isoTROPIC Independent Research Group

isoTROPIC Independent Research Group

isoTROPIC is a permanent Max Planck Independent Research Group opened at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in 2022. It is a research centre focused on using insights about the history of our species from across the global tropics (Greek iso = ‘equal’) to help practically inform conservation concerns and planning in the present.

Located in Jena, the isoTROPIC group builds on a long history of German scientific exploration of the tropics. Alexander von Humboldt, who regularly visited Jena for academic interaction with Friedrich Schiller and Johann von Goethe, was one of the first European scientists to recognise the impacts of human land-use change on tropical deforestation and its associated climatic effects. Today, the isoTROPIC group sits at the nexus of three Max Planck Institutes in Jena, and has close connections with Universität Köln, institutions all united by an interest in tropical pasts, presents, and futures.

Utilising existing and novel archaeological, historical, biogeochemical, palaeoenvironmental, and remote-sensing facilities, equipment, and expertise, the group undertakes multidisciplinary research across the tropics to address a series of key and pressing questions:

  • When did human interactions with tropical forests begin and how have they varied across space and time?
  • How and when did the actions of different human societies begin to initiate regional and global feedbacks on climates, soils, and biodiversity?
  • How can observations of human history in the tropics help inform our delicate relationship with tropical forests today?

The importance of tropical forests

Tropical forests are critical for the future of humanity. By 2050, the tropics will host over half of the world’s human population and two thirds of the world’s children who will all be relying on these environments for resources and subsistence (State of the Tropics, 2020). Tropical forests also house over half of the Earth’s biodiversity, they play a key role in the operation of climate systems, and they are critical to the planet’s carbon cycle and efforts to keep post-industrial global warming below 2.0°C. Human interaction with these forests therefore have feedbacks of relevance to all of us.

While tropical forests have traditionally framed as ‘blanks’ on the map of human history – left ‘pristine’ until the onset of industrialized extraction – recent research, including by the members of the isoTROPIC group, is demonstrating the long and varied record of our species’ habitation of – and interaction with – these habitats. This ground-breaking work has been made possible by a series of state-of-the-art methodological developments which have overcome barriers often posed by harsh and active burial environments.

The isoTROPIC group involves a series of key facilities and research projects at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology. If you are interested in applying for a PhD or postdoctoral position, or initiating collaborations in any of the methodologies or project areas mentioned, then please get in touch at:


State of the Tropics 2020. State of the Tropics 2020 Report. Townsville, Australia: James Cook University Press.

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