Human evolution is the story of cultural development and expansion. More than three million years ago, hominins produced the first stone tools with cutting edges and thereby broadened the range of tool use previously known in animals. The result of this milestone was the adoption of a new functionality that eventually enabled the modular use of several tools. Three factors interacted to construct a cultural sphere, which still forms the basis of the way we deal with the world: the intensification and differentiation of material and social engagement, our interaction with the environment, and an increased level of our need to make sense of the world.
The history of human cultural development unfolds in three interdependent forms of expansion. The first two include the expansions of performances, expressed in the interlaced changes of body, mind, and behavior, which interacts with the expansions of resource space. For example, as tool use opened up access to new resources, these new performances simultaneously created new needs, affordances, and constraints, both on humans as well their environment. The networks of relations to and interactions with environmental factors (whether conspecifics, raw materials, artifacts, or other agents) increased tremendously over the course of human evolution and resulted in a dense array of cultural performances within a wide variety of environments.
Between three and two million years ago, the evidence for human evolution was concentrated on the African continent. During the last two million years, the genus Homo spread from Africa into Asia and Europe in several waves of dispersal. New species formed and mixed as old groups became extinct. This represents the third type of expansion, the expansions of range, and is interdependent with the two other types, expansions of performances and expansions of resource space.
The mission of the research center “The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans” (ROCEEH) is to generate a systemic understanding of “becoming human”, one that integrates these three types of expansion, how they interacted with each other, and their different dimensions of development. The project encompasses the time from three million to 20,000 years before present and spans across Africa and Eurasia. The project focuses particularly on the development of the human capacity for cultural activities, as well as its background and characteristics.
Initiated in 2008 and projected to run until 2027, ROCEEH is a multidisciplinary research project situated at the interface between the cultural and natural sciences. This far-reaching, international effort is carried out by a team of cultural scientists, archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, paleobiologists, geographers, and database specialists situated at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt and the University of Tübingen.
The Research Center ROCEEH is an intrinsic part of the Academies’ Program, “Discovering, Contextualizing and Preserving Cultural Heritage” of The Union of the German Academies. Our work is based directly on the explicit mission of the Academies’ Program, “…to retrieve and explore our cultural heritage, to make it accessible in and highlight its relevance to the present, and to preserve it for the future.”
ROCEEH discovers, contextualizes, and preserves the deep past of humankind’s cultural heritage. The research center explores the history of humanity between three million and 20,000 years ago by developing cultural concepts, which enable us to examine how human culture evolved. ROCEEH addresses the questions related to what we call “becoming human.” This approach is accented by fieldwork at key sites to document the salient patterns of early cultural change. ROCEEH makes the deep past of our cultural heritage accessible by compiling data about archaeological sites and their associated assemblages. These systematically collected data are archived in the ROCEEH Out of Africa Database (ROAD), which currently contains information about more than 2100 sites and 13,000 assemblages, based on a review of over 3900 articles, books, theses, and reports written in many languages (as of July 2021). ROCEEH uses this unique database to explore the richness of humankind’s deep cultural past and highlights its relevance for the present by conducting focused case studies and through scientific and public outreach. The research center preserves the deep past of humankind’s cultural heritage for the future by providing a lasting catalog summarizing each site stored in ROAD. These condensed reports provide a systematic overview of archaeological sites with details about their geography, dating, stratigraphy, cultural remains, paleoanthropology, paleoecology, and bibliography.