News
09/07/2013

UOW’s latest Australian Laureate Fellow focuses on ancient human life

UOW is set to become the centrepiece of a national centre for archaeological science after internationally renowned geochronologist Professor Bert (Richard) Roberts was named as an Australian Laureate Fellow.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) yesterday (9 July) named Professor Roberts as one of the 2013 recipients of the Australian Laureate Fellowships, a program designed to attract and retain world-class researchers in Australia.

Professor Roberts is UOW’s third Laureate Fellow, joining human geographer Professor Lesley Head (2009) and materials scientist Professor Gordon Wallace (2011) as recipients of the prestigious Fellowship.

Professor Roberts is Director of UOW’s Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS), which is dedicated to the development and application of modern scientific techniques to answer fundamental questions about human evolution through the analysis of past human life and activities.

The five-year Laureate Fellowship funding, together with financial and infrastructure support from UOW, will allow Professor Roberts to develop CAS as the central hub of Australia’s first national centre for archaeological science. The new centre will be called the Australian centre for Archaeological Science.

Professor Roberts played a key role in the 2003 discovery and dating of the “Hobbit” – a previously unknown species of small human who lived on the Indonesian island of Flores until relatively recent times (in palaeoanthropological terms). Professor Roberts led the team of dating experts who used the latest luminescence technology to determine that the first “Hobbits” may have survived long enough to encounter early members of our species as they spread through Southeast Asia to Australia.

The “Hobbit” discovery will continue to play a key role in the work of the new project, called OUT OF ASIA: unique insights into human evolution and interactions using frontier technologies in archaeological science.

“We will develop science-based techniques in archaeological dating and chemistry and apply them to key sites along an 8000 km-long transect from Central Asia to northern Australia, which is a great mixing line of modern and ancient humans,” Professor Roberts said. “We are confident we can throw fresh light on human evolution and the history, lifeways and cognitive capabilities of early modern humans and our ancient cousins including Neanderthals, the ‘Hobbits’ and the (recently discovered) Denisovans who co-existed with them.

“We will investigate which species was living where and when, and what actually happened – learning about how people lived their lives, looking principally at the period between 130,000 and 50,000 years ago.”

He said the scientists involved in this project will apply their new techniques to artefacts obtained from existing known archaeological sites along the transect, a line that runs from Siberia through Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, the Indonesian islands of Southern Sulawesi and Flores to tropical northern Australia.

“This centre will provide a quantum leap in the application of archaeological chemistry to residues on stone tools, combined with new approaches to archaeological dating, using techniques that would have been impossible even 10 years ago,” he said.

Professor Roberts said the Laureate Fellowship funding would allow UOW to greatly expand CAS and create a national hub linked with other archaeological scientists at universities around Australia.

“These new collaborations are definitely part of the excitement of receiving the Laureate Fellowship,” he said.

The ARC funding and additional support from UOW will allow the centre to attract leading researchers, including archaeological residue expert Dr Richard Fullagar (currently an Honorary Principal Fellow at CAS) and geo-archaeologist Professor Paul Goldberg from Boston University.

The ARC and UOW funding will cover the recruitment and employment of four post-doctoral and six doctoral students to work for the new centre, and UOW is also providing infrastructure support including sophisticated new laboratory equipment.

Dean of Research Professor Tim Marchant said: "I wish to congratulate Professor Roberts on his outstanding achievement and believe that his Laureate Fellowship is another example of the world class research environment we have at UOW."

Professor Roberts has a Bachelor of Science (Geography) degree from Aberystwyth University in Wales, a Master of Science from the University of British Columbia in Canada and a PhD from UOW in Physical Geography, which he completed in 1991. He then worked at Oxford University, the Australian National University, La Trobe University and Melbourne University before returning to UOW in 2001.

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  • Professor Roberts has been awarded Australia’s most prestigious research fellowship.