Bert Roberts

Professor Richard "Bert" Roberts, Director

BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD

Phone:   +61 2 4221 5319
Room:     B41.268 

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  • ARC Australian Professorial Fellow

Professional Profile
  • Qualifications: BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD
  • Awards: ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship (1996–2001); ARC Senior Research Fellowship (2001–2006); ARC Australian Professorial Fellowship (2008–2012)
  • Editor: Quaternary Geochronology
  • Editorial Board: Ancient TL; Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences; Earth Surface Processes and Landforms; Quaternary Science Reviews

Key Research Interests
  • Past and present human/environment interactions
  • Scientific dating methods for the earth, biological and archaeological sciences
  • Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of individual sand grains
  • Human evolution and dispersal in Africa, Asia and Australia
  • Quaternary megafaunal extinction, climate change and landscape evolution

Development and application of advanced luminescence dating methods

I have been at the forefront of pioneering research in geochronology for the past 2 decades, and lead the optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating laboratory in the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Accurate dating of key events in Earth’s history is fundamental to provide the historical framework for a wide variety of applications in the geological, biological and archaeological sciences. OSL dating has created new opportunities to investigate human interactions with their environments during the past million years, and single-grain OSL techniques can provide critical information on the stratigraphic integrity of archaeological sites. My research interests include improvements to single-grain OSL techniques and development of statistical models to more reliably date natural and archaeological deposits.

Representative publications
  • Jacobs, Z. & Roberts, R.G. 2007. Advances in optically stimulated luminescence dating of individual grains of quartz from archaeological deposits. Evolutionary Anthropology 16: 210–223.
  • Jacobs, Z., Wintle, A.G., Roberts, R.G. & Duller, G.A.T. 2008. Equivalent dose distributions from single grains of quartz at Sibudu, South Africa: context, causes and consequences for optical dating of archaeological deposits. Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 1808–1820.
  • Arnold, L.J. & Roberts, R.G. 2009. Stochastic modelling of multi-grain equivalent dose (De) distributions: implications for OSL dating of sediment mixtures. Quaternary Geochronology 4: 204–230.
  • Arnold, L.J., Roberts, R.G., Galbraith, R.F. & DeLong, S.B. 2009. A revised burial dose estimation procedure for optical dating of young and modern-age sediments. Quaternary Geochronology 4: 306–325.
  • Arnold, L.J. & Roberts, R.G. 2011. Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of perennially frozen deposits in north-central Siberia: OSL characteristics of quartz grains and methodological considerations regarding their suitability for dating. Boreas 40: 389–416.

Human evolution and dispersal from Africa to Australia

Luminescence dating has had a major impact on our understanding of human settlement and migration patterns, by providing a reliable timeline for important archaeological and palaeoanthropological discoveries. I led the dating of the cave deposits on the island of Flores, Indonesia, where the skeleton of a new species of human, Homo floresiensis—nicknamed “The Hobbit”—was discovered in 2003. I have also dated the earliest known human occupation sites in Australia and, over the past few years, have collaborated with Dr Zenobia Jacobs on OSL dating of archaeological sites throughout Africa. I am currently applying single-grain OSL techniques to sites in India and on the Arabian peninsula, to piece together the timing and routes of dispersal of humans out of Africa and across South Asia.

Representative publications
  • Bowler, J.M., Johnston, H., Olley, J.M., Prescott, J.R., Roberts, R.G., Shawcross, W. & Spooner, N.A. 2003. New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature 421: 837–840.
  • Morwood, M.J., Soejono, R.P., Roberts, R.G., Sutikna, T., Turney, C.S.M., Westaway, K.E., Rink, W.J., Zhao, J.-x., van den Bergh, G.D., Rokus, A.D., Hobbs, D.R., Moore, M.W., Bird, M.I. & Fifield, L.K. (2004). Archaeology and age of a new hominin from Flores in eastern Indonesia. Nature 431: 1087–1091.
  • Petraglia, M., Korisettar, R., Boivin, N., Clarkson, C., Ditchfield, P., Jones, S., Koshy, J., Lahr, M.M., Oppenheimer, C., Pyle, D., Roberts, R., Schwenninger, J.-L., Arnold, L. & White, K. (2007). Middle Paleolithic assemblages from the Indian subcontinent before and after the Toba super-eruption. Science 317: 114–116.
  • Jacobs, Z., Roberts, R.G., Galbraith, R.F., Deacon, H.J., Grün, R., Mackay, A., Mitchell, P., Vogelsang, R. & Wadley, L. (2008). Ages for the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa: implications for human behavior and dispersal. Science 322: 733–735.
  • Roberts, R.G., Westaway, K.E., Zhao, J.-x., Turney, C.S.M., Bird, M.I., Rink, W.J. & Fifield, L.K. (2009). Geochronology of cave deposits at Liang Bua and of adjacent river terraces in the Wae Racang valley, western Flores, Indonesia: a synthesis of age estimates for the type locality of Homo floresiensis. Journal of Human Evolution 57: 484–502. 

Pleistocene environmental change and megafaunal extinction

Over the past decade, I have contributed key data to debates on megafaunal extinction events in Australia, Asia and North America. OSL dating has provided the chronological foundation to reconstruct the history of evolution and extinction of many species of prehistoric large vertebrate on these 3 continents. The ultimate causes of these extinctions are complex, but hunting by humans appears to have been the decisive factor in Australia. In addition to OSL dating of deposits containing fossil bones and teeth, I have used single-grain techniques to date frozen sediments in Siberia and Alaska that contain traces of ancient DNA. This has provided new clues to the dynamics of extinction of iconic Ice Age megafauna, such as the woolly mammoth.

Representative publications
  • Turney, C.S.M., Flannery, T.F., Roberts, R.G., Reid, C., Fifield, L.K., Higham, T.F.G., Jacobs, Z., Kemp, N., Colhoun, E.A., Kalin, R.M. & Ogle, N. 2008. Late-surviving megafauna in Tasmania, Australia, implicate human involvement in their extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105: 12150–12153.
  • Haile, J., Froese, D.G., MacPhee, R.D.E., Roberts, R.G., Arnold, L.J., Reyes, A.V., Rasmussen, M., Nielsen, R., Brook, B.W., Robinson, S., Demuro, M., Gilbert, M.T.P., Munch, K., Austin, J.J., Cooper, A., Barnes, I., Möller, P. & Willerslev, E. 2009. Ancient DNA reveals late survival of mammoth and horse in interior Alaska. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 106: 22352–22357.
  • Roberts, R.G. & Brook, B.W. 2010. And then there were none? Science 327: 420–422.
  • Prideaux, G.J., Gully, G.A., Couzens, A.M.C., Ayliffe, L.K., Jankowski, N.R., Jacobs, Z., Roberts, R.G., Hellstrom, J.C., Gagan, M.K. & Hatcher, L.M. 2010. Timing and dynamics of Late Pleistocene mammal extinctions in southwestern Australia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 107: 22157–22162.
  • Arnold, L.J., Roberts, R.G., MacPhee, R.D.E., Haile, J.S., Brock, F., Möller, P., Froese, D.G., Tikhonov, A.N., Chivas, A.R., Gilbert, M.T.P. & Willerslev, E. 2011. Dirt, dates and DNA: OSL and radiocarbon chronologies of perennially frozen sediments in Siberia, and their implications for sedimentary ancient DNA studies. Boreas 40: 417–445.

Searchable Publication List: from 2000

Searchable Publications for Bert Roberts

Research Projects

My research spans many fields in the earth, biological and archaeological sciences, and consequently involves close collaboration with leading Australian and international researchers. The projects mentioned below are all interdisciplinary in nature, with luminescence techniques playing a key role in dating of fossils, artefacts and environmental changes.

Current major projects
  • Out of Africa and into Australia: robust chronologies for turning points in modern human evolution and dispersal” (ARC Discovery Project, 2006–2010)
  • Monsoons and migrations: Quaternary climates, landscapes and human prehistory of the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent” (ARC Discovery Project, 2008–2012)

Potential Honours and PhD topics
  • Arabia: Middle Palaeolithic colonisation and Late Pleistocene environments
  • India: human settlement of the subcontinent before and after the Toba eruption
  • Africa: Stone Age occupation and dispersals north and south of the Sahara
  • Australia: Middle and Late Pleistocene records of southern fauna and climates
  • OSL: methodological advances in single-grain dating of quartz and feldspar

More at the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences (SEES) website 

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Last reviewed: 7 June, 2017