The ROCEEH Out of Africa Database

Large scale databases are critical for helping scientists decipher long-term patterns in human evolution. This paper describes the conception and development of such a research database and illustrates how big data can be harnessed to formulate new ideas about the past. The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans (ROCEEH) is a transdisciplinary research center whose aim is to study the origins of culture and the multifaceted aspects of human expansions across Africa and Eurasia over the last three million years. To support its research, the ROCEEH team developed an online tool named the ROCEEH Out of Africa Database (ROAD) and implemented its web-based applications. ROAD integrates geographical data as well as archaeological, paleoanthropological, paleontological and paleobotanical content within a robust chronological framework. In fact, a unique feature of ROAD is its ability to dynamically link scientific data both spatially and temporally, thereby allowing its reuse in ways that were not originally conceived. The data stem from published sources spanning the last 150 years, including those generated by the research team. Descriptions of these data rely on the development of a standardized vocabulary and profit from online explanations of each table and attribute. By synthesizing legacy data, ROAD facilitates the reuse of heritage data in novel ways. Database queries yield structured information in a variety of interoperable formats. By visualizing data on maps, users can explore this vast dataset and develop their own theories. By downloading data, users can conduct further quantitative analyses, for example with Geographic Information Systems, modeling programs and artificial intelligence. In this paper, we demonstrate the innovative nature of ROAD and show how it helps scientists studying human evolution to access datasets from different fields, thereby connecting the social and natural sciences. Because it permits the reuse of “old” data in new ways, ROAD is now an indispensable tool for researchers of human evolution and paleogeography.

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