5 November 2020

Big interdisciplinary project to reveal patterns of migration

Necropolis with burial mound near the village of Vix in northern Burgundy.
Necropolis with burial mound near the village of Vix in northern Burgundy. Credits Kurt H. Kjær

A international research project has just been awarded EUR 10 million – approximately DKK 73 million – in funding from the European Research Council. The team is made up of top researchers from a number of disciplines, including GLOBE institutes professor Kurt H. Kjær and Associate Professor Fernando Racimo, who together with the rest of the team aim to reveal the changes that lay behind human migrations 8,000 years ago.

Which came first: Climate changes or social and economic changes? How did cultural and genetic changes influence each other? And what caused people to migrate?

By combining novel modelling approaches with archaeology and large quantities of data and analyses – including everything from prehistoric genetic material to climate data – the research team aims to discover and explain the key processes behind the genetic and cultural diversity in Europe. The researchers will investigate the period from the first farmers around 6,000 years BCE, to the end of the Bronze Age around 500 years BCE.

The project has been awarded an ERC Synergy Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). The project entitled “From correlations to explanations: towards a new European prehistory” will be led and coordinated by Kristian Kristiansen, Professor in Archaeology at the University of Gothenburg, Kurt H. Kjær, professor in Geology at GeoGenetics, GLOBE institute, University of Copenhagen and Mark Thomas, professor in population genomic at the University College London.


Top-tier researchers

The ERC’s Synergy projects represent the absolute top-tier of European research projects and target small groups of very prominent researchers who want to collaborate on a joint research project. As the name suggests, these research projects bring together leading researchers from different fields who join forces to achieve new, innovative results that none of them could have achieved alone.

“We will combine results from hundreds of human prehistoric genomes with analyses of environmental and climate data, archaeological data and analyses of strontium isotopes showing population mobility,” says Professor Kristian Kristiansen at the University of Gothenburg. “Using Environmental DNA on human remains left in oils at the scale introduced in this study has the potential to open a new achieve of information on human history” Professor Kurt H. Kjær adds.


Many small-scale changes generate large-scale patterns

The project aims to reveal how genetic and cultural changes and environmental changes influenced each other during some of the big historical changes in the studied period. We will investigate how many small-scale changes generate large-scale patterns of genetic and cultural change, and explore how they interact and influence each other. The six-year research project will combine large quantities of data and methods that will be used to discern larger patterns.

The project will use novel modelling approaches that allow us to move from correlations to explanations for how changes have been shaped by the dynamic interaction between cultural innovation, migration, genetic admixture, population growth and collapse, dietary changes, biological adaptation, social structure, and the emergence of new diseases.


Databases and models

The overarching goal of the project has been broken down into specific milestones, which have been translated into four work packages. The work packages are about creating a C14 database, cultural and subsistence (including isotope) data, ancient genomes, eDNA sites, fossil pollen datasets and strontium samples for example, as well as analysing environmental DNA and building various models.

The results will enable researchers to determine the impact that population mobility had on the European landscape – during the studied period and at different levels: continental, regional and local.

This is a research project that defies the boundaries of archaeology, genetics and mathematical modelling. By identifying prehistoric patterns in interactions between human biology, social and economic organisation, and demographics, we will be able to compare the results with anthropological and historical models of these kinds of processes from more recent times. This will enable us to acquire a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of migration, integration and cultural change – then and now.

Contact details:

Kurt H. Kjær, Phone: +45 30589730, e-mail: kurtk@sund.ku.dk