Kristian Kristiansen (University of Gothenburg), Kurt Kjær (Copenhagen University) and Mark G. Thomas (University College London)
Prehistory has no boundaries, therefore neither should the way we research it. Researchers in the fields of archaeology, genetics, linguistics, history and archaeometry are blurring the lines delimiting their respective fields, and working in increasingly collaborative efforts to understand how and why prehistory unfolded in the way that it did. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a need for new and explicit explanatory models which integrate both micro- and macro-level past processes through calling upon diverse types of datasets which each bring different aspects of the past into focus. COREX approaches this challenge by applying novel modelling approaches allowing us to move from correlations to explanations, thereby addressing how changes have been shaped by the dynamic interaction of cultural innovation, ecological change, migration, admixture, population growth and collapse, landscape transformation, dietary change, biological adaptation, social structure, and the emergence of new diseases. To achieve this overall goal the project will include and examine data covering Europe from Scandinavia to the Alps and from Iberia to the Urals during the period from 6000-500 BC. Its four founding pillars are:
- To create a database for 14C, cultural and subsistence (including isotope) data, aDNA, fossil pollen datasets and strontium samples
- To identify and characterize environmental DNA (eDNA) and high- resolution local environments,
- To conduct exploratory analyses and create discriminative models that identify patterns in the different data sets and relate them to one another.
- To build generative models of how humans interact with each other, with their cultural traditions and with their environments, as explanations of past patterns of genetic and cultural variation.
More specifically, COREX’s findings will serve to determine what impact the movement of people had on the European landscape on multiple scales simultaneously, thereby providing a research program which defies the boundaries of archaeology, genetics, ecology and mathematical modelling. Thus, by identifying prehistoric regularities in the interactions of human biology, social and economic organisation, ecology and demography we will be able to compare them to anthropological and historical models of such processes in recent times. In this way, we will form a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of migration, integration and cultural change, then and now.
- To what extent do changing patterns in the archaeological record indicative of changes in transmitted traditions, for example, those governing burial practices, correspond to changing patterns in gene flow indicated by data from ancient genomes? Conversely, did adaptation to new environmental conditions lead to changes in economy/subsistence and cultural traditions, irrespective of gene flow?
- How did patterns of mobility change over time? Do different types and scales of migration/mobility lead to different forms of genetic, cultural and socio-economic change?
- How do we explain fluctuations in regional populations? Did decreases in regional demographic density lead to large-scale gene flow from elsewhere (via migration that then resulted in renewed population growth?). Or were increases in population due to inherent growth (perhaps as a result of increased resource availability through changed climate conditions or technological developments, including new crop varieties)?
- What are the relations between genetic factors (ancestry, frequencies of disease-associated alleles and haplotypes), environmental factors (climate, ecozones, subsistence strategy and the presence of pathogens) and population responses?
- How can we explain the emergence of large-scale phenomena such as the sharing of material culture traditions in some domains but not others over wide geographic regions, or extensive population movements and replacements, on the basis of local-scale processes such as cultural transmission, identity creation, contact networks and trade?
The development of methods to sequence ancient genomic DNA and the publication of ever-increasing numbers of ancient genomes has created the greatest revolution in archaeology since the introduction of radiocarbon dating in the 1960s. Like that revolution it has removed a major burden of archaeological interpretation, as we have moved from invoking migrations based solely on archaeological evidence to an independent information source, ancient DNA. This resolves the problem of circular reasoning, and implies that we no longer have to discuss if migrations took place, but can instead focus on causes and processes. However, many archaeologists remain skeptical of the implications of this new revolution. This is because genetic studies to date have not been leveraged to systematically explain the patterns that archaeologists identify in material culture data. Also, there are cases where there has been significant material culture change with little change in ancestry, for example, the origin of the Linear Pottery Culture (LBK) in the Carpathian Basin with continuing overwhelmingly high proportions of Anatolian farmer ancestry, or the Bell Beaker complex where a Bell Beaker culture package from Iberia was adopted by Corded Ware groups without significant genetic admixture.
These major advances in understanding the population demographic history of western Eurasia have run far in advance of our capacity to relate them to the empirical archaeological record, except in the vaguest and most general terms. The key challenge that this project will address will be the integration of these revolutionary genomic findings with new archaeological contextual data, detailed environmental DNA reconstructions and quantified palaeo-vegetation data. These high-resolution contextual analyses will then be linked via innovative integrated model-based approaches that can correlate the commonalities and differences among different times and places. We then seek to explain those relationships using generative models by considering how local processes lead to global, continent-wide phenomena. Central to the project, and arguably the single most important challenge in archaeology today, is the ability to handle, integrate and interpret all the new genetic data with archaeological and environmental data, so that we can compare the cultural relationships with those apparent in the ancient genomes and assess the extent to which genes and cultural information were or were not transmitted in parallel, before going on to model the processes that might have produced the relationships and processes inferred.
By bringing together three PIs and four senior researchers with a unique combination of complementary disciplinary backgrounds and skills we propose to create a novel, and thus far never attempted synergistic understanding of the demographic, social, cultural, ecological and evolutionary processes that shaped European prehistory from the introduction of farming to the end of the Bronze Age. Such an endeavour is well beyond the capacity of any of them individually. Key processes to be considered include demographic ones relating to population growth and decline. At the same time as the explosion in ancient genome research, there has been major growth in the collation of large databases of radiocarbon dates and the use of summed date probabilities and related measures to infer past population size changes. These have been accompanied by statistical methods to evaluate the validity of the inferences being made and to correlate them with other proxies, such as anthropogenic impacts on the environment and past vegetation change.
COREX is a six-year Synergy Grant awarded to Kristian Kristiansen, Kurt Kjær and Mark G. Thomas by the European Research Council, which is slated to run from 2021-2027. Institutions involved include University Gothenburg, University College London, Copenhagen University, University of Plymouth and the National Museum of Denmark. To find out more about the project, please visit the project webpage.
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