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New DFG Research Unit

Transalpine mobility in prehistory

Munich, 10/18/2012

How mobile were humans in prehistoric times? What kinds of cultural contacts did people in different regions have with each other? To answer these questions, a new DFG Research Unit at LMU plans to examine archaeological bone samples.

Migration and trade have played major roles in the expansion of human populations and the transfer of cultural innovations, and in the process, contributed heavily to the emergence of entirely new sociocultural systems. In a new collaborative project entitled “Transalpine Mobility and Cultural Transfer“, which is funded by a 1.4 million Euro German Research Foundation (DFG) grant and will be coordinated by LMU anthropologist Professor Gisela Grupe, researchers will explore aspects of human migration and cultural exchange in the Alpine region and its northern foothills for the period spanning from the Late Bronze Age to Roman times.

“Since there is very little written or iconographic evidence available that documents life in prehistoric times, we will work mainly on bioarchaeological samples. The analysis of stable isotopes in skeletons and isolated bones found in excavations is the method of choice in this context,” says Grupe. The researchers will, for the first time, systematically examine bone finds from so-called cremation burials containing the remains of persons whose bodies were burned prior to interment, and subject them to detailed mineralogical characterization.

Native or immigrant?

The amounts in which certain stable isotopes are incorporated into bones and teeth varies depending on the type of diet that is consumed, as well as specific climatic and geochemical parameters. By analyzing these “signature” amounts and comparing the ratios of strontium, oxygen and lead isotopes in human remains with those of the environment where these remains were discovered, researchers can discern whether or not a person (or animal) is local or originates from elsewhere. The ability to distinguish between local and non-local burials provides the opportunity to estimate both the magnitude and direction of transalpine migrations, and thus, to trace the networks of exchange of material and cultural goods in a region of great archaeological interest.

In DFG Research Units, teams of researchers work together on topics important to the Humanities and Social Sciences. A central feature of the new Research Unit is the close interaction between scholars of the Humanities and specialists from the natural sciences. This collaborative effort, involving anthropologists, paleoanatomists, archaeologists, geoscientists and computer experts at LMU, is one of the project’s main strengths towards realizing its ambitious goals. The concept was developed with colleagues based at other institutions, under the auspices of the ArchaeoBio-Center. Scientists at the Bavarian Natural History Collections, the State Collection for Anthropology and Paleoanatomy, the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection will also participate in the project. (göd / PH)

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