Humboldtians in Focus

Brief Enquiries

What moves researchers and what they are currently investigating.

How Did You Discover the Dino in the Box?

By Klaus Eichmüller

Erin Maxwell
Erin Maxwell (Photo: Oliver Rüther)

All Erin Maxwell had intended to do at Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History was view its extensive collection of ichthyosaurs. But then the 31-year-old made a sensational discovery in the museum’s archives: a crate of dinosaur bones that had sat there unnoticed for almost four decades.

The bones, it turned out, belonged not just to a new species, but to a whole new genus of ichthyosaur. “It was really cool,” says the Canadian researcher recalling the moment when she realised what she was seeing. “Palaeontologists don’t experience something like that very often.” Maxwell, who specialises in ichthyosaurs, had already discovered and described two new species during fieldwork in Canada. “It’s much better to work in the field than in the lab,” she had always thought, so she was all the more surprised to discover a previouly unknown dinosaur in a box in the archives. The fossil with its 1.6 metre skull and an impressive set of sharp teeth had been found and recovered from a clay pit by geology students 37 years previously, and then forgotten. Experts consider the discovery extraordinary because it throws a new light on the development and prevalence of ichthyosaurs. The skeleton was found in a sediment layer of the Opalinus clay formation deposited approximately 170 to 175 million years ago. Earlier finds date back some 182 million years – so the new discovery closes a seven-million-year gap in worldwide ichthyosaur finds.

  • Palaeontologist Dr. Erin Maxwell completed her doctorate at the Université de Montréal, Canada. From 2010 to 2012, a Humboldt Research Fellowship brought her to Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Why Should Grave Robbers Fear Google?

By Jirka Niklas Menke

Daniel A. Contreras
Daniel A. Contreras (Photo: Barbara Dombrowski)

Looters and grave robbers are destroying the traces of our ancestors. Many antiquities are lost to research, sold instead through murky channels into the hands of private collectors. Daniel Contreras is using the Internet to combat this plunder.

One look at a site like Bab edh-Dhra’, a Bronze Age burial ground in Jordan, shows the damage that looters and grave robbers can do. Looting pits as far as the eye can see. Many archaeologically significant sites around the world present a similar picture. One of the greatest obstacles in the fight against grave robbers is that governments ignore the issue, claiming insufficient evidence. “Images on Google Earth are now proving the extent of the damage caused by looters,” explains Contreras. Together with a colleague, he has developed an online project at Stanford University that uses Google Earth to gather information from Internet users about further looting. The freely available satellite images clearly indicate where landscapes have been disturbed by digging. “Our aim is both to document the true extent of the damage and to raise awareness among the public,” says Contreras. “Only if we succeed will we be able to continue exploring the history of humanity in the future.”

  • At Stanford University in the USA Dr. Daniel A. Contreras investigates how human societies lived in the Neolithic Age and what impact the change from being hunter-gatherers to settled farmers had on the landscape. He is currently working as a Humboldt Research Fellow at the Institute for Ecosystem Research at Kiel University.

How Can a Self-driving Car Change the World?

By Regine Laroche

Sebastian Thrun
Sebastian Thrun (Photo: privat)

Pretty much anyone who watched TV in the 1980s will remember K.I.T.T., the intelligent car from the American science fiction series “Knight Rider”, but many would find it unimaginable that such a vehicle could actually ever exist.

Not so Sebastian Thrun. The computer specialist’s main interest is in intelligent robotic systems that can move independently – autonomous vehicles, for example. Thrun runs Google’s “Driverless Car” project and is thus a leading member of the team responsible for developing the Google car, which has already been approved for test drives in three US states. But how can a car like that change the world? “Our aim is to make computer-controlled vehicles much more reliable in order to drastically reduce the number of road traffic accidents resulting from human error. And a more efficient style of driving also has a positive effect on traffic flow and fuel consumption,” says Thrun. Apart from improving transportation, there is another important aspect to the project: “The car offers people with limited physical mobility a chance to significantly increase their quality of life.”

  • Professor Dr. Sebastian Thrun heads a research group at Stanford AI Laboratory in the USA and also works on various Google projects: in addition to the self-driving car, he is involved in the development of digital glasses. He is a co-founder of the online university Udacity. In 2011, he received the Max Planck Research Award, granted by the Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society.

How Does a Culture Survive Without Writing?

By Georg Scholl

Margarita Valdovinos
Margarita Valdovinos (Photo: Michael Danner)

When Margarita Valdovinos first visited the Cora Indians in their remote homeland in the mountains of western Mexico, she was immediately fascinated by the unique culture of this indigenous people.

The Cora are descended from the Aztecs, and continue to follow many ancient traditions and their own religion that combines pre-colonial beliefs with the Catholicism imported by the Spanish. “Like many indigenous cultures, the Cora, of whom only about 20,000 remain, are under threat from our modern way of life,” says Valdovinos. For the last 16 years, she has visited Jesús María, the largest Cora settlement, as part of her research. In addition to Spanish, the Cora speak a language of their own which has no written form; they rely on oral traditions. “The Cora preserve their knowledge and their history in songs and myths, prayers and poetry. That’s why the celebrations and rituals that take place on over two hundred days a year are so important,” explains the ethnologist. She wants to know how especially the language, but also dances and gestures hold the community together. To find the answer, she collaborates closely with the Cora. “Both sides benefit from my work,” says Valdovinos. “I learn a lot and immerse myself deeply in their lives, and the Cora suddenly see their culture in a completely new light. This engenders a new interest in their traditions as well as pride in their own identity, and most importantly, a desire to preserve their own culture.”

  • Dr. Margarita Valdovinos worked at the University of Texas at Austin, before becoming a Humboldtian. She is now conducting research at the Ibero-American Institute and the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

What Secrets Are Hidden in the Genes of the Longobards?

By Georg Scholl

Patrick J. Geary
Patrick J. Geary (Photo: Oliver Rüther)

Who were the barbarians who, according to Roman sources, invaded northern Italy and threatened Rome itself in the sixth century? Where did tribes like the Longobards come from? Did they displace the Roman population, or did they mix with it? Did they come in wild hordes or in small groups?

Historians have so far been unable to tell us with any certainty. With the help of state-of-the-art genetic analysis, American historian Patrick Geary and his team of geneticists, archaeologists and anthropologists are now seeking new answers. One of their most important sources are DNA analyses of bones and teeth from burial sites. “Until recently, it was difficult to analyse material that was many hundreds of years old. We have only had the necessary technology, next-generation DNA sequencing, for a short while,” says Geary. Carefully interpreted and considered in conjunction with written and archaeological sources, the finds will allow deep insights into the society of the period. Was it, for example, mostly men who headed for distant lands and found themselves new wives there? Or were the bonds with their wives so close that they set off for Italy together as families? Were seemingly entirely different cultural groups actually closely related to each other? Geary is excited about the possibilities opened up by genetic history research: “It has the potential to radically alter our understanding of the changes that took place in the Roman Empire at that time.”

  • Professor Dr. Patrick J. Geary is a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA. As an Anneliese Maier Research Award Winner he cooperates with Heidelberg University.
published in Humboldt Kosmos 100/2013
aus Humboldt Kosmos 105/2016 bzw. published in Humboldt Kosmos 105/2016