Protein Residues in the First Evidence of Complex Modern Human Cognition

ESR8 Zahra Haghighi

My passion to address archaeological questions using scientific approaches lead me to enter the art conservation science field of study after I obtained my bachelor’s degree in pure chemistry. For several years, I have been involved in studying organic materials, in particular binding media, which encouraged me to keep myself updated with latest articles in this area. Reading these articles convinced me that I wanted to become involved in research into proteomics. I have been fortunate that during my master’s project I got the chance to learn about the application of proteomics in art conservation and archaeology under Prof. Leila Birolo at the University of Napoli Federico II. My love for human evolution studies began a few years ago, during a field trip to Human Evolution Museum in Burgos and has grown ever since. My PhD project is literally a combination of all my interests; palaeoproteomics, archaeology, ancient humans and the evolution of human behaviour.

My PhD Project

The processes that have led human populations of the past to develop the cultural innovations that make us different from our phylogenetically closer relatives (e.g., making composite tools, creating symbolic items, developing numerical symbol systems etc.) are the subject of an intense debate. The emergence of cultural innovations implying the use of organic material (resins for hafting, poison for hunting, binders to produce paints, etc.) are highly relevant to these debates since the preparation of such compounds is often cognitively demanding and complex to transmit to new generations. We know that complex organic compounds were produced by both Middle Stone Age populations in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe and the Near East since at least 180 ka, but evidence for these innovations remains circumstantial.

In my project, I will apply palaeoproteomic methods to key archaeological artifacts and introduce new standards to further our understanding of the use of organic compounds in the African Middle Stone Age. To this end, my aim is to identify the protein binders used in liquefied ochre-rich mixtures from Blombos Cave, South Africa, dated to ~100 ka ago and considered among the first hallmarks of complexhuman cognition. Additionally, I will analyse the inner surface of ostrich eggshells from the key site of Klipdrift, South Africa, to identify possible protein residues deriving from foodstuff or beverages originally contained in the eggshells.

Planned secondments

Secondment period of 4 months, during PhD year 2, at University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) under Prof R. Ackermann’s supervision to take part in archaeological excavation campaigns at Blombos Cave and other contemporary caves in South Africa.



MSc, Archaeological material science (ARCHMAT), Joint Program (University of Evora, Portugal; Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Sapienza University of Rome, Italy)

Thesis Title: “Molecular characterization of animal glues for restoration”

2011- 2014

MA, Conservation and Restoration of Historical-Cultural Objects, Art University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran

Thesis Title: “Using chemometrics methods to eliminate interference factors in characterizing binding media in Safavid wall paintings”

2006- 2010

BSc, Pure Chemistry, Shahrood University of Technology, Shahrood, Iran


Zahra Haghighi, Amir-Hossein Karimy, Farshad Karami, Amir Bagheri Garmarudi & Mohammadreza Khanmohammadi (2019) Infrared spectroscopic and chemometric approach for identifying binding medium in Sukias mansion’s wall paintings, Natural Product Research, 33:7, 1052-1060, DOI: 10.1080/14786419.2015.1108974

Host Institution

Norway 🇳🇴