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September 30, 2020: Neandertal gene variant increases risk of severe Covid-19
DNA Helix
© Tatiana Shepeleva | 123RF.com

A segment of DNA that causes their carriers to have an up to three times higher risk of developing severe Covid-19 is inherited from Neandertals

Covid-19 affects some people much more severely than others. Some reasons for this such as old age are already known, but other as yet unknown factors also play a role. This summer, a large international study linked a group of genes on chromosome 3 to a higher risk of hospitalisation and respiratory failure upon infection with the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany have now analysed the gene cluster.

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September 25, 2020: Johannes Krause wins “Fabio Frassetto” International Prize for Paleoanthropology
Professor Johannes Krause (© Thomas Victor)

The award for outstanding research contributions and achievements concerning human origins and evolution will be presented on September 25, 2020 by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei

Professor Johannes Krause, director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has won the “Fabio Frassetto” International Prize for Anthropology from the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. The award will be presented at the Closing Ceremony of the Academic Year 2019-2020 on 25 September 2020. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s awards ceremony will be held in virtual format.

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September 24, 2020: Y chromosomes of Neandertals and Denisovans now sequenced
© MPI-EVA

Neandertals have adopted male sex chromosome from modern humans

An international research team led by Martin Petr and Janet Kelso of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has determined Y chromosome sequences of three Neandertals and two Denisovans. These Y chromosomes provide new insights into the relationships and population histories of archaic and modern humans, including new evidence for ancient gene flow from early modern humans into Neandertals. The data show that Neandertals may have benefited from these interactions as the gene flow resulted in the complete replacement of the original Neandertal Y chromosomes by their early modern human counterparts.

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September 18, 2020: Like humans, chimpanzees can suffer for life if orphaned before adulthood
© Liran Samuni, Taï Chimpanzee Project

Male chimpanzees who lose their mother early in life are less competitive and have fewer offspring than sons who continue to live with their mothers

One of the greatest traumas we face is for our parents to die when we are children. Orphans can continue to suffer negative consequences of parental loss for the rest of their lives, including losing out on growth and health. New research shows that, like humans, chimpanzee offspring stay with their mothers until they are teenagers, after they are 12 years old. A series of new studies shows that orphaned chimpanzees also lose out on growth and survival. A new study in Science Advances from the Taï Chimpanzee Project in Ivory Coast and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, shows that in addition, orphaned sons are less competitive and have fewer offspring of their own than those who continue to live with their mothers. The remaining puzzle is, what is it that their mothers provide that keeps chimpanzees healthy and competitive?

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September 15, 2020: Chimpanzees show greater behavioural and cultural diversity in more variable environments
© R. Drummond-Clarke/GMERC

Both historical and recent variation in ecological and environmental conditions are associated with larger behavioural repertoires in wild chimpanzees

Chimpanzee behavioural and cultural diversity has been well documented across equatorial Africa, however, the ecological-evolutionary mechanisms are not yet understood. An international team led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) has investigated the influence of environmental variability on the behavioural repertoires of 144 social groups. The scientists found that chimpanzees living further away from historical forest refugia, under more seasonal conditions, and found in savannah woodland rather than closed forested habitats, were more likely to exhibit a larger set of behaviours.

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September 08, 2020: The oldest Neanderthal DNA of Central-Eastern Europe
© Marcin Żarski

An 80,000-year-old Neanderthal reveals cultural and genetic affinities between Poland and the Northern Caucasus

A new study by an international team reports the oldest mitochondrial genome of a Neanderthal from Central-Eastern Europe. The mitochondrial genome of the tooth, discovered at the site of Stajnia Cave in Poland, is closer to a Neanderthal specimen from the Caucasus than to the contemporaneous Neanderthals of Western Europe. Stone tools found at the site are also analogous to the southern regions suggesting that Neanderthals living in the steppe/taiga environment had a broader foraging radius than previously envisaged. The Prut and Dniester rivers were probably used as the main corridors of dispersal from Poland to the Caucasus.

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August 26, 2020: Effectiveness of primate conservation measures mostly unproved
© Andrea Donaldson / Colobus Conservation

Evidence-based conservation is key to curb primate population declines

Less than one percent of scientific literature on primates evaluate the effectiveness of interventions for the conservation of primates. That is the result of a new study compiled by a team of experts in 21 countries, led by researchers from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) and the University of Cambridge. Despite great protection efforts, this is one of the main reasons for the dramatic decline of the populations of primate species. The study proposes several actions to improve the evidence base for the conservation of primates.

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July 23, 2020: Neandertals may have had a lower threshold for pain
© Science Photo Library / Daynes, Elisabeth

People who inherited a special ion channel from Neandertals experience more pain

Pain is mediated through specialized nerve cells that are activated when potentially harmful things affect various parts of our bodies. These nerve cells have a special ion channel that has a key role in starting the electrical impulse that signals pain and is sent to the brain. According to a new study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden people who inherited the Neandertal variant of this ion channel experience more pain.

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July 17, 2020: Reduction of bushmeat hunting
© Wild Chimpanzee Foundation

Disease prevention and protection of species require differentiated strategies

Extensive wildlife trade not only threatens species worldwide but can also lead to the transmission of zoonotic diseases. It encompasses hundreds of species with significant differences in their conservation status and associated disease risk. However, current strategies to mitigate the wildlife trade often neglect these differences. An international research team led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research shed new light on the motivations why people hunt, trade or consume different species. The research shows that more differentiated solutions are needed to prevent uncontrolled disease emergence and species decline.

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June 24, 2020: In the wild, chimpanzees are more motivated to cooperate than bonobos
© Cédric Girard-Buttoz, Taï Chimpanzee Project

When informing about a threat territorial chimpanzees are more motivated to cooperate than less territorial bonobos

Humans are unique in their abilities to cooperate in very large groups and help people outside their family and even complete strangers. What promoted the evolution of such sophisticated cooperative skills is highly debated. Scientists investigated cooperation dynamics in wild chimpanzees (Taï, Ivory Coast) and bonobos (LuiKotale, DCR) using a snake model. While chimpanzees cooperate to defend their territory, bonobos do not. The study reveals no differences in both species’ social intelligence but supports theories linking territoriality and in-group cooperation in humans since chimpanzees were more motivated to cooperate by informing others of a threat as compared to bonobos.

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June 18, 2020: Neandertal genes in the petri dish
© Petra Korlević

Researchers are studying the Neandertal DNA found in modern humans using stem cells and organoids

Protocols that allow the transformation of human induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines into organoids have changed the way scientists can study developmental processes and enable them to decipher the interplay between genes and tissue formation, particularly for organs where primary tissue is not available. Now, investigators are taking this technology and applying it to study the developmental effects of Neandertal DNA.

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June 17, 2020: A Neandertal from Chagyrskaya Cave
© Dr. Bence Viola, Dept. of Anthropology, U. of Toronto

Neandertals may have lived in very small groups, and genes expressed in the basal ganglia of their brains may have changed

Until now, only the genomes of two Neandertals have been sequenced to high quality: one from Vindjia Cave in modern-day Croatia and one from Denisova Cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains. A research team led by Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has now sequenced the genome of a third Neandertal whose remains were found - 106 kilometres away from the latter site - in Chagyrskaya Cave.

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June 16, 2020: Strengthened research profiles, novel visions for the future
@ MPI-EVA

MPI-EVA in Leipzig and MPI-SHH in Jena enter into a major reorganization – Leipzig to be retained as hub for ancient genetics, Jena to create novel research profile

Two successful sister institutes within the Humanities and Social Sciences Section of the Max Planck Society with the common theme of the evolutionary history of humankind – the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the MPI for the Science of Human History in Jena – will enter into a major phase of restructuring in the coming years to create optimized research clusters in human biological and cultural evolution at both sites. Several upcoming retirements at the MPI in Leipzig and a partially overlapping research agenda between the two institutes in Leipzig and Jena have led the Max Planck Society to reorganize both in order to stake out a clear vision for the future of the two institutes.

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June 12, 2020: Research links personality traits to toilet paper stockpiling
Nori Blume

High levels of emotionality and conscientiousness are indicators for stockpiling behavior

People who feel more threatened by COVID-19 and rank highly on scales of emotionality and conscientiousness were most likely to stockpile toilet paper in March 2020, according to a new study by Theo Toppe of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues.

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May 27, 2020: In chimpanzees, females contribute to the protection of the territory
© Liran Samuni

Female chimpanzees are also important in helping to win and keep a territory

In humans, warfare and territoriality seem to be a male "business". Chimpanzees, with whom we share this propensity for out-group hostility and territoriality, are thought to follow the same gender difference. This vision may be too simplistic, as suggested by an international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. They extensively studied several neighboring groups of western chimpanzees and their findings reveal that females and even the entire group may play a more important role in between-group competition than previously thought. They found that even though adult males seem important in territory increase, territory maintenance and competitive advantage over neighbors act through the entire group in this population of chimpanzees in the Taï National Park.

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May 26, 2020: Women with Neandertal gene give birth to more children
© Vadim Guzhva, 123RF Licence

Neandertal progesterone receptor has a favourable effect on fertility

One in three women in Europe inherited the receptor for progesterone from Neandertals – a gene variant associated with increased fertility, fewer bleedings during early pregnancy and fewer miscarriages. This is according to a study published in Molecular Biology and Evolution by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

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May 26, 2020: Similar to humans, chimpanzees develop slowly
© Tatiana Bortolato, Taï Chimpanzee Project

Chimpanzees need more than five years to acquire key skills

Development is slow in many primates, particularly so in humans, as key skills needed for survival and successful reproduction have to be acquired. In one of human’s closest living relatives, the chimpanzee, there is surprisingly little data on developmental processes. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now systematically investigated developmental milestones in wild chimpanzees of the Taï National Park (Ivory Coast) and found that they also develop slowly, requiring more than five years to reach key motor, communication and social milestones. This timeframe is similar to humans, suggesting slow maturation of the brain.

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May 25, 2020: Cultural diversity in chimpanzees
© ANPN Gabon

Chimpanzee groups each have their own unique termite fishing cultures

The transmission of cultures from generation-to-generation is only found in a few species besides humans. Chimpanzees are one such species and exhibit a large diversity of cultural and tool use behaviours. Although these behaviours have been well documented at a handful of long term research sites, the true cultural repertoire of chimpanzees across populations is still poorly understood. To better understand this diversity, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, initiated the ‘Pan African Programme: The Cultured Chimpanzee’ (PanAf) in 2010. Using a standardized protocol, researchers set up camera traps, collected samples and recorded ecological data at over 40 temporary and long-term research sites across Africa.

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May 11, 2020: The oldest Upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens in Europe
© Tsenka Tsanova, Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0

Major cultural transition in Europe took place earlier than previously thought

An international research team reports new Homo sapiens fossils from the site of Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria. These fossils are directly dated to approximately 45,000 years ago and in direct association with stone tools, the remains of hunted animals, bone tools, and personal ornaments. The new discoveries document the earliest known Upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens and push back in time the start of this major cultural transition in Europe. Their stone tools unearthed at the site link Bacho Kiro Cave to finds across Eurasia as far east as Mongolia.

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Original publication (Hublin et al.)

Original publication (Fewlass et al.)

April 29, 2020: Study reveals rich genetic diversity of Vietnam
© hanoiphotography (123RF Licence)

Researchers genotyped more than 20 ethnic groups in Vietnam, encompassing all five major language families in Mainland Southeast Asia

The genetic diversity of Vietnam has remained relatively unexplored and previous studies suggested a largely indigenous origin of the Vietnamese. A new study led by Dang Liu and Mark Stoneking from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, with colleagues from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, found evidence for extensive contact, over different time periods, between Vietnamese and other groups.

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April 22, 2020: Neandertals had older mothers and younger fathers
© Alexey Stiop, 123RF Licence

Researchers analyzed the genomes of more than 27.000 Icelanders to find out which parts of our genomes contain Neandertal DNA

When the ancestors of modern humans left Africa 50,000 years ago they met the Neandertals. In this encounter, the Neandertal population contributed around two percent of the genome to present day non-African populations. A collaboration of scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark, deCODE Genetics in Iceland, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have conducted the most comprehensive study to date using data obtained from 27,566 Icelanders, to figure out which parts of our genomes contain Neandertal DNA and what role it plays in modern humans.

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April 16, 2020: "In my opinion, 'social distancing’ is the wrong term"
© M. Linton

For many weeks now, social interactions have been prohibited in many countries, which has affected many people. Roman Wittig of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, has been looking into the effects of social contacts on the health of chimpanzees, and some of his findings apply equally to humans. In this interview, he explains why he prefers to speak in terms of "spatial” rather than “social” distancing, and how virtual (online) meetings can replace real meetings to a certain extent.

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April 02, 2020: Multiple hominin genera were present in South Africa two million years ago
© La Trobe University

New fossils indicate that Homo erectus existed earlier than previously thought, at a time when also Australopithecus and Paranthropus were around close-by

In a new paper published in Science this week, an international team of scientists including a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig described, dated and contextualized new hominin fossils from Drimolen Main Quarry in South Africa. A two-million-year-old partial neurocranium shows that Homo erectus existed 100,000 to 200,000 years earlier than thought and shared the landscape in this region of South Africa with two other types of hominins – Australopithecus sediba and Paranthropus robustus.

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Original publication

April 01, 2020: Lucy had an ape-like brain
© Philipp Gunz, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Three million year old brain imprints show that Australopithecus afarensis infants may have had a long dependence on caregivers

A new study led by paleoanthropologists Philipp Gunz and Simon Neubauer from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, reveals that Lucy’s species Australopithecus afarensis had an ape-like brain. However, the protracted brain growth suggests that – as is the case in humans – infants may have had a long dependence on caregivers.

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March 30, 2020: Human ancestors may have regularly climbed trees
© Matthew Skinner

A new study has found evidence that human ancestors as recent as two million years ago may have regularly climbed trees

Walking on two legs has long been a defining feature to differentiate modern humans, as well as extinct species on our lineage, from our closest living ape relatives: chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. This new research, based on analysis of fossil leg bones, provides evidence that a hominin species - believed to be either Paranthropus robustus or early Homo - regularly adopted highly flexed hip joints; a posture that in other non-human apes is associated with climbing trees.

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February 17, 2020: Reconstructing the diet of fossil vertebrates
© Nicolas Bourgon

The ratio of special zinc isotopes in dental enamel provides information about the diet of mammals in prehistoric times

Paleodietary studies of the fossil record are impeded by a lack of reliable and unequivocal tracers, currently making it impossible to determine the exact timing of dietary changes or, often, even the species involved. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz have now tested a new method, the isotope analysis of zinc isotopes from the tooth enamel of fossil mammals. They found this method to be well suited to expand our knowledge about the diets of fossil humans and other Pleistocene mammals. The method proves especially useful when it comes to differentiating whether prehistoric mammals had mainly animal or plant based food on the menu.

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February 14, 2020: Researchers were not right about left brains
© Simon Neubauer, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Brain imprints on cranial bones from great apes and humans refute the long-held notion that the human pattern of brain asymmetry is unique

The left and right side of the brain are involved in different tasks. This functional lateralization and associated brain asymmetry are well documented in humans, but little is known about brain asymmetry in our closest living relatives, the great apes. Using endocasts (imprints of the brain on cranial bones), scientists now challenge the long-held notion that the human pattern of brain asymmetry is unique. They found the same asymmetry pattern in chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. However, humans were the most variable in this pattern. This suggests that lateralized, uniquely human cognitive abilities, such as language, evolved by adapting a presumably ancestral asymmetry pattern.

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February 06, 2020: Japan Prize 2020 goes to Svante Pääbo
© Karsten Möbius

Geneticist Svante Pääbo honoured for his work into human origins

Svante Pääbo, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, is the founder of palaeogenetics, a research discipline concerned with the analysis of genetic samples from fossils and prehistoric finds. Which of the genetic changes that occurred in the course of evolutionary history make up modern man is what Pääbo studies by comparing the DNA sequences of modern-day humans, Neanderthals and other human ancestors. His groundbreaking research has now earned him the Japan Prize, which is endowed with mit 50 million Yen (approx. 490,000 euros).

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January 07, 2020: The growing pains of orphan chimpanzees
© Liran Samuni

Mothers may be shaping pre-adult growth and offspring muscle mass even without direct provisioning

Like humans, young chimpanzees associate with their mothers all the way into adulthood. Unlike in humans, offspring no longer depend on maternal food sharing beyond the weaning age. Therefore, the reasons for and consequences of these years of post-weaning mother-offspring associations are unclear. Using long-term behavioural and hormonal data from wild chimpanzees in the Taï Forest, Côte d’Ivoire, researchers from the Taï Chimpanzee Project at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, have revealed that mothers may be shaping pre-adult growth and offspring muscle mass even without direct provisioning. We compared growth of young chimpanzees with a mother until adulthood compared to those who had experienced maternal loss after weaning.

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January 03, 2020: Less offspring due to territorial conflicts
© Liran Samuni

Female chimpanzees’ reproductive success decreases in times of strong territorial conflict with other groups

Territorial conflicts can turn violent in humans and chimpanzees, two extremely territorial species. An international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has studied the effects of territoriality on female reproductive success in wild Western chimpanzees and found that high neighbor pressure at times when females typically reproduce can lead to reproductive delays with longer intervals between births. Having many males in a group, however, is of advantage and speeds up reproduction.

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Original publication