Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology focuses on matters regarding the origins of humankind. The Institute’s researchers study widely-differing aspects of human evolution. They analyse the genes, cultures and cognitive abilities of people living today and compare them with those of apes and extinct peoples. Scientists from various disciplines work closely together at the Institute: Geneticists trace the genetic make-up of extinct species, such as Neanderthals. Behaviourists and ecologists, for their part, study the behaviour of apes and other mammals.


Deutscher Platz 6
04103 Leipzig
Phone: +49 341 3550-0
Fax: +49 341 3550-119

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):
IMPRS: The Leipzig School of Human Origins

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Germany was covered by glaciers 450,000 years ago
New chronological data for the Middle Pleistocene glacial cycles push back the first glaciation and early human appearance in central Germany by about 100.000 years. more
New insights into the late history of Neandertals
The genomes of five late Neandertals provide insights into Neandertal population history more
The enigmatic 300,000-year-old South African hominin ate a lot of dust, grit, or phytoliths more
Neanderthals thought like we do
As early as 64,000 years ago Iberian Neanderthals created cave paintings more
Dramatic decline of Bornean orangutans
Global demand for natural resources has reduced the number of orangutans by more than 100,000 animals in the last 16 years more
Modern human brain organization emerged only recently
Homo sapiens fossils demonstrate a gradual evolution of the human brain towards its modern globular shape more
Chimpanzees fill another’s knowledge gap
Researchers show that vocalizing in chimpanzees is influenced by social cognitive processes more
Chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys interfere with other group members’ relationships
Bystanders monitor and intervene into grooming interactions of their group members if these threaten their own status or social relationships more
Friendliness is more important in a new friend than which group she belongs to
Individual qualities matter more than group qualities when choosing a new friend from an ethnic or religious group other than one’s own more
Researchers sequence a new Neandertal genome
The genome of a European Neandertal allows more Neandertal DNA to be identified in present-day people more
How easily we tan is influenced by Neandertal DNA
Neandertal DNA influences variation in skin tone and hair colour in people living today more
Capturing the body odour of mammals
Newly adapted method allows researchers to collect body odour samples of mammals in a non-invasive manner more
Wolves understand cause and effect better than dogs
Study conducted at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna shows that dogs seem to have lost some problem solving abilities when they were domesticated more
Great apes know when they don't know
Chimpanzees and orangutans look for information to fill gaps in their knowledge more
Fossil ape skull confirms African origin of apes and humans
13-million-year-old “Alesi“, a fossil discovered in Kenya, sheds light on ape ancestry more

Family Constellations

On Location
What makes humans human? How and when did we become what we are today? How did our ancestors live? These questions are of great interest to a lot of people. The scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology use different methods to investigate them systematically. One of these methods involves extracting DNA from human fossils. Using a new procedure, Svante Pääbo and his team can isolate and sequence ancient genetic material from just a few grams of bone powder, allowing them to compare the genomes of different prehistoric humans with one another and with people living today.
“Mine!” This all-too-familiar children’s cry can drive parents to distraction. Nevertheless, Michael Tomasello from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig firmly believes that – unlike our nearest animal relatives, the great apes, who largely lack the capacity for collaboration – children are naturally cooperative and helpful.

Meet the Neanderthals

MPR 3 /2010 Biology & Medicine
Neanderthals mated with modern humans! This revelation generated great excitement among the media, but it’s old news for anthropologists. They are more interested in the genome of our closest relative.
As far as cognitive scientists are concerned, the children’s game “I spy with my little eye” is anything but child’s play. It is based on the assumption that the person whose turn it is can imagine what the other players are able to see – or not. But do dogs and apes, for instance, also share this ability? At the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, scientists study social cognition factors in different species.
Studying gorillas requires courage as well as stamina. To investigate the lifestyles of these primates, researchers track them through the rainforest of Uganda – at a respectful distance.

Boning Up on History

MPR 3 /2007 Biology & Medicine
If the bones won’t come to the researcher, then the
researcher must go to the bones. Using a mobile tomograph, paleoanthropologists are reconstructing fossilized skulls to investigate human development.
A bit of saliva can tell the story of an entire people. Since scientists learned to identify the human genome letter for letter, they can sometimes gain more information from it than they can from potsherds or yellowed papers. Thus, Mark Stoneking and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology use it to investigate, for example, how various peoples gradually dispersed.
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Social determinants of human communication

2017 Bohn, Manuel; Stöber, Gregor
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science

Like no other medium, language transports meaning in interactions. Recent studies highlight (1) how meaning is constituted through shared social experience in interactions with preverbal infants, (2) that different social contexts can modify the meaning of gestures in the second year of life, and (3) that young children can establish meaning in original ways when encountering cooperative contexts that limit the use of linguistic communication.


Genetic adaptation to levels of dietary selenium in recent human history

2016 White, Louise; Castellano, Sergi
Developmental Biology Evolutionary Biology Genetics
The micronutrient selenium is an essential part of the human diet. As humans migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years ago they came to settle in environments with vastly differing selenium levels. Researchers of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have found evidence that human populations who live in regions that provide insufficient dietary selenium show signals of adaptation in the genes that use or regulate selenium. more

The evolution of the human brain

2015 Gunz, Philipp
Evolutionary Biology
The evolution of the human lineage is tightly linked to the evolution of the brain. To better understand the evolutionary changes in brain development, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology compare the cranial bones of recent modern humans to those of our closest living and fossil relatives. more

A world atlas of contact languages

2014 Michaelis, Susanne; Haspelmath, Martin

A new comprehensive database on grammatical structures of 76 contact languages provides insight into the origin of these languages, which arose in colonial times, as well as into general laws of the creation of mixed languages. The original languages of the indigenous populations in the colonial areas can be recognized by the clear grammatical traces that they left.


Competition, cooperation and hormones in chimpanzees and bonobos

2013 Deschner, Tobias
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science Developmental Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics
The study of similarities and differences in behavior and physiology between humans and great apes allow for a better understanding of human evolution. Researchers of the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig investigate with the help of behavioral observations and the measurement of physiological parameters in the urine of free living apes how competition and cooperation influence the excretion of a number of hormones. more

Collaboration in Young Children

2012 Tomasello, Michael; Hamann, Katharina
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science Evolutionary Biology
One of the most remarkable capacities of human beings is their ability to work together, to solve problems or to create things that no individual could have solved or created on its own. In current studies, researchers look at the early ontogeny of children’s abilities for collaboration and provide evidence that young children have species-unique skills and motivations of shared intentionality, including skills such as forming joint goals and joint attention with others, along with cooperative motives for helping others and sharing with others. more

What we can learn from spit: Diversity in the human salivary microbiome

2011 Stoneking, Mark
Evolutionary Biology Genetics Microbiology
More than 90 percent of the human body is made of bacterial cells. Studying genetic variation in bacteria has provided confirmation of insights into human population history from studies of human genetic diversity, and novel insights that go beyond those studies. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have begun characterizing variation in the human saliva microbiome. They aim to understand the factors that influence an individual’s saliva microbiome and to identify particular bacterial species that might be informative for studies of human population history. more
Due to their mineralized content, teeth are by far the most commonly preserved remains in the human fossil record. The structure of the basic modules of teeth provides clues about the development and diet of humans and their fossil ancestors as well as their relation to the environment. Scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology make use of this biological source of information to find out in which ways modern humans differ from other primates and when and how the fossil ancestors of modern humans passed the threshold to anatomical and cultural modernity. more

Words as Migrants

2009 Haspelmath, Martin
Cultural Studies Linguistics
Whenever languages come into contact with each other, lexical borrowing also takes place. Such loanwords can provide interesting information about historical relations. In working out the genealogical relationship of languages across long time periods, however, it is often difficult to decide whether words that sound similar are to be attributed to common ancestry or to the influence of contact. A comparative project of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology for the first time identifies general trends in lexical borrowing across the languages of the world. more

New Insights into the Tool-Using Behavior of Wild Chimpanzees

2008 Sanz, Crickette
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science
With the exception of humans, chimpanzees show the most diverse and complex tool using behaviors of all existant species. Primatologists at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology are using new research methods to study chimpanzee tool use in the dense forests of the Congo Basin. They are discovering complex technological skills among these apes that expand current perceptions of chimpanzee cognition and material culture. more

Do chimpanzees know what others see – or only where they look?

2007 Tomasello, Michael; Call, Josep
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science
A variety of recent studies suggest that apes know what other individuals do and do not see. The results of may be explained by postulating some behavioral rule that individuals have learned that does not involve an understanding of seeing. The patchiness of coverage gives this kind of explanation an ad hoc feeling, especially since there is rarely any concrete evidence that animals actually have had the requisite experiences to learn the behavioral rule – there is just a theoretical possibility. Thus, it is more plausible to hypothesize that apes really do know what others do and do not see. more

The evolution of mRNA expression in humans and chimpanzees

2006 Lachmann, Michael
Evolutionary Biology Genetics
Using the human genome sequence, the just published chimpanzee genome sequence, and measured expression levels of genes in several different tissues, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has been studying the evolution of mRNA expression in these closely related species. The data indicates that most of the thousands of observed changes in gene expression have not been selected due to beneficial effects. Selection against deleterious effects shows a strong pattern. Curiously, it seems that tissues differ in the level that they are affected by mutations: thus liver is least constrained, and allows most changes, whereas brain allows least. We also see indications that more changes in gene expression occurred in brain during the evolution of humans than occurred during the evolution of chimpanzees since both of them diverged from their last common ancestor. more

Proteomics and human evolution

2005 Nielsen-Marsh, Christina
Evolutionary Biology
Using state-of-the-art technology, the archaeological science labs of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are an essential component in helping to answer key questions in palaeoanthropology. The Archaeological Science group in the Department of Human Evolution has at its fingertips a variety of methods which can provide crucial data on chronology, palaeodiet, migration and phylogenetics. In a first step the team managed to extract and sequence a bone protein, osteocalcin, from two 75,000-year-old Neanderthal specimens from Shanidar in Iraq, which failed to yield DNA. The protein sequencing was achieved using MALDI-TOF/TOF mass spectrometry, a technique which provides exceptional limits of detection. These are the oldest known proteins to be sequenced and have provided new phylogenetic and phenotypic data on the hominid line alongside osteocalcin sequences extracted from related, extant species (chimpanzee, orangutan, gorilla and human). These data illustrate the potential for proteins to provide informative genetic data in the absence of recoverable DNA, and opens up the exciting possibility of applying these techniques to earlier hominids. more

Diversity and universality of human language: The Jakarta field station

2004 Gil, David
Cultural Studies Evolutionary Biology Linguistics
Only humans have the gift of language. Yet the human race has not one language, but rather five or six thousand different ones. Moreover, these languages differ from one another in myriad ways, their variegated patterns of sounds, words, sentences and meanings forming a dazzling kaleidoscope of linguistic diversity. Nevertheless, all human languages share profound structural design features which, together, form part of what makes human beings special, distinguishing them from all other creatures. Such features are a reflection of linguistic universality. The Department of Linguistics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology seeks out diversity and universality in the realm of human language. Thus, the researchers are constantly looking for patterns of variation, pushing the outer limits of how different languages can be from each other. However, when the limits of such diversification are encountered, they try to establish common properties which are then said to be shared by all human languages. By discovering such patterns of linguistic diversity and universality, the department contributes towards the broader goal of the Institute, which is to gain a better understanding of the nature and the origins of mankind. more
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