across the entire continent. The archaeological evidence confirms that the practice has deep chronological roots. In South America, the oldest decapitation occurred in the Andes and dates to ca. 3000 years before the present. Since all other South American archaeological cases occur in the Andes (e.g., Inca, Nazca, Moche, Wari, Tiwanaco) it was assumed that decapitation was an Andean phenomenon in both its origins and in its most unambiguous expression.

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September 11, 2015: Female bonobos: Pointing it out

In order to communicate their intentions wild bonobos use referential gestural communication

Pointing and pantomime are important components of human communication but so far evidence for referential communication in animals is limited. Observations made by researchers Pamela Heidi Douglas and Liza Moscovice of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, make important contributions to this research topic: To solve social conflicts female bonobos invite other females to engage in a socio-sexual behavior by using pointing gestures and mimicking hip swings. This observation raises new questions about the evolution of referential communication and human language.

Link to press release

September 10, 2015: Homo naledi - our new relative
Homo naledi (National Geographic)

Researchers discover a new species of fossil human in a cave in South Africa

The discovery of a new species of human relative was announced today (Sept. 10) by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation (DST/NRF). In addition to shedding new light on the origins and diversity of our genus, the new species, Homo naledi, appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behavior previously thought limited to humans. Researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, took part in the research.

Link to press release

September 02, 2015: Michael Tomasello receives Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Society (APA)
Michael Tomasello

Michael Tomasello’s pioneering research on the origins of social cognition has led to revolutionary insights in both developmental psychology and primate cognition. His landmark studies of ape cognition reveal that primates have a richer understanding of the social world than previously thought. His studies of child language and social learning demonstrate the critical roles of human-specific social motivations. And his novel hypotheses about human cooperation have led to deeper insights into the fundamental differences between humans and apes. His ground-breaking theories and elegant methods have  inspired generations of students. Max Planck director Michael Tomasello received the award during the annual meeting of the APA in Toronto in August 2015.

Link to the APA website

September 01, 2015: Orang-utan females prefer cheek-padded males
Male orang-utans

Dominant, cheek-padded orang-utan males are significantly more successful at fathering offspring – except in times of rank instability

Unlike most mammals, male orang-utans express one of two distinct morphological forms: some develop large “cheek pads” on their faces; others do not. A team of researchers led by Graham L. Banes and Linda Vigilant of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, studied the reproductive success of Kusasi, the former dominant male at Camp Leakey in Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park and compared it with that of socially subordinate, non-cheek-padded males from the same area. To this aim the researchers collected faecal samples and performed paternity testing. They found that, during his decade as “king” of the jungle, Kusasi fathered significantly more offspring than any other male. Only during periods of rank instability, in the beginning and at the end of Kusasi’s dominance, did other males succeed in fathering offspring. The findings are published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

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August 25, 2015: Chimpanzees coping with forest loss

A genetic survey finds an unexpectedly large population of chimpanzees in forest fragments

By collecting faecal samples and analysing them genetically a team of researchers found three times more chimpanzees than expected in a series of patchy forest fragments near villages in Uganda. This finding suggests that chimpanzees can cope with habitat degradation better than expected, at least in the short term, but also highlights the importance of conservation strategies focused on protecting chimpanzees outside established national parks or reserves.

Link to press release

August 04, 2015: MPI-EVA has a new director

Headed by Professor Richard McElreath the Department of Human Behavior, Ecology and Culture is going to start its work at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA).

The new department will investigate the role of culture in human evolution and adaptation. The evolution of fancy social learning in humans accounts for both the nature of human adaptation and the extraordinary scale and variety of human societies. The integration of ethnographic fieldwork with mathematical models and advanced quantitative methods will be the department's methodological focus.

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July 23, 2015: Kiwi bird genome sequenced
Brown kiwi

The kiwi, national symbol of New Zealand, gives insights into the evolution of nocturnal animals

Its unusual biological characteristics make the flightless kiwi a unique kind of bird. Researchers of the University of Leipzig and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now sequenced the genetic code of this endangered species and have identified several sequence changes that underlie the kiwi’s adaptation to a nocturnal lifestyle: They found several genes involved in colour vision to be inactivated and the diversity of odorant receptors to be higher than in other birds - suggesting an increased reliance on their sense of smell rather than vision for foraging. The study was published in the journal “Genome Biology”.

Link to press release

July 03, 2015: Complexity before size: Old world monkey had a tiny but complex brain
3D computer model of the brain

Victoriapithecus had a small brain relative to its body size with an olfactory bulb about three times as large as that in present-day monkeys

The oldest known Old World monkey, Victoriapithecus, first made headlines in 1997 when its fossilized skull was discovered on an island in Kenya’s Lake Victoria, where it lived 15 million years ago. An international team led by Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and University College London (UCL), UK, has now visualized this monkey’s brain for the first time: The creature’s tiny but remarkably wrinkled brain supports the idea that brain complexity can evolve before brain size in the primate family tree. Especially surprising was the size of the monkey’s olfactory bulb: It was three times larger in Victoriapithecus than in present-day monkeys of comparable body size.

Link to press release

June 22, 2015: An Early European had a close Neandertal ancestor

Genetic analysis of a 40,000-year-old jawbone from Romania reveals that early modern humans interbred with Neandertals when they first came to Europe

Neandertals became extinct about 40,000 years ago but contributed on average one to three percent to the genomes of present-day Eurasians. Researchers have now analyzed DNA from a 37,000 to 42,000-year-old human mandible from Oase Cave in Romania and have found that six to nine percent of this person’s genome came from Neandertals, more than any other human sequenced to date. Because large segments of this individual’s chromosomes are of Neandertal origin, a Neandertal was among his ancestors as recently as four to six generations back in his family tree. This shows that some of the first modern humans that came to Europe mixed with the local Neandertals.

Link to press release

June 18, 2015: Three-year-olds help victims of injustice
Study apparatus

Young children are just as likely to respond to the needs of another individual as they are to their own

Toddlers have a reputation for being stubborn, selfish, and incapable of sharing. But researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany) and the University of Manchester (UK) have found that children as young as three actually will show a surprising level of concern for others and an intuitive sense of restorative justice. Young children prefer to return lost items to their rightful owners, the studies show. If for some reason that is not an option, young children will still prevent a third party from taking what does not belong to them. What is more, both three- and five-year-old children are just as likely to respond to the needs of another individual—even when that individual is a puppet—as they are to their own. The findings in young children from Germany offer new insight into the nature of justice itself, the researchers say.

Link to press release

June 17, 2015: Climate change: boating in the desert
Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo may have inspired Australians to reinvent boat use in the middle of the desert 24,000 years ago

Geologists and archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany), La Trobe University (Australia) and the University of Wollongong (Australia) identify previously unrecognised evidence for a "mega-lake" in the Australian desert 24,000 years ago, at the site of Lake Mungo in south-eastern Australia. This discovery holds significant implications for understanding past climate change. In addition, they present archaeological evidence which shows that people repeatedly visited an island stranded in the middle of the mega-lake. To this aim they likely reinvented boat use and came up with the idea rather quickly.

Link to press release

June 01, 2015: Modern human dispersal into Europe came from the Levant
Phorcus turbinatus shells

Modern humans occupied the Near East 45,900 years ago and colonized Europe from there

A multinational team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany), working in collaboration with colleagues from the Universities of Leiden, Groningen (the Netherlands), Mainz (Germany), York and Cambridge (UK), analysed shells recovered at Ksâr ‘Akil, a site in Lebanon. Ksâr ‘Akil  is one of the few sites in the Near East where modern human fossils are associated with Upper Palaeolithic (UP) tools. The authors radiocarbon-dated the shell carbonates of the mollusc species Phorcus turbinatus that was eaten by prehistoric humans. Using several independent lines of evidence in a novel approach, they could show that modern humans carrying a UP toolkit occupied the Levant at least 45,900 years ago. This confirms UP modern human presence in the Levant prior to their arrival in Europe and suggests that the Levant served as a corridor for the colonization of Europe by modern humans.

Link to press release

May 20, 2015: Mountain gorilla mamas sidestep having inbred offspring

Genetic study shows that dominant males never sire the offspring of their daughters

Some mountain gorilla females linger into adulthood in the group into which they were born. In the process they also remain in the company of their father, who is often their group’s dominant male. To curb inbreeding, though, they appear to tactically avoid mating with their fathers. This strategy works so well that the chances of alpha gorilla males siring the offspring of their own daughters are effectively zero, according to Linda Vigilant of the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology in Germany. The findings are published in Springer’s journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Link to press release

April 23, 2015: 2015 Winner Announced - Chimpanzee Conservation
Christophe Boesch (left)

A multi-level conservation project, which aims to protect the largest remaining population of wild chimpanzees on the Foutah Djallon-Bafing River (FDBR) region in Guinea, West Africa has won this year’s St Andrews Prize for the Environment. At a ceremony at the University of St Andrews today, Christophe Boesch from the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (WCF), and director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, was presented with the winning prize of $100,000 USD.

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The St Andrews Prize

The Wild Chimpanzee Foundation

April 23, 2015: Deciphering the demise of Neandertals
Deciduous incisors

Members of our species Homo sapiens belonging to the Protoaurignacian culture may have been the ultimate cause for the demise of Neandertals, according to new research

Researchers from the University of Bologna, Italy, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, analysed two deciduous teeth from the prehistoric sites of Grotta di Fumane and Riparo Bombrini in Northern Italy. The state-of-the-art methods adopted in this study attribute the teeth to anatomically modern humans. New AMS radiocarbon dates on bones and charcoal from the site of Riparo Bombrini, along with previously published dates for the Grotta di Fumane sequence, show that these teeth represent the oldest modern human remains in an Aurignacian-related archeological context, overlapping in time with the last Neandertals. The results have strong implications for our understanding of the interaction between modern humans and Neandertals, as well as for the debate on the extinction of the latter.

Link to press release

April 21, 2015: Participation sought! New citizen science project

Volunteers will screen video footage filmed by camera traps and identify wild African animal

With Chimp&See, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Pan African Programme: The Cultured Chimpanzee are embarking on a new citizen science project hosted by the online platform Zooniverse. Anyone wishing to help biologists evaluate video sequences taken from camera traps in Africa can find general information and watch short clips at http://www.chimpandsee.org; with a little luck, they will spot chimpanzees and other wild animals. In celebration of Earth Day on April 22nd, this special citizen science project will be launched online.

Link to press release

April 16, 2015: Oldest evidence for the use of mushrooms as a food source
Plant fragment

Analyses of old dental calculus show that humans consumed plant foods and mushrooms as early as the Upper Palaeolithic

The human diet during the Magdalenian phase of Europe’s Upper Palaeolithic between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago is poorly known. This is particularly a problem regarding food resources that leave little trace such as plant foods. An international research team, led by Robert Power of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has now explored diet in the period through dental calculus analysis on Magdalenian individuals found at El Mirón Cave in Cantabria, Spain. The researchers found that already Upper Palaeolithic individuals used a variety of plant foods and mushrooms, in addition to other food sources.

Link to press release

April 16, 2015: Stress in male Bonobos

During mate competition Bonobo males suffer from psychological stress

Competition for females is energetically costly for males in many animal species. This reflects in an increase of male stress levels in the presence of fertile females, which can be quantified by measuring cortisol level in the urine. In a new study on bonobos, one of our closest living relatives, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, find a slightly different pattern: Increased stress levels in the presence of attractive females do not have physiological causes.

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March 18, 2015: Eavesdropping on the forest to monitor wildlife
King colobus monkey

Researchers develop a novel passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) method for the automated detection of chimpanzees and two monkey species

Traditionally, censusing of wild primates has been conducted using transect methodology where teams of human surveyors walk kilometers of line transects to collect data on primate sightings and vocalizations. Motivated by the increasing availability of cost-efficient audio-visual technologies, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) in Ilmenau, investigated to what extent autonomous recording devices, combined with an automated data processing approach, could be used to monitor wild forest primates. To achieve this goal they used an interdisciplinary team of sound engineers, biomonitoring specialists, statisticians, and primate vocalization experts.

Link to press release

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

Bone collagen sequences prove that South American native ungulates are closely related to horses, rhinos and tapirs but not to elephants

The 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 press release

March 04, 2015: Handy man reborn
Fossil OH 7

Digital makeover of iconic human fossil sheds light on human origins

State-of-the-art computer reconstruction of the original fossil of Homo habilis, or Handy man, shows this poorly understood human ancestor in a new and unexpected light. Published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature on March 5th, the findings uncover what makes Homo habilis truly distinctive, and indicate that its evolutionary roots go further back in time than previously thought. The research was done by a team led by Fred Spoor from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and University College London (UCL), in collaboration with the National Museums of Tanzania. The work was supported by the Max Planck Society.

Link to press release

January 22, 2015: Early human ancestors used their hands like modern humans
Human forceful precision grip.

Pre-Homo human ancestral species, such as Australopithecus africanus, used human-like hand postures much earlier than was previously thought

Some of the morphological characteristics of the human hand are different from that of other primates enabling us to grab objects with precision and use them exerting a force. Yet, how did our early human ancestors use their hands? This question was long debated among scientists. Anthropologists from the University of Kent, working with researchers from University College London, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, have produced the first research findings to support archaeological evidence for stone tool use among fossil australopiths three to two million years ago and found that Australopithecus africanus used their hands the way modern humans do.

Link to press release

January 22, 2015: Tonal languages require humidity
Tonal languages

Languages with a wide range of tone pitches have primarily developed in regions with high levels of humidity

The weather impacts not only upon our mood but also our voice. An international research team including scientists from the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics, Evolutionary Anthropology and Mathematics in the Sciences has analysed the influence of humidity on the evolution of languages. Their study has revealed that languages with a wide range of tone pitches are more prevalent in regions with high humidity levels. In contrast, languages with simpler tone pitches are mainly found in drier regions. This is explained by the fact that the vocal folds require a humid environment to produce the right tone.

Link to press release

January 14, 2015: Wild chimpanzee vocalizations can convey information about food patch size
Adult chimpanzee

Chimpanzees modify their food calls with respect to tree size for a high valued fruit species.

The vocalization capabilities of our closest living relatives, the great apes, often pale in comparison to their flexible gestural repertoire. However, the vast majority of literature on great ape communication, gestural and vocal, comes from studies conducted in captivity where the surrounding environment is vastly different from the socio-ecological context in which wild apes naturally communicate. Researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now investigated a specific call type, the chimpanzee food call, which has already been shown to be produced solely during a foraging context, and a study in captivity has also provided evidence for the call being functionally referential to conspecifics.

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January 02, 2015: Cracking the case

Wild chimpanzees select nut-cracking tools taking account of up to five different factors

Are chimpanzees sensitive to the effect of an object’s properties on nut-cracking efficiency and plan their tool selection accordingly? An international team of researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has now investigated the selection of hammers used for cracking Coula edulis nuts by wild chimpanzees in the Taï National Park, Côte d'Ivoire, taking into account the availability of potential tools at the site and time at which each tool selection episode occurred. The researchers found that wild chimpanzees select the optimal tool for the task at hand by considering several variables and conditions at once, including the weight, the material and the hardness of the hammer, the location of the anvil and whether they needed to transport it over a distance.

Link to press release