Geoffrey King gives Humboldt Lecture at the Carl Freidrich von Siemens Foundation, Munich

Geoffrey King delivered the Alexander von Humboldt lecture at the headquarters of the Carl Freidrich von Siemens Foundation in Munich on 7th June 2016. entitled Earthquakes, Landscapes and Human Evolution.

The photograph shows Geoffrey outside the entrance to the Carl Freidrich von Siemens Foundation building on the day.

The lecture is linked to a Research Prize awarded jointly by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation, intended to bring world-leading international scientists and scholars to work in Munich to develop research collaborations with German colleagues. The award, announced in 2015, is sponsored by Prof. Dr. Anke Friedrich, Chair and Professor of Geology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Ludwig Maximilians University, where Geoffrey is developing new research with Simon Kuebler and other colleagues on the tectonic geomorphology of the East African Rift and its human impact. .

In his lecture, delivered to a large audience covering a wide range of disciplines, Geoffrey began by explaining how his interests had migrated from a degree in Applied Physics and a doctorate designing laser measurement devices, to studies of earthquakes in the Earth Sciences, from there to an interest in Landscape Archaeology, and in the last few years to a concentration on Palaeoanthropology in Kenya and collaboration with the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich. He explained how he had been involved in the past two decades in studying seismic processes and understanding how landscapes subject to repeating earthquakes formed, giving rise to the new field of ‘tectonic geomorphology’ and to new understandings of earth deformation processes. He went on to show how these developments have provided new insights into the evolution of physical landscapes inhabited by our earliest ancestors and new methods for investigating the relationship between landscape change and human evolutionary change, drawing on examples of field research carried out by the DISPERSE project in the Levant and the East African Rift.

The results of this work show how tectonic activity and geological instability can create and renew complex topography with significant attractions for early humans: fault scarps and volcanic lava flows that trap sediments and water to form local areas of fertility and renew soil nutrients; rough topography offering tactical advantage in avoiding predators or accessing elusive prey mammals; and conditions that reinforce the selective advantages of a bipedal gait to facilitate scrambling over rough terrain. This hypothesis helps to explain why the African Rift favoured the emergence of the genus Homo with our distinctive body form and upright gait, and why the early expansion of hominin species out of Africa followed similar landscapes.

Some of the most important archaeological sites from this early period are associated with locally complex topography that offered ideal conditions for ambush hunting of large mammals during the course of their seasonal migrations. The results have also highlighted the significance of the relationship between tectonic geology and 'soil edaphics', the study of trace elements essential for animal and human growth and health. The analysis of modern soil samples in the Kenyan Rift shows the close association between tectonic activity, bedrock geology or sediments, and the mineral content of the overlying soils. This research is being carried out in collaboration with the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organisation and is not only helping to map areas that would have been attractive to prehistoric animals and their hunters in the distant past, but is also contributing new information about the reasons for deficiency diseases in modern animals and humans at the present day.