Wil Roebroeks wins Spinoza Prize
The Leiden archaeologist Wil Roebroeks has been awarded the Spinoza prize for his original observations about early hominins and the development of human society, NWO (Netherlands organisation for Scientific Research) announced on Monday 4 June.
'The Netherlands' most eminent archaeologist'
According to the NWO jury report, Roebroeks, who is a Leiden University Professor of Archaeology of the Palaeolithic Period, 'is the most prominent Dutch archaeologist at both national and international level.' He is 'a highly independent and unorthodox researcher.' As an example, NWO cites that he drew worldwide attention with a publication in Nature, together with Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield, about the cradle of humanity. According to the prevailing view, early hominins (Homo erectus) spread from Africa to Asia about two million years ago. Roebroeks and Dennell demonstrated that this hypothesis needs to be revised: there was far more two-way traffic between the two continents and it is actually not inconceivable that Homo erectus evolved in Asia and then colonised Africa.
This controversial publication is typical of Roebroeks' approach. He has an original way of thinking about the analysis and integration of evidence from different sources. In his analyses he is guided by his own interpretations and observations and not by prevailing views. Key to his approach is a critical analysis of the source material. NWO cites him as 'an innovative, original scientist who embraces the debate in his field.' In the past, for example, he has adopted controversial standpoints on the migrations of people in the Palaeolithic period ( the period up until about 10,000 years ago), about the first colonisation of Europe and about the behaviour of the Neanderthals, whom he believes were far more intelligent than is often assumed. At present, as part of an NWO project, he is investigating the communication and cognitive abilities of the Neanderthals.
Roebroeks investigates the archaeology of early hominins. He tries to answer questions about the origin of humans and the development of human societies from the perspective of different scientific disciplines. He bases his ideas on physical remnants, artefacts and traces of activity. The combination of his own extensive field work and unique analyses have gained him a pivotal position within archaeology.
Despite his passion for scientific debates, Roebroeks is referred to by NWO as a team player. 'He knows how to bring together people of different ages and backgrounds in research and joint publications. Thanks to these characteristics he has a magnetic attraction for young talent.' The Spinoza committee hopes that with his Spinoza Prize Roebroeks will not only make new controversial discoveries but in doing so will also enthuse new scientific talent for his discipline.
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Roebroeks (1955, Sint-Geertruid) graduated with distinction in social and economic history at the University of Nijmegen. After a postgraduate course in archaeology in Leiden, he obtained his doctorate here with distinction in 1989 for his NWO-sponsored study into the Palaeolithic period in the Netherlands. His popular scientific book 'Oermensen in Nederland' (Early Humans in the Netherlands) in which he describes this research, won the KIJK/Science Week Prize in 1991.
At the start of the 1990s, Roebroeks played a leading role in a major joint European project about the earliest occupation of Europe. In 1994 he received a pioneer subsidy from NWO for research into human life in the Ice Age. Two years later he became Professor at Leiden University, where from 2000 to 2005 he was also scientific director of the research school ARCHON. He has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) since 2001.
(4 juni 2007/WvA)