Online database of 2,400 prehistoric sites

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Map showing the distribution of African, Asian and European sites in the ROAD database

Human history in one click! For the first time, information from numerous sites relating to the early history of mankind – from 3 million to 20,000 years ago – can be accessed in one large-scale online database.

Scientists from the research centre ROCEEH (“The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans”) have compiled information on 2,400 prehistoric sites and 24,000 assemblages from more than 100 ancient cultures. The digital data summarizes the results of 150 years of research and is available for free to scientists and amateurs alike.

The ROAD database

ROAD stands for “ROCEEH Out of Africa Database”  and the map above shows the distribution of sites in the database. The images in the circles show examples of the different types of finds contained on the site. These are, clockwise from lower left, a stone hand axe, a grinding stone covered in red ochre, a shell ornament, a stone projectile point, a bovid skull, a pollen grain, a human cranium, a double bone point and a piece of orange ochre. (Objects not shown to scale)

The ROCEEH research centre is based at the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research, sponsored by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and funded in part through the Union of German Academies.

Since 2008 an international team of six scientists and dozens of research assistants painstakingly compiled the data. More than 5,000 publications in multiple languages were analysed, including Chinese, Russian, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

Dr. Andrew Kandel of the University of Tübingen says that ROAD is one of the largest digital collections of information about archaeology, anthropology, paleontology and botany, and is based on 150 years of research history. By bringing together information about cultural remains, human fossils, animal bones and plants in one unified geographical and chronological framework, the team has created a tool which helps to analyse the complex aspects of human evolution”.

Much of the prehistoric world remains uncharted, as shown by the blank areas of this map

The process of collecting these data has already shown that much of the scientific knowledge about our past comes from just a few, very well studied regions. These are mainly in Southern and Eastern Africa and Europe, as well as Central and East Asia. (Oceania was not part of the study). The blank areas on the map above hint at exciting future discoveries about our species’ past from the fields of archaeology and anthropology.

Using the ROAD database

An easy-to-use map interface on the ROAD site shows the distribution of sites across the globe. It also allows users to graphically present the results of simple queries, so a user can make their own map by selecting a specific culture, period or region of interest. In addition, a user can also download a PDF “ROAD Summary Data Sheet” containing a site summary.

“Scientists can use ROAD to formulate advanced queries”, says Kandel. “For example, a query can help establish the presence of different categories of stone tools across Africa, or the distribution of specific animals, like horse, rhinoceros or reindeer during periods when the glaciers advanced or retreated. Such queries provide researchers with large quantities of data which they can further study using various methods of visualization and analysis.”

ROCEEH designed ROAD to better understand the deep history of our human past. “We examine the multi-faceted relationship between culture and environment and observe its impact on human expansions.” In the spirit of open science, the team makes this data freely available to the general public, students, and researchers across the globe.

The report was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Source:  Press release            https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0289513

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