News Release

The prestigious Belgian Francqui Prize 2022 awarded to Veerle Rots for her pioneering research on Palaeolithic stone tools

This prize is awarded for her research at the TraceoLab of the University of Liege, which offers new perspectives on the human past

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Liege

Veerle Rots

image: Veerle Rots, Archeologist at the Univerisy of Liège view more 

Credit: ©University of Liège / M.Houet

The 2022 Francqui Prize (the Belgian highest scientific recognition) in Human Science is awarded to Veerle Rots, an archaeologist at the University of Liège (Berlgium), for her pioneering research on prehistoric stone tools and the evolution of human behaviour. Veerle Rots is the first woman of the University of Liège to be awarded this prestigious prize.

For more than 10 years, Veerle Rots, has been trying to decipher the behaviour and evolution of Neanderthals and early modern humans through the analysis of the traces left on the stone tools. This research opens the door to the understanding of the mysterious world of 250,000 years ago and shows that Neanderthals were much more innovative than previously thought. Moreover, they may not have differed so much from early modern humans. With TraceoLab, the laboratory she set up at the University of Liege, Veerle Rots has developed the largest reference collection in the world and she has also set up a robust analytical framework. This detailed analytical framework is internationally recognised and is used by many young scientists.

Microscopic analyses that provide a better understanding of human life in prehistory

The mounting of stone tools on an organic handle has been one of the elements that help to better understand the technological innovations and cognitive development of humans during the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic). However, it has proven difficult to study the appearance and evolution of hafting, as organic material only rarely preserves.

Professor Veerle Rots, researcher at the University of Liège, took up the challenge. During her PhD research at KU Leuven, she developed a methodology to permit the identification of hafting based on microscopic wear traces. In the prolongation of this successful work, Veerle Rots and her research team set up TraceoLab at the University of Liege, a fully equipped research laboratory. With this brand-new research centre, Prof. Rots focused specifically on refining her methodology, integrating it into a solid research framework and applying it to numerous archaeological sites in Europe and Africa. This has enabled the study of Neanderthal and early modern human sites and comparisons of their material culture and way of life.

"Through microscopic analysis of stone tools, we have studied the invisible traces of human life in prehistory. The wear traces on the stones allow us to identify which technology was used and what materials were processed, even if no organic material remains. For example, in my research, I focused on finding a way to determine without the organic material what hunting technique was used, which would permit us to identify when long-distance weaponry was used, such as the spear-thrower and the bow. The hunting technique used also provides insights into the social organisation of human groups in the Palaeolithic. Thanks to this type of microscopic analysis, we can not only discover information about prehistoric technologies and subsistence strategies but also about the function of a site, the organisation of activities and the complexity of human behaviour. It informs us that Neanderthals were more strategic than previously thought and that they were already capable of making complex tools. In fact, the concept of hafting is much older than we thought and dates back to at least 250,000 years ago. This discovery is revolutionary," explains Veerle Rots.

A fully equipped research centre with the largest reference collection in the world

Professor Veerle Rots has made considerable efforts to raise the necessary funds, including funding from the European Research Council (ERC Starting Grant), to set up a new, fully equipped laboratory. This result is TraceoLab, a highly efficient research centre where Veerle Rots and her team carry out all experiments and analyses that are crucial to making progress in their field of research.

The analytical framework that was gradually developed at TraceoLab under the direction of Veerle Rots is truly robust because it takes into account (1) all possible processes (production, resharpening, use, hafting, etc.) that lead to wear and residue formation, (2) technology, (3) specific knowledge regarding raw material properties, (4) trace formation processes (fracture mechanics, wear, etc.) and the influence of the depositional context (friction, adhesion, transformation, etc.), (5) experiments and (6) rigorous analytical practices.

TraceoLab has also developed a reference collection named TRAIL ("Traces In Liège"). This collection of no less than 6,000 pieces allows for a better understanding and analysis of archaeological wear traces and residues, but also of stone tools, technologies, site function and human behaviour in the past. Professor Rots has as such created the world's largest reference collection for functional research.

A passion she has nurtured since childhood

Veerle Rots has been reading books on prehistory from an early age, a fascination that has clearly paid off.

"I soon realised that I had to study archaeology. When I had the chance to go to Egypt for fieldwork during my Master's thesis on the study of use-wear traces, I was totally convinced! Before I knew it, I got a scholarship to do a PhD on this research topic. During my postdoctoral research, I was then able to put the theory into practice. The real icing on the cake was, of course, when I got a permanent position at the University of Liege and was able to set up a research centre. Together with my team, I work there on research directions that we have developed ourselves."

The fact that her research has been awarded the Francqui Prize obviously makes her very happy:

"It is a great honour to be awarded such a prestigious scientific prize and to be recognised for my work. It is by far the most important recognition you can get in Belgium as a researcher. To receive it as an archaeologist and prehistorian is a very special milestone in my career. There are also plans to further develop this research and to integrate other stone raw materials and even more archaeological sites."

According to Professor Pierre Van Moerbeke, Managing Director of the Francqui Foundation, himself a laureate in 1988, the international jury was very enthusiastic about the work of Veerle Rots:

"Professor Rots has performed admirable research into the world of  250,000 years ago by analysing stone tools and their function. This is what makes this Francqui Prize so special. Veerle Rots has opened up many avenues for other scientists to study human life in the Palaeolithic. In doing so, she has achieved something extraordinary that was previously thought impossible."

About the Francqui Prize

The Francqui Prize is sometimes called the "Belgian Nobel Prize". This can be explained by the rich history and international character of the prize. The Francqui Foundation was established in 1932 by the Belgian diplomat Emile Francqui and Herbert Hoover, then President of the United States. After the First World War, these two personalities had invested a lot of energy in various scientific organisations in order to stimulate research in Belgium. The Foundation's multidisciplinary board is currently chaired by Count Herman Van Rompuy, Honorary President of the European Council and Minister of State, and Professor Pierre Van Moerbeke, Managing Director and himself a former Francqui Prize winner.

Each year, the Francqui Foundation awards a prize of 250,000 euros to a scientist, alternately from the exact sciences, the human sciences and the biological and medical sciences. Several Francqui laureates have gone on to win international prizes in their careers, some even the Nobel Prize. The Belgian winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics, Ilya Prigogine, Christian de Duve and François Englert, received the Francqui Prize in 1955, 1960 and 1982 respectively.

See the list of the University of Liège winners of the Francqui

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