Sensational finding thanks to Swiss support: Discovery of the skull of an early human turns current scientific thinking on its head.

Article, 30.10.2013

Paleoanthropologists of the University of Zurich in collaboration with Georgian colleagues in Dmanisi in the south of Georgia have found the intact skull of an early human being. The find demands a re-examination of current scientific thinking on this subject: Human diversity two million years ago was much smaller than thought up to now. The research is being supported and financed by the Swiss National Fund and the SDC.

Unique importance for science
Until this discovery, four well preserved early human heads and some skeleton parts had been found in Dmanisi. An international team headed by David Lordkipanidze from the Georgian National Museum and Christoph Zollikofer from the University of Zurich has now found a fifth skull. The skull is better preserved than any fossils found to date from the early periods of human existence. What is unique about this discovery is that the skull has a combination of hitherto unknown characteristics: It has the largest face, the most massive jaw and teeth, and the smallest brain of the Dmanisi Group.

Because the skull is intact, a number of questions can be clarified that until now have been open to wide speculation. This discovery challenges accepted thinking on the evolutionary beginning of the "Homo" species in Africa some two million yeas ago at the beginning of the ice age (Pleistocene). Were there at that time several specialised "Homo" types of which at least one was able to thrive outside Africa? Or was there only one type that adapted to different ecosystems?

SCOPES for better scientific cooperation
The research took place within the framework of SCOPES (Scientific Cooperation between Eastern Europe and Switzerland), a programme to promote scientific cooperation between research groups and institutes in Switzerland and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The SDC and the SNF have supported the programme since 1990. The programme focuses on:

  • Promoting the quality of research through specialist and methodological support for research groups;
  • Strengthening the institutional capacities of research facilities;
  • Including research in partner countries better in international programmes and networking with other countries (European research area, international scientific community).

Universities for which these specific fields are important collaborate to identify areas of research. Swiss researchers adopt a coordinating and support role in the planning, execution and assessment of joint research projects.  In addition, within the SCOPES framework, Swiss institutes support certain modernisation processes in institutions in partner countries. The Swiss National Fund is responsible for the implementation of   SCOPES.

Switzerland traditionally supports research within the framework of its cooperation development and cooperation with Eastern Europe. In this way it contributes to building up networks and research institutes in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Both fundamental and applied research are promoted in the social and natural sciences with the focus on areas such as agriculture, environment, conflict and conflict transformation, health, water, the causes of migration, governance and gender, in other words the issues of current global challenges. In addition, the SDC invests in North-South and West-East research programmes in the spirit of a partnership.