cultura muerte neandertales humanos modernos Nohemi Sala culture death neanderthals humans

Does the culture of death predate the Neanderthals and modern humans?

Does the culture of death predate the Neanderthals and modern humans?

The CENIEH researcher Nohemi Sala has been awarded 1.5 million euros by the European Research Council through an ERC-Starting Grant, to scour the fossil record for the roots and evolution of our ancestors' funerary behavior.

cultura muerte neandertales humanos modernos Nohemi Sala
Nohemi Sala, ERC-Starting Grant proyect IP.Credits: N. Sala

All societies existing today possess some kind of funerary culture, and this is one of the behaviors that takes us closest to how complex the human mind is. However, the emergence of this behavior is one of the most controversial topics in the field of human evolution. When did our ancestors start to acquire a culture of death? How was this behavior manifested over time and space? Did this practice appear independently in different species?

There are different ways to tackle these questions, and the more specific one of whether the culture ofdeath precedes Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. To date, analyses in Paleolithic archaeology have centered on the archaeological context: that is, whether skeletons are preserved completely, the existence of a grave cut or whether objects that could be interpreted as symbolic elements or grave goods are present. This vision restricts funerary behavior almost exclusively to burials, something that was exceptionally rare before the Late Pleistocene, which began 127,000 years ago.

Thus, there is a need to find new methodological approaches so that what has been preserved up to our own time is right at the center: human bones. The European fossil record is a fundamental source of information due to the abundance of fossil skeletons. This is where forensic taphonomy, a discipline that can help to shed light on fundamental issues in this field, comes in. Applying this would be something like carrying out “autopsies” of human fossils to try to learn how they died and, above all, what happened to the remains of the individual between death and modern excavation.

This line of research has crystallized in a project entitled DEATHREVOL. The roots and evolution of the culture-of-death. A taphonomic research of the European Paleolithic record, which has been selected to receive financing under the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program, and which will be conducted over the next five years at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH).

“This is the first large-scale project centering on an exhaustive taphonomic study of the European fossil record”, explains the CENIEH taphonomy specialist Sala, a member of the Atapuerca research team and a researcher under the Juan de la Cierva-Incorporación program, who has obtained 1.5 million euros in funding for this project submitted to the 2020 call.

Carrying this out will require the participation of a large team of academics and a network of methods which include taphonomic analyses, virtual reconstructions for forensic analyses, studying spatial distribution patterns, the overall relations between different sites and mathematical models to interconnect the broad spectrum of data compiled.

Highly competitive projects

The European Research Council (ERC) projects known as “Starting Grants” are aimed at early-career researchers with post-doctoral experience of between 2 and 7 years, who have an outstanding research record and submit an excellent scientific project on the frontiers of knowledge. These are considered the most prestigious awards in the sphere of European research and, therefore, are highly competitive.

In the 2020 call, 436 researchers from 25 countries in the European Union and associated countries were selected, and 23 of the projects will be conducted at Spanish research centers. Of these 23, four are in the field of humanities and only one is centered on Paleoanthropology.


Press release from CENIEH on the Starting Grant for the research about the culture of death preceding Neanderthals and modern humans.

Amud 9 neandertal

Amud 9 is shown to be a Neandertal woman weighing 60 kg who lived in the Late Pleistocene

Amud 9 is shown to be a Neandertal woman weighing 60 kg who lived in the Late Pleistocene

The CENIEH researcher Adrián Pablos co-leads a paper on the morphology of a foot found at Amud Cave in Israel, establishing that this fossil known as Amud 9 can be taxonomically attributed as Neandertal, and obtaining this individual's sex, weight and height.
Amud 9 neandertal
Fósiles de Amud 9. Credits: Osborjn M. Pearson y Adrián Pablos

Adrián Pablos, a scientist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), co-leads a paper published in PaleoAnthropology, the official journal of the PaleoAnthropology Society, looking at the morphology and anatomy of a partial foot recovered over 25 years ago at Amud Cave (Israel), which confirms that the individual Amud 9 was a Neandertal woman from the Late Pleistocene, with a stature of some 160-166 cm and weight of 60 kg.

Over the course of several excavations conducted in the twentieth century at Amud Cave, remains of at least 15 Neandertals were found. A systematic and detailed study of one of these individuals, Amud 9, has found that the fossil possesses the traits usually associated with Neanderthals in the different elements of the foot, tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges, which differ from those of modern humans, both fossil and recent.

“Most of these traits are related to the typical, exceptional robustness of the postcranial skeleton, that is, from the neck down, observed in the majority of Neandertals”, explains Pablos.

Sex, weight and height

Sex, weight and height estimates in fossil populations are normally based on the dimensions of the large leg bones. However, in the case of Amud 9, only a fragment of tibia, the talus or ankle bone, one metatarsal or instep bone, and several phalanges are conserved.

As no long leg bones have been found, the researchers applied different mathematical estimates based upon the foot bones, thus obtaining an approximation to important paleobiological parameters.

“Knowing parameters such as the body size and sex of this individual helps us learn a bit more about what the Neandertals were like”, he says.

The participants in this paper, entitled A partial Neandertal foot from the Late Middle Paleolithic of Amud Cave, Israel, are researchers from Spain (the CENIEH), the United States (University of New Mexico and Arizona State University), and Israel (Tel Aviv University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Full bibliographic information

Pearson, O.M., Pablos, A., Rak, Y., Hovers, E., 2020. A partial Neandertal foot from the Late Middle Paleolithic of Amud cave, Israel. PaleoAnthropology 2020, 98-125.
Press release from CENIEH

molars Sima de los Huesos

The molars from Sima de los Huesos site share dental tissue traits with Homo antecessor and Neanderthals

The molars from Sima de los Huesos site share dental tissue traits with Homo antecessor and Neanderthals

The Dental Anthropology Group from CENIEH publishes a paper in PLOS ONE in which microscopy and micro-computed tomography are used to study the dental tissues in molars from European Middle Pleistocene individuals found at this site in Atapuerca, and compares these with species from the fossil record and modern humans
Distribution of enamel thickness in a lower molar from Sima de los Huesos compared with H. antecessor, Tighenif specimen and modern human. Credits: Martín-Francés et al.

The Dental Anthropology Group of the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) has published a paper this week in the journal PLOS ONE which marks another step forward in characterizing the individuals from the Sima de los Huesos site (Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain) and their relationship with Neanderthals and Homo antecessor, and helps to clarify the evolutionary steps that led to the dentition characteristic of Late Pleistocene hominins.

In this paper, whose lead author is the researcher Laura Martín-Francés (CENIEH and PACEA-University of Bordeaux), the dental tissues in the molars of the European Middle Pleistocene individuals found at Sima de los Huesos are analyzed, and compared with species in the fossil record and modern humans.

To conduct this comparative study, micro-computed tomography (mCT) and high-resolution images were used to examine the internal structure of 72 upper and lower molars from this site at Atapuerca, and these were contrasted against another 500 molars belonging to species from the genus Homo, extinct and extant, from Africa, Asia and Europe.

In the entire fossil record analyzed, only the Neanderthals present a unique structural pattern in molar tissues (enamel thickness, percentage of tissues and their distribution in the crown) which, in addition, they do not share with any other species. “In comparison with that record and with modern humans, Neanderthals had thin enamel, with a higher proportion of dentine and a more disperse distribution pattern”, says Martín-Francés.

It has been possible to determine that the molars from the Sima de los Huesos individuals had thick enamel and that, therefore, they do not share this trait with Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the two groups do share the same tissue distribution pattern.

“The results suggest that even though the complex of typically Neanderthal traits appeared later, certain aspects of the Neanderthal molar structure were already present in the hominins from Sima de los Huesos. In earlier work, we had identified this same pattern in Homo antecessor, another of the species recovered at Atapuerca”, adds Martín-Francés.

The Sima de los Huesos population, related genetically to the Neanderthals, represents a unique opportunity to study the appearance of the “typical” structural pattern of Neanderthal molar tissue.

Distribution of enamel thickness in an upper molar from Sima de los Huesos compared with H. antecessor, Neanderthal and modern human. Credits: Martín-Francés et al.

Full bibliographic information

Martín-Francés, L., Martinón-Torres, M., Martínez de Pinillos, M., García-Campos, C., Zanolli, C., Bayle, P., Modesto-Mata, M., Arsuaga, J. L., & Bermúdez de Castro, J. M. (2020). Crown tissue proportions and enamel thickness distribution in the Middle Pleistocene hominin molars from Sima de los Huesos (SH) population (Atapuerca, Spain). PLoS ONE, 15(6), e0233281. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0233281.
Press release from CENIEH

The African affinities of the southwestern European Acheulean

A study highlights the African affinities of the southwestern European Acheulean

The CENIEH is the co-leader of a paper published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology which presents a synthesis of human occupation in the Iberian Peninsula Atlantic margin during the Early and Middle Paleolithic
African Acheulean
Porto Maior site (As Neves, Pontevedra). Credits: Eduardo Méndez

The Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) is the co-leader of a study published this week in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology which presents a synthesis of human occupation in the Iberian Peninsula Atlantic margin during the Early and Middle Paleolithic, and highlights the African affinities of Acheulean industry in southwestern Europe.

Over recent years, a team whose members include the CENIEH archaeologist Manuel Santonja, and Eduardo Méndez, leading author of the study trained at the CENIEH, has excavated and interpreted important archaeological sites on the banks of the Miño River, on both the Portuguese and Spanish shores, with singular Acheulean and Mousterian assemblages.

The chronology attributed to these sites, the second half of the Middle Pleistocene and the first part of the Late Pleistocene (between 50,000 and 400,000 years ago), and the characteristics of the knapped utensils recovered allow close parallels to be drawn with other regions of the Iberian Peninsula, and rule out any kind of time mismatch in these stages in the northwestern area, as had been proposed earlier.

Some of the sites excavated, and in particular the Acheulean one at Porto Maior (As Neves, Pontevedra), have produced unusual assemblages of large utensils, handaxes and cleavers, which make a decisive contribution to underlining the African affinities of that industry in the Iberian Peninsula and southwestern Europe, in contrast to Acheulean assemblages identified in the northernmost areas of the continent, where the distinctive technological features of the African Acheulean arrive less crisply defined.


Full bibliographic information

Méndez-Quintas, E., Santonja, M., Arnold, L. J., Cunha-Ribeiro, J. P., Xavier da Silva, P., Demuro, M., Duval, M., Gomes, A., Meireles, J., Monteiro-Rodrigues, S., & Pérez-González, A. (2020). The Acheulean technocomplex of the Iberian Atlantic margin as an example of technology continuity through the Middle Pleistocene. Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology (0). doi: 10.1007/s41982-020-00057-2.
Press release from CENIEH

Unexpected potential paths for the spread of Homo Sapiens across Asia in Late Pleistocene

Humans used northern migration routes to reach eastern Asia

New article suggests wetter climates may have allowed Homo sapiens to expand across the deserts of Central Asia by 50-30,000 years ago


Northern and Central Asia have been neglected in studies of early human migration, with deserts and mountains being considered uncompromising barriers. However, a new study by an international team argues that humans may have moved through these extreme settings in the past under wetter conditions. We must now reconsider where we look for the earliest traces of our species in northern Asia, as well as the zones of potential interaction with other hominins such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists are increasingly interested in discovering the environments facing the earliest members of our species, Homo sapiens, as it moved into new parts of Eurasia in the Late Pleistocene (125,000-12,000 years ago). Much attention has focused on a 'southern' route around the Indian Ocean, with Northern and Central Asia being somewhat neglected. However, in a paper published in PLOS ONE, scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Human Science in Jena, Germany, and colleagues at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, argue that climate change may have made this a particularly dynamic region of hominin dispersal, interaction, and adaptation, and a crucial corridor for movement.

'Heading North' Out of Africa and into Asia

"Archaeological discussions of the migration routes of Pleistocene Homo sapiens have often focused on a 'coastal' route from Africa to Australia, skirting around India and Southeast Asia," says Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, a co-author of the new study. "In the context of northern Asia, a route into Siberia has been preferred, avoiding deserts such as the Gobi." Yet over the past ten years, a variety of evidence has emerged that has suggested that areas considered inhospitable today might not have always been so in the past.

"Our previous work in Saudi Arabia, and work in the Thar Desert of India, has been key in highlighting that survey work in previously neglected regions can yield new insights into human routes and adaptations," says Petraglia. Indeed, if Homo sapiens could cross what is now the Arabian Deserts then what would have stopped it crossing other currently arid regions such as the Gobi Desert, the Junggar Basin, and the Taklamakan Desert at different points in the past? Similarly, the Altai Mountains, the Tien Shan and the Tibetan Plateau represent a potentially new high altitude window into human evolution, especially given the recent Denisovan findings from Denisova Cave in Russia and at the Baishiya Karst Cave in China.

Nevertheless, traditional research areas, a density of archaeological sites, and assumptions about the persistence of environmental 'extremes' in the past has led to a focus on Siberia, rather than the potential for interior routes of human movement across northern Asia.

A "Green Gobi"?

The sand dunes of Mongol Els jutting out of the steppe in Mongolia. Many of these desert barriers only appeared after the Last Glacial Maximum (~20,000 years ago). Credit: Nils Vanwezer

Indeed, palaeoclimatic research in Central Asia has increasingly accumulated evidence of past lake extents, past records of changing precipitation amounts, and changing glacial extents in mountain regions, which suggest that environments could have varied dramatically in this part of the world over the course of the Pleistocene. However, the dating of many of these environmental transitions has remained broad in scale, and these records have not yet been incorporated into archaeological discussions of human arrival in northern and Central Asia.

"We factored in climate records and geographical features into GIS models for glacials (periods during which the polar ice caps were at their greatest extent) and interstadials (periods during the retreat of these ice caps) to test whether the direction of past human movement would vary, based on the presence of these environmental barriers," says Nils Vanwezer, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and a joint lead-author of the study.

"We found that while during 'glacial' conditions humans would indeed likely have been forced to travel via a northern arc through southern Siberia, during wetter conditions a number of alternative pathways would have been possible, including across a 'green' Gobi Desert," he continues. Comparisons with the available palaeoenvironmental records confirm that local and regional conditions would have been very different in these parts of Asia in the past, making these 'route' models a definite possibility for human movement.

Where did you come from, where did you go?

Ancient lake landforms around Biger Nuur, Mongolia, which is evidence of larger lake sizes in the past. Credit: Nils Vanwezer

"We should emphasize that these routes are not 'real', definite pathways of Pleistocene human movement. However, they do suggest that we should look for human presence, migration, and interaction with other hominins in new parts of Asia that have been neglected as static voids of archaeology," says Dr. Patrick Roberts also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, co-author of the study. "Given what we are increasingly discovering about the flexibility of our species, it would be of no surprise if we were to find early Homo sapiens in the middle of modern deserts or mountainous glacial sheets."

"These models will stimulate new survey and fieldwork in previously forgotten regions of northern and Central Asia," says Professor Nicole Boivin, Director of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and co-author of the study. "Our next task is to undertake this work, which we will be doing in the next few years with an aim to test these new potential models of human arrival in these parts of Asia."


Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Instituts für Menschheitsgeschichte


Homo sapiens may have had several routes of dispersal across Asia in the Late Pleistocene

A new model identifies unexpected potential paths for the spread of human culture and technology

Eastern Asia Central Homo Sapiens migrations
Illustrated dispersal routes from the results of the Least Cost Path analysis: The three routes from the "wet" simulations and the single route from the "dry" simulation are presented together in conjunction with palaeoclimatic extents (glaciers and palaeolakes). Sites: 4. Obi-Rakhmat, 5. Shugnou, 8. Denisova, 9. Ust-Karakol, 10. Kara-Tenesh, 11. Kara-Bom, 12. Luotuoshi, 14. Gouxi, 15. Lenghu 1, 17. Chikhen Agui, 18. Tsagaan Agui, 19. Tolbor 4, 20. Kharganyn Gol 5, 21. Orkhon 1 & 7, 22. Makarovo 4, 23. Kandabaevo, 24. Varvarina Gora, 25. Tolbaga, 27. Shuidonggou 1, 28. Shuidonggou 9, 42. Yushuwan, 70. Shibazhan (75075). I. 'Altai' Route, II. 'Tian Shan' Route, III. 'Tarim' Route, IV. "Revised Overland' Route. Base map raster is from Credit: Li et al, 2019

Homo sapiens may have had a variety of routes to choose from while dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene Epoch, according to a study released May 29, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Feng Li of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and colleagues.

After leaving Africa, Homo sapiens dispersed across the Asian continent during the Late Pleistocene, but it isn't known exactly what routes our species followed. Most models assume that the Gobi Desert and Altai Mountain chains of North and Central Asia formed impassable barriers on the way to the east, so archaeological exploration has tended to neglect those regions in favor of seemingly more likely paths farther north and south.

In this study, Li and colleagues use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software alongside archaeological and paleoclimate data to reconstruct the conditions of North and Central Asia over the Late Pleistocene and to identify possible routes of travel. Their data suggest that the desert and mountain regions were likely impassable during cold and dry glacial periods, but that during warmer and wetter interglacial times it would have been possible for human populations to traverse these regions via at least three routes following ancient lake and river systems.

The authors caution that these data do not demonstrate definite routes of dispersal and that more detailed models should be constructed to test these results. However, these models do identify specific routes that may be good candidates for future archaeological exploration. Understanding the timing and tempo of Homo sapiens dispersal across Asia will be crucial for determining how culture and technology spread and developed, as well as how our species interacted with our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Roberts adds: "Our modelling of the available geographic and past climate data suggest that archaeologists and anthropologists should look for early human presence, migration, and interaction with other hominins in new parts of Asia that have been neglected as static voids. Given what we are increasingly discovering about the flexibility of our species, it would be of no surprise if we were to find early Homo sapiens in the middle of modern deserts or mountainous glacial sheets all across Asia. Indeed, it may be here that the key to our species' uniqueness lies".


Citation: Li F, Vanwezer N, Boivin N, Gao X, Ott F, Petraglia M, et al. (2019) Heading north: Late Pleistocene environments and human dispersals in central and eastern Asia. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216433.

Funding: This study was funded by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (DE) to Nicole Boivin, Strategic Priority Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences grant XDB26000000 to Feng Li, and Youth Innovation Promotion Association of the Chinese Academy of Sciences grant 2017102 to Feng Li. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Press release from the Public Library of Sciences

Middle Pleistocene asian Hualongdong Hualong cave

Middle Pleistocene human skull reveals variation and continuity in early Asian humans

Middle Pleistocene human skull reveals variation and continuity in early Asian humans

Middle Pleistocene asian Hualongdong
The Hualongdong Middle Pleistocene human skull and the collapsed cave site, with the fossil-bearing breccia in beige aournd the limestone blocks. Credit: WU Xiujie and Erik Trinkaus

A team of scientists led by LIU Wu and WU Xiujie from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported the first ever Middle Pleistocene human skull found in southeastern China, revealing the variation and continuity in early Asian humans. Their findings were published on April 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Excavations in Middle Pleistocene cave deposits in southeastern China yielded a largely complete skull that exhibits morphological similarities to other East Asian Middle and Late Pleistocene archaic human remains, but also foreshadows later modern human forms.

Fossil evidence for human evolution in East Asia during the Pleistocene is often fragmentary and scattered, which makes evaluating the pattern of archaic human evolution and modern human emergence in the region complicated.

Middle Pleistocene asian Hualongdong Hualong cave
The virtual reconstruction of the Hualongdong 6 human skull, with mirror-imaged portions in gray, plus two of the few stone tools from the site. Credit: WU Xiujie

WU Xiujie and his colleagues reported the recent discovery of most of a skull and associated remains dating to around 300,000 years ago in Hualong Cave (Hualongdong). The features of the Hualongdong fossils complement those of other East Asian remains in indicating a continuity of form through the Middle Pleistocene and into the Late Pleistocene.

In particular, the skull features a low and wide braincase with a projecting brow but a less prominent midface, as well as an incipient chin. The teeth are simple in form, contrasting with other archaic East Asian fossils, and its third molar is either reduced in size or absent.

According to the authors, the remains not only add to the expected variation of these Middle Pleistocene humans, recombining features present in other individuals from the same time period, but also foreshadow developments in modern humans, providing evidence for regional continuity.


Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Campo Laborde Pampas megafauna extinction giant ground sloth

Evidence for human involvement in extinction of megafauna in the late Pleistocene

Evidence for human involvement in extinction of megafauna in the late Pleistocene

Campo Laborde: A Late Pleistocene giant ground sloth kill and butchering site in the Pampas

Campo Laborde Pampas megafauna extinction giant ground sloth
Lithic tool associated with giant ground sloth bones. Credit: Gustavo Politis and Pablo Messineo

By re-dating giant ground sloth remains found in the Argentinian Pampas region using more advanced technology, scientists say they have provided evidence that humans hunted and butchered this animal near a swamp during the end of the Pleistocene. Based on their radiocarbon dates of this specimen, the authors say that their report challenges the popular hypothesis that megamammals from South America survived well into the Holocene in the Pampas, instead suggesting they took their last breaths in the Pleistocene. Loss of up to 90% of large animal species on ice-free continents occurred during the end of the Pleistocene, and many megafauna went extinct. To date, studies have suggested that humans and/or climate-driven events could be to blame for megafauna loss, but the causes and dynamics of megafauna extinction are hard to determine, and direct evidence of human predation on megafauna is scarce. The Argentinian archeological site Campo Laborde has produced many megafauna fossils, but accurate radiocarbon dating has been difficult on these bones because the fossils have very little collagen, making it hard to extract. Dating is also challenging because the collagen is heavily contaminated with sedimentary organic matter. To overcome this contamination, Gustavo G. Politis and colleagues thought to apply XAD purification chemistry, which can isolate the amino acids in a bone's collagen, resulting in a more accurate radiocarbon date, they say. Only one bone from a giant ground sloth found at Campo Laborde contained collagen. This specimen was first dated in 2007 as being around 9,730 years of age (pegging it to the Holocene, which began around 11,650 years ago). Using accelerator mass spectrometry to radiocarbon date the amino acids of the specimen, Politis determined that the giant ground sloth bone better dated to around 10,570 years of age, plus or minus 170 years. According to the authors, contaminated collagen was the reason for the previous "younger" (Holocene) dates. In addition to the previously discovered lithic artifacts that were found around the giant ground slot and dated to around 11,800 and 10,000 years before present, this study "solidly dates" the killing and exploitation of the giant ground sloth to the late Pleistocene and does not support extinct megamammals surviving into the Holocene at Campo Laborde, the authors say.