Publication of Scientific Reports paper on collagen glue identification and removal

24 January 2024

The contamination of samples of bone from archaeological sites can be a critical problem for radiocarbon dating or DNA analysis. Sometimes the contamination derives from natural sources, but there are also dangers derived from the treatment of material in museum collections. Glues made from collagen represent a major problem for archaeological scientists, particularly when the ancient biomineral target is bone collagen.
Laura van der Sluis spearheaded a team exploring this and whether new methods could be use to identify and treat problem samples. She undertook experimental work to deliberately contaminate bones using collagen glue and then tested the effectiveness of methods designed to remove this material prior to radiocarbon dating. She applied ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) to test whether collagen glue from different animal sources could be identified. Two extraction methods for ZooMS were tested to identify the authentic animal species of a range of objects, which were shown to be originally whale bones. The results showed that some had been consolidated with modern cattle collagen glue. This is the first time animal collagen glue has been identified in archaeological remains with ZooMS. Radiocarbon dating protocols are not able to distinguish collagen from different animal sources so it is incredibly important, in instances where collagen glue contamination is suspected, that methods such as ZooMS are applied to detect these before analysis. The methods outlined in the paper represent an important step forward in demonstrating the power of these screening methods to ancient bones.
The paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Mostly Out of Africa” conference

6-7 November 2023

Tom Higham was invited to speak at the “Mostly Out of Africa” conference, in honour of Professor Chris Stringer, who was awarded the Huxley Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute. The conference comprised invited speakers who had previously worked with Prof. Stringer, one of the originators of the idea that Homo sapiens originated in, and then dispersed out of Africa into the rest of the world. Tom spoke about the spread of the Initial Upper Palaeolithic across Eurasia, focusing in particular on the sites of Kara-Bom and Grotte Mandrin.

Kara-Bom paper published

4 November 2023

The key site of Kara-Bom, in the Siberian Altai of Russia, is one of the most important sequences dating to the Initial Upper Palaeolithic. The chronology has remained uncertain, until the publication of a large new suite of results obtained through Tom Higham’s ERC grant “PalaeoChron”. The new chronometric results show that Homo sapiens occupied the site as early as 49-46,000 years ago. “The reliable dating of sites like Kara-Bom will enable us to calibrate the possible dispersal of human ancestors across Eurasia after 50,000 years ago. Kara-Bom is one of the key sites, containing evidence for early ornaments, novel stone tool industries and bone points.

Laura van der Sluis wins Young Investigator award 2023

8 September 2023

We are delighted to report that Higham Lab senior scientist Dr Laura van der Sluis has been awarded one of the 2023 Young Investigator Awards from the University of Vienna. The prize comes with €1,000. We are very proud and happy that Laura’s scientific achievements have been recognised in this way and wish her the very best in her ongoing scientific career.

Tom Higham appears on WSF program "Brave New Prehistoric World"

4 May 2023

The World Science Festival featured a new programme this week hosted by American theoretical physicist Prof. Brian Greene of Columbia University called “Brave New Prehistoric World”, focusing on the recent period of human evolution. Tom appeared with Professor Becky Ackermann (Univ. of Cape Town), Professor Sheela Athreya (Texas A&M) and Dr Viviane Slon (Tel Aviv University) to discuss the latest breakthroughs in evolutionary anthropology, including new genetics and dating developments, and the dramatic changes in our appreciation of issue such as genetic admixture and hybridisation among members of the genus Homo.
The programme has been viewed a huge number of times since airing (20,000 views in 4 days)!

Neanderthal hunting trophy site discovered

26 January 2023

A Spanish site called Cueva Des-Cubierta has provided new evidence showing that Neanderthals may have had an interest in building shrines using hunting trophies. Archaeologists at the site, led by Prof. Enrique Baquedano, found animal bones with cut marks and modifications that suggest they were used for the creation of hunting trophies. The skulls found included steppe bison (Bison priscus), steppe rhinoceros (Stephanorhinus hemitoechus), aurochs (Bos primigenius) as well as red deer (Cervus elaphus). All animals had horns. The specimens numbered more than 30 and each had been heavily processed, with brains and jaws removed before being arranged within the site. The body parts found were not high in nutrition and naturally very heavy. It seems likely that the animals were processed for their meat away from the site and the skulls deliberately processed and brought to the Neanderthal camp. The dates of the site are not precise, but broadly fit between 70-50,000 years ago. These findings add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that Neanderthals engaged in symbolic behavior, including the creation and use of hunting trophies, and they provide valuable insights into the cognitive abilities of early humans.

Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo sapiens: How new science is changing our understanding of human evolution

12 December 2022

In his inaugural lecture at the Main Ceremonial Hall of the University of Vienna Professor Tom Higham gave an overview of his research, which involves applying cutting-edge archaeological science methods to the ancient past, particularly to the period from around 70,000–30,000 years ago when Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans met and interacted with one another. Watch the recording by following the link below.

Image © feelimage/matern

Higham Lab features on the best of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks science programme

27 August 2022

The story of how Homo sapiens moved into Europe often speaks about a swift replacement of the Neanderthals, but this is being challenged by exciting new evidence. Tom Higham was part of a team that undertook research on a key cave dwelling in France, and found that it was alternately occupied by Neanderthals and humans over thousands of years. The findings were published in the journal Science Advances, and have new light on the story of early humans in Europe.

ORF news article 'On the trail of the inner Neanderthal'

16 August 2022

Austrian national broadcaster ORF ran a story on our research exploring the archaeological record of early humans and what traces are left from the genes of Neanderthals and Denisovans. For example, Neanderthal DNA can influence whether someone has addictive behaviours or or is a morning or evening person. The ancient genome also provides insights into the social life of these early ancestors.

What motivates Tom Higham and Katerina Douka?

5 May 2022

Watch the Rudolphina video to find out!

What ancient genes tell us about who we are

4 May 2022

A new article about Tom and Katerina in the University of Vienna’s science magazine “Rudolphina” covers their approach to solve the great mystery of human evolution: Why are we the only humans left?

Tom Higham in an interview with VISÃO

24 March 2022

Tom Higham is featured in this months edition of the popular Portuguese magazine Visão. The article covers the release of the Portuguese edition of his book The World Before Us (“O Mundo antes de Nós – Como a Ciência Está a Descobrir uma Nova História para as Origens Humanas“) on March 24.

Our Early Denisovans and their lithics made the Jan Nature Ecology and Evolution front cover!

12 January 2022

Newly discovered hominin bone fragments from Denisova Cave in Siberia are the earliest dated evidence for the Denisovan lineage, and some of the oldest human fossils ever genetically sequenced! Our team, led by Assistant Professor Katerina Douka and Dr Samantha Brown, used ‘ZooMS’ (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectroscopy) to analyse ancient proteins in 3,791 tiny bone fragments extracted from the site’s oldest layers. They found 5 tiny bones, three of which turned out to be Denisovans and one a Neanderthal! 

Outreach: Tom Higham featured in Viennese science magazine "Wien Wissen"

16 December 2021

On four pages, the article describes “The World Before Us” and our research on dating and sequencing our ancestors’ remains, including Denny’s.


Moving to Vienna!

1 August 2021

After 20 years at the University of Oxford I’ve moved to Vienna to take up a role at the University of Vienna’s Department of Evolutionary Anthropology. I’m really delighted that, along with my wife, Assistant Professor Katerina Douka, we can now work in the brand new Biology Building, and develop new and novel approaches to studying the past using biomolecular methods. We are setting up new radiocarbon and proteomics preparative laboratories in Vienna, so keep watching this space!