Human Palaeosystems Research Group

Human Palaeosystems Research Group

The world is currently facing a dual crisis involving biodiversity and climate, posing the greatest challenge to the continuation of human life on Earth. Confronting this crisis demands public support, political will, and scientific solutions across social, technological, and predictive realms. Our team contributes to this critical theme by exploring deep-time human-environment relationships to derive lessons for the present. Specifically, we aim to unravel the dynamics of human bio-cultural evolution and ecosystem change, from the rise of our species to the dawn of agriculture, to understand the roots of the present geological epoch: The Anthropocene. To achieve this, our group focuses on three key areas:

  1. The emergence and expansion of the human niche, together with its technological, societal, and ecological feedbacks.
  2. Disease-culture co-evolution.
  3. Ecosystem resilience and the transition from pristine natural systems to human-dominated landscapes.

Area 1: The emergence and expansion of the human niche

A dominant view has purported that, since humans evolved in Africa, they lived in relative harmony with the plants and animals on the continent. Conversely, with the expansion beyond Africa, humans encountered novel environments and a naïve fauna, both of which they aggressively exploited. In the case of animals, this exploitation is thought to have driven the collapse of many species of megafauna whose extinction had wide-ranging implications for ecosystem resilience. However, this view reduces African ecosystem diversity to negligible levels and harks back to problematic tropes of the so-called "noble savage". While African megafauna have not died out, the way humans have impacted the distribution of different faunal communities has barely been explored – with implications for conservation and environmental restoration. At the same time, palaeoenvironmental reconstruction is revealing that many apparently pristine constellations of vegetation today are actually unusual, if not anomalous, suggesting human agency is at play. Widespread burning of landscapes may reach back to some 90 thousand years, allowing small hunter-gatherer populations to transform landscapes. These events are precursors to behaviors that began to catalyze the planetary-scale impacts of human behavior.

The Human Palaeosystems Group is seeking to understand the expansion of the human niche and its impacts in Africa in several ways. We are using an ecological niche model approach to:

  • Test and refine paleoclimate models.
  • Understand whether African fauna sharing the same niche as humans have been impacted over the last 120,000 years.
  • Reconstruct changes in human niche space in the Pleistocene and document expansions.

Additionally, we are using paleoclimate models to explore the locations of possible human refugia in the Pleistocene to better develop a pan-African framework for archaeological and paleoanthropological investigation.

At the same time, primary data is also required to address these questions. Research now indicates that most of the African continent is implicated in the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens. However, vast swathes of the continent remain unexplored. Therefore, we are focusing on West Africa – a major continental region for which there is almost no data on human evolution and niche expansion. Our team is conducting fieldwork in Benin, Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast to document and obtain:

  • A comprehensive database of early human sites in West Africa that are chronometrically dated, along with material culture and associated fauna.
  • Documenting the presence of sites in diverse ecosystems (e.g., rainforest).
  • Twinned paleoenvironmental proxy data to reconstruct the climate context of ancient human occupations in this region, including understanding fire regimes and changes therein.
  • Ancient DNA and/or ancient proteomes to reconstruct changes in ancestry and population dynamics.

By combining the production of targeted primary data with modeling approaches, we will build a comprehensive picture of the emergence of our species and immediate impacts on the environment. In this way, we will gain a greater understanding of what pristine environments in Africa really mean and identify the feedbacks and legacies of niche expansion on human societies over long timescales, with lessons for the present – particularly for ecosystem restoration.

Postdocs: Dr James Blinkhorn, Dr Khady Niang, Dr Alex Blackwood, Dr Lucy Timbrell

Area 2: Disease Culture Co-Evolution

A major impact of expansions in the human niche are the feedbacks on human health. Transformation of the environment through burning, the clearing of trees and adaptation to new biomes must also be understood through changes in the disease load for humans. To date, the demography of the first humans is very rarely understood through disease load, and is most typically explored only through climate variables. Yet diseases such as malaria and other tropical vector-borne diseases have been present for a long time, and likely drove changes in both human demography as well as culture. The impact of new diseases on human culture and our resilience to disease has most recently been brought into sharp focus through the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are building a malaria stability index to explore its relationship with the distribution of human groups in Pleistocene Africa, and possible impact on material culture features (e.g. the use of ochre, exploitation of particular plants, etc.). Vector genetic history will then be simulated using these data and matches with the true data will then be explored to refine understanding of disease impacts.

By developing a pipeline for this work, our research group will also be exploring a suite of tropical diseases in the same way, with the ultimate goal of mapping the Pleistocene disease burden on humans and the potential impact on (1) human biocultural evolution, and (2) the expansion of the human niche, with expecting feedbacks taking place between both of these.

Postdocs: Dr Margherita Colucci, Dr James Blinkhorn

Area 3: Ecosystem resilience and the transition from pristine natural systems to human dominated landscapes

The expansion of the human niche, together with its impacts and feedbacks, can be summarized as the exponential march to the Anthropocene. While exploring the expansion of the human niche and its impacts will unravel important information regarding human evolution and deep-time environmental impacts, the size of Africa prevents detailed study of ecosystem resilience. To understand how ecosystem resilience articulates with the transition to human-dominated landscapes - and the roots of the Anthropocene – our team is exploring islands. Specifically, we are exploring long-term processes of ecosystem resilience in Malta, as an ‘island laboratory’ whose periodic connections to the mainland are well-documented, and which boasted a unique and iconic island miniature megafauna. This ERC StG funded project is the first to document the transition from pristine natural systems to human-dominated landscapes in a single place under controlled conditions. Critically, successive waves of human colonizers lived on the islands between periods of ecosystem recovery – with each event leaving legacies for the next generation of settlers.

IslandLab is reconstructing a 200,000 year record of the Maltese Islands using a mixed approach, ranging from speleothem isotopes to proxies such as pollen, biomarkers, and sedimentary DNA. While it was previously believed that humans first arrived on the islands 7,500 years ago, we have uncovered evidence (currently unpublished) suggesting that human presence might extend considerably further back in time, indicating potential direct interaction between humans and the islands’ megafauna. These data will explore, in unprecedented detail, the causes of megafauna collapse, and the consequences for ecosystem resilience in an increasingly human-dominated world.

In order to ensure the results of this project are of direct benefit to the Maltese Islands today, which are at the frontline of climate change, the principal investigator is directly liaising with Maltese government ministers to develop a policy advisory pipeline.

Postdocs: Dr James Blinkhorn, Dr Andrés Currás

A collaborative approach

Although our team comprises a significant number of researchers, our work benefits from strong collaborations within the Max-Planck Institute of Geoanthropology. These collaborations involve robust connections with various independent groups and scholars from the Department of Archaeology, spanning diverse fields such as paleoecology, archaeobotany, and isotopes. This collaborative approach ensures that our work not only creates opportunities but also contributes broadly to the institute's overarching objectives.

We also have very strong links with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Department of Archaeogenetics, Department of Human Origins and independent groups), the Germany Geoscience Centre in Potsdam, and the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Cologne, as well as other German institutions. Beyond Germany, strong links exist with the Evolutionary Ecology Group in the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, the Department of Archaeology at Liverpool, UK, the University of Bordeaux in France, and the University of Malta. Beyond Europe, our team works closely with the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and Félix Houphouët-Boigny University in the Ivory Coast.

Through these collaborations, we ensure a multidisciplinary approach to our research, drawing on expertise from diverse fields such as genetics, archaeology, ecology, and climatology. This collaborative ethos enhances the robustness and breadth of our investigations, allowing us to tackle complex questions about human-environment interactions throughout history.


Scerri, E. M. L.; Will, M.: The revolution that still isn't: the origins of behavioral complexity in Homo sapiens. Journal of Human Evolution 179, 103358, pp. 1 - 19 (2023)
Scerri, E. M. L.; Roberts, P.; Maezumi, S. Y.; Malhi, Y.: Tropical forests in the deep human past. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences 377 (1849), 2020.0500, pp. 1 - 12 (2022)
Bergström, A.; Stringer, C.; Hajdinjak, M.; Scerri, E. M. L.; Skoglund, P.: Origins of modern human ancestry. Nature 590 (7845), s41586-021-03244-5, pp. 229 - 237 (2021)
Scerri, E. M. L.; Thomas, M. G.; Manica, A.; Gunz, P.; Stock, J. T.; Stringer, C.; Grove, M.; Groucutt, H. S.; Timmermann, A.; Rightmire, G. P. et al.; d’Errico, F.; Tryon, C. A.; Drake, N. A.; Brooks, A. S.; Dennell, R. W.; Durbin, R.; Henn, B. M.; Lee-Thorp, J.; deMenocal, P.; Petraglia, M. D.; Thompson, J. C.; Scally, A.; Chikhi, L.: Did our species evolve in subdivided populations across Africa, and why does it matter? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 33 (8), pp. 582 - 594 (2018)
Scerri, E.M.L., Chikhi, L., Thomas, M.G.
Beyond Multiregional and Simple Out of Africa Models of Human Evolution.
Nature Ecology & Evolution 3, 1370–1372. (2019)
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