ACEMS Researcher Using Modern Statistics to Shed Light on Ancient History

ACEMS associate investigator Adam ‘Ben’ Rohrlach loves history. He gets to use statistics to contribute to research that shows how people thousands of years ago moved and settled in different places around the world. Some of the stories of these journeys are quite remarkable, but the story of Ben’s journey to where he is now is also pretty remarkable.

Just a few short years ago, Ben was a full-time chef at a restaurant in Adelaide. Fast forward a few years, and now he’s a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for The Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.


Dr Adam 'Ben' Rohrlach

“I've always had an interest in the distant past. I'd watch documentaries on anything from the origins of life, to the age of the dinosaurs, up to medieval human history,” says Ben.

Now, he’s surrounded by history.

“To live in Europe is quite strange for an Australian. From where I live, other countries, cultures, histories, cuisines and sights are only a short train ride away,” says Ben.

In 2009, Ben left the restaurant to return to Uni. He enrolled in a maths degree at The University of Adelaide, where he eventually got the opportunity to work with ACEMS Chief Investigator Nigel Bean and ACEMS Associate Investigator Jono Tuke.

“During a summer research scholarship project between the second and third years of my undergraduate maths degree, I kept telling Nigel and Jono dinosaur facts every day until they'd finally had enough. They took me over to meet the people over at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD). It was there that my Masters project began to get planned out,” says Ben.

In 2017, Ben was one of the lead authors of an ACAD-led paper published in Nature. This group research project used genetics, backed up by statistics, to link groups of Aboriginal Australians to their ‘country’ for the last 50,000 years. The project would go on to the win the 2017 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.

Ben’s work with ACAD introduced him to a gifted researcher named Dr Wolfgang Haak. Dr Haak left ACAD to become a Principal Investigator at the new Planck Institute for The Science of Human History.

“Wolfgang and I had enjoyed working together on a couple of projects at ACAD, so he encouraged me to apply for a post-doc position in his research group. I was lucky to get it, so I moved here in January 2019,” says Ben.

Ben is already making an impact. In the past month alone, three significant papers that have been published list Ben as a co-author. The papers appeared in:

In all three publications, the research teams brought Ben into their projects for his statistical expertise to help support or strengthen the research findings.

“I have my own projects that I'm working on, but I'm fortunate because I get to be involved in other people's projects ‘on the side’, and see some amazing data, stories and research,” says Ben.

“In some of these cases, researchers will have a specific research question that they feel a trained statistician can answer. In other cases, conversations can start during our weekly research meetings, where another researcher is describing their project, and I, or someone else, might notice a question that we can help with, or an analysis we could strengthen, and it just sort of leads from there.”

Ben says his time with ACEMS in Adelaide really helped him prepare for where he is now.

“The ACEMS model of inter-node activity showed me the strength of group research projects involving large numbers of people, something perhaps you don't see as much within a single university,” says Ben.

“More importantly, the Centre brought together some of the best researchers in our fields, sometimes in the same room. What an opportunity to be able to talk and learn from them.”

Now, he’s surrounded by more great people at The Max Planck Institute.

“One of the great things is the bringing together of geneticists, like me, with archaeologists, linguists and methods developers in the same institute. To have this melting pot of researchers in one place helps to develop an amazing research environment,” says Ben.

What a journey, so far, for Ben. We can’t wait to see where it takes him next!


  • Nature Communications: Ancient genomes reveal social and genetic structure of Late Neolithic Switzerland: Here we analyse 96 new samples coming from Late Neolithic (~5 kya and Early Bronze Age (~2.8 kya) from Switzerland, Southern Germany and the Alsace region (France), which was previously poorly sampled for this time/place. We show, like other regions of Europe, that Steppe ancestry arrives at ~4.5 kya and that this process takes quite some time (1000 years) to fully change the region. The length of time taken, indicates that the population involved highly genetically-structured sub-populations in this region, hinting at the existence of parallel societies living next to each other over a long period.
  • Science Advances: Ancient genome-wide DNA from France highlights the complexity of interactions between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers: Here we analysed 101 new samples from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic (~8 kya -> ~5 kya) from 12 sites across modern-day France and Germany. The aim was to attempt to track the "Neolithic Expansion" (the spread of farming) from the Middle East using genetics. Interestingly, we find evidence for two migration paths: one along a Mediterranean path, and another more northern "Continental route". We analyse data that, for the first time, covers the region in France where these two paths converge, and our data highlight the complexity of the biological interactions during the Neolithic expansion by revealing major regional variations. 
  • Cell: Genomic history of Neolithic to Bronze Age Anatolia, Northern Levant and Southern Caucasus: Here we analyse 110 new samples from the Near East – a transcontinental region comprising Western Asia, Turkey and Egypt – from the Late Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age. The Near East was interesting because it was a central hub of transit for the ancient world. Most sweeping changes for Europe from the east go through here, and this appears to be maintained from the Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age. However, later, it seems as if the Levant (a region that contains Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria: think the East Coast of the Mediterranean Sea and a bit inland) which had its own genetic signature is replaced, but only in the north, whereas the south remains the same.