The economy of hunter gatherers in the Mediterranean coasts between the Pleistocene and Holocene included exploitation of marine environment

The economy of hunter gatherers in the Mediterranean coasts between the Pleistocene and Holocene included exploitation of marine environment

The study carried out by the Universitat Jaume I, the Municipal Archaeological Museum of Cartagena, the Provincial Council of Castellón and the University of Barcelona confirms that its use during the Mesolithic period was greater than previously thought.
Pleistocene Holocene marine
The map with the sites

New discoveries and material reviews by an inter-institutional research team have confirmed that the economic context at the end of the transition between the Pleistocene and the Holocene on the Mediterranean coast were richer, more complex and more varied than was previously thought. The exploitation of marine resources was not limited to the harvesting of molluscs, but also included fishing, although not many remains have been preserved, probably because the preservation of these types of materials is more delicate or because of the eating habits of ancient human populations.

Until a few years ago, little was known about the characteristics of the economy of hunter-gatherer groups in the Mediterranean during the transition from the Pleistocene (the glacial era, the Palaeolithic) to the Holocene (post-glacial, the time we live in today). Most of the studies carried out in the Iberian Peninsula suggested that the sites of marine exploitation were located particularly in the Cantabrian and Atlantic area, but the new data and studies provided by the research team can change this paradigm.

The research and analysis work, whose conclusions have been published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, has involved Dídac Román, doctoral researcher of excellence of the GenT Plan of the Valencian Regional Government in the Department of History, Geography and Art at the Universitat Jaume I and the Pre-EINA research group; Miguel Martínez Andreu from the Municipal Archaeological Museum of Cartagena; Gustau Aguilella from the Archaeological and Prehistoric Research Service of the Castellón Provincial Council and Josep Maria Fullola and Jordi Nadal from the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the University of Barcelona.

Data collected during the research confirm that the use of marine resources during the late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic on the Iberian Mediterranean coast was clearly more common than was previously thought with the data available at the time. The difference regarding the presence of less evidence than in the case of the Cantabrian and Atlantic coasts, where there are more hunter-gatherer-fisherman sites catalogued, could be due to different reasons: greater richness and diversity of life due to the cold marine currents, more abundant in nutrients; presence of tides and other environmental factors and better preservation of the sites over time thanks to a coastal platform and a steeper coastline that protected them from the progressive flooding of the environment with the melting of the poles during the Holocene.

Dídac Román, Miguel Martínez-Andreu, Gustau Aguilella, Josep Maria Fullola & Jordi Nadal (2020): “Shellfish collectors on the seashore: the exploitation of the marine environment between the end of the Paleolithic and the Mesolithic in the Mediterranean Iberia”, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology.

Press release from Asociación RUVID

 

The new findings and examinations of material carried out by a multi-institutional research proved the economic context at the end of the transition between the Plesitocene and the Holocene in the Mediterranean coasts to be richer, more complex and varied than what we thought. Exploitation of marine resources was not limited to a recollection of molluscs, but it also included fishing, although not many remains were preserved, probably because the preservation of such materials is more delicate or due to the eating habits of ancient human populations.

The conclusions of this research and analytical study have been published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. Among the participants in the study are Dídac Román, researcher at Plan Gent of the Valencian Government in the Department of History, Geography and Arts of the University Jaume I and the research group Pre-EINA; Miguel Martínez Andreu, from the Archaeological Museum of Cartagena; Gustay Aguilella, from the Service of Archaeological and Prehistoric Research of Diputación de Castellón, and Josep Maria Fullola and Jordi Nadal, from the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the University of Barcelona, in which the first signer of the study participates as well.

Until some years ago, we did not know much about the economic features of hunter-gatherer groups in the Mediterranean during the transition from the Pleistocene (ice age, Palaeolithic), to the Holocene (post-glaciation, current moment we live in). Most of the studies carried out in the Iberian Peninsula suggested that the areas of marine exploitation were specifically in the Cantabrian and Atlantic areas, but new data and studies conducted by the research team change this paradigm now.

The collected data during the research study states that the use of marine resources at the end of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic in the Iberian Mediterranean coasts was more common than what people thought with the existing data. The difference regarding the presence of less evidence in the Cantabrian and Atlantic coasts, where there are more areas of hunter-gatherer-fishers, could be due to several reasons: more richness and life diversity due to cold marine currents, more nutrients; presence of tides and other environmental factors, and a better preservation of the areas over time (thanks to a littoral platform and an abrupt coast that protected these from a progressive flood of the environment with the melting of the poles during the Holocene).

SERP studies and Catalan records

Although the results of the article resulted from an interdisciplinary study, in which members of different research centres collaborated to obtain data from all regions, SERP-UB has led two essential aspects in this study. On the one hand, the analysis of the bioarchaeological elements –mainly faunistic remains–, on which the conclusions are based in order to show the importance of the utility of the marine resources by the communities of hunter-gatherers in the study area. On the other hand, obtaining radiocarbon dating in different sites, some excavations from years ago and others which are currently active. These datings are the ones to enable researchers to date the exploitation marine events between 13,000 and 7,000 years ago approximately. Moreover, the SERP studies carried out the interpretation of data in the Catalan area, with the examination of material from old excavations that are now in different museums.

Among these are the collections in the Archaeology Museum Salvador Vilaseca in Reus, which features material from key sites for the current study, such as Camping Salou (Salou) or the cave Cova del Solà d’en Pep (Hospitalet de l’Infant), excavated by Salvador Vilaseca. Although they are not mentioned in the article, other synchronic archaeological excavations are now a target excavation for SERP in Catalonia. The objective is to go beyond the evaluation of the importance of the subsistence of marine origins in the coastal areas but also to value the type of resources among the last populations of hunter-gatherers in the area. Thus, shells used as ornaments have been found in Priorat (El Filador and Hort de la Boquera), Moianès (Balma del Gai), La Noguera (Cova del Parco) and even in Cerdanya (Montlleó).

Ten Mediterranean sites

Researchers analysed remains from ten archaeological sites, located over the 800 kilometers of the Mediterranean coast, from Tarragona to Málaga, specifically La Cativera, Camping Salou and Solà d’en Pep (Tarragona); L’Assut and La Cova (Castellón); El Collado (Valencia); Algarrobo, Caballo and La Higuera (Murcia)and Nerja (Málaga). Contrary to what people thought, places in the south show a larger diversity of resources (the most paradigmatic is in the cave in Nerja). This would happen due to the entrance of waters from the Atlantic Ocean, its proximity, and it can be proved because there is presence of species such as L. Obtusata and species from colder climates such as cod species M. Aeglefinus and O. Pollachius. The Mediterranean is poorer regarding its biology due to salinity, temperature, lack of nutrients and unpredictable tides.

In general, the exploitation of marine resources (mainly molluscs) is related to the exploitation of terrestrial invertebrates and the presence of mammal remains (deer, Iberian ibex, rabbits, among others). However, researchers confirmed there is a decrease in terrestrial invertebrates in favour of marine resources over time. This feature has been observed in those places that conserved remains over long periods of time such as the cave in Nerja, or studied areas that show an older chronology such as Càmping Salou, La Cova, Caballo, Algarrobo and La Higuera. Among the studied molluscs are sea urchins (Solà d’en Pep and Nerja), crustaceans (Caballo), and cephalopods (Nerja), and among fish, the red sea bream is the most found in places with seasonal marsh (El Collado, Caballo and La Higuera), varieties of cod in Nerja and marine birds and mammals (Monachus and Deplhinus).

Another important aspect of the study was to evaluate whether the location and exploitation could be linked to the proximity to the sea, but according to the obtained data, at the time of occupation, these places were not exactly coastal areas (La Cova and El Collado, for instance); their inhabitants had to move about thirty kilometres to get supplies.

The research team used data on the fluctuations of the sea level during its activity in the late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic to calculate the distance to the coast. To estimate the distance, they combined different digital models of the area with bathymetry, which enabled a simulation of different positions of the coast in ranks, and researchers could specify whether it was within the two-hour isochrone of the sites, a distance considered the common area where hunter-gatherers carried out their activities.

The extension of the continental platform and the shape of the coast has been important for this research. The south east area of the peninsula is a relatively sheer area with a continental platform that has deep cliffs, but these features have protected it from important orographic changes. The central area (Tarragona, Castellón and Valencia) is completely different. The sedimentation of the Ebro Riber conditions the existence of a smooth and low altitude in the coast with a big continental platform that has changed its orography due to marine regression and transgression.

Reference article:

Dídac Román, Miguel Martínez-Andreu, Gustau Aguilella, Josep Maria Fullola & Jordi Nadal (2020): “Shellfish collectors donde the seashore: The exploitation of the marino environment between the end of the Paleolithic and the Mesolithic in the Mediterranean Iberia”The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15564894.2020.1755395

 

Press release from the University of Barcelona.


El Provencio

First exhaustive study of the Paleolithic site of El Provencio

First exhaustive study of the Paleolithic site of El Provencio

The CENIEH researcher Davinia Moreno has co-led the publication of a paper on this Paleolithic site in the province of Cuenca, whose age, according to the ESR dating technique, is 830,000 years.
El Provencio
El Provencio site. Credits: Santiago David Domínguez-Solera, ARES arqueología

The researcher Davinia Moreno, a geochronologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), is the co-leader of a paper published in the journal Quaternary International about El Provencio, in which the first exhaustive study of this Paleolithic site in the province of Cuenca, situated in the La Mancha plain on the banks of the Záncara River, is conducted.

The geochronological analysis carried out at the CENIEH, applying the techniques of Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) has provided the first numerical datings in this region. The most recent and most ancient levels of the archaeological sequence were dated, yielding ages of 41,000 (OSL) and 830,000 years (ESR).

The rich archaeo-paleontological record of El Provencio exhibits stone tools worked in flint and quartzite catalogued as Modes 1, 2 and 3 (Oldowan, Acheulean and Mousterian), as well as bone remains from species characteristic of the Pleistocene such as horses, bisons and mammoths.

This study suggests that, over the last 800,000 years, groups of hunter-gatherers occupied this territory, undertaking a variety of activities recurrently and continuously, and it undercuts theories of a discontinuity in the center of the Iberian Peninsula and those contending that population was more intensive on the coast than in the interior.

Research and outreach project

The research work at El Provencio is part of a much larger project that got under way in 2013 and which, at the moment, covers dozens of locations throughout the province of Cuenca. This project, directed by Santiago David Domínguez-Solera, lead author of this study, through the company ARES (Arqueología y Patrimonio Cultural) is being conducted in close collaboration with the Junta de Comunidades de Castilla-La Mancha, the Diputación de Cuenca and the Ayuntamiento de El Provencio.

From the outset, this project has placed special importance on outreach for its scientific results: a classroom for schoolchildren and visitors has been set up, and documentary reportage, exhibitions and university courses (Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo) in the municipality of El Provencio itself have been produced.

"As of several years ago, we have been opening up a window onto the prehistoric past, aligning it with the three natural zones making up what is today the province of Cuenca; La Mancha, Sierra and Alcarria, each with its particular features. This window offers a glimpse of an area little studied or overlooked up to now, and therefore unknown to science”, declares Domínguez-Solera.

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

Neandertals underwater clam shells

Neandertals went underwater to collect clam shells and pumice for their tools

Neandertals went underwater for their tools

Neandertals collected clam shells and pumice from coastal waters to use as tools

Neandertals underwater clam shells
General morphology of retouched shell tools, Figs C-L are from the Pigorini Museum. Credit: Villa et al., 2020 CC-BY

Neandertals collected clam shells and volcanic rock from the beach and coastal waters of Italy during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study published January 15, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado and colleagues.

Neandertals are known to have used tools, but the extent to which they were able to exploit coastal resources has been questioned. In this study, Villa and colleagues explored artifacts from the Neandertal archaeological cave site of Grotta dei Moscerini in Italy, one of two Neandertal sites in the country with an abundance of hand-modified clam shells, dating back to around 100,000 years ago.

The authors examined 171 modified shells, most of which had be retouched to be used as scrapers. All of these shells belonged to the Mediterranean smooth clam species Callista chione. Based on the state of preservation of the shells, including shell damage and encrustation on the shells by marine organisms, the authors inferred that nearly a quarter of the shells had been collected underwater from the sea floor, as live animals, as opposed to being washed up on the beach. In the same cave sediments, the authors also found abundant pumice stones likely used as abrading tools, which apparently drifted via sea currents from erupting volcanoes in the Gulf of Naples (70km south) onto the Moscerini beach, where they were collected by Neandertals.

These findings join a growing list of evidence that Neandertals in Western Europe were in the practice of wading or diving into coastal waters to collect resources long before Homo sapiens brought these habits to the region. The authors also note that shell tools were abundant in sediment layers that had few stone tools, suggesting Neandertals might have turned to making shell tools during times where more typical stone materials were scarce (though it's also possible that clam shells were used because they have a thin and sharp cutting edge, which can be maintained through re-sharpening, unlike flint tools).

The authors add: "The cave opens on a beach. It has a large assemblage of 171 tools made on shells collected on the beach or gathered directly from the sea floor as live animals by skin diving Neandertals. Skin diving for shells or fresh water fishing in low waters was a common activity of Neandertals, according to data from other sites and from an anatomical study published by E. Trinkaus. Neandertals also collected pumices erupted from volcanoes in the gulf of Naples and transported by sea to the beach."

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Citation: Villa P, Soriano S, Pollarolo L, Smriglio C, Gaeta M, D'Orazio M, et al. (2020) Neandertals on the beach: Use of marine resources at Grotta dei Moscerini (Latium, Italy). PLoS ONE 15(1): e0226690. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226690

Funding: National Science Foundation Grant 1118143, BCS Archaeology, to PV (PI) and SS (co-PI). 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 Science

Beach-combing Neanderthals dove for shells

Did Neanderthals wear swimsuits? Probably not. But a new study suggests that some of these ancient humans might have spent a lot of time at the beach. They may even have dived into the cool waters of the Mediterranean Sea to gather clam shells.

The findings come from Grotta dei Moscerini, a picturesque cave that sits just 10 feet above a beach in what is today the Latium region of central Italy.

In 1949, archaeologists working at the site dug up some unusual artifacts: dozens of seashells that Neanderthals had picked up, then shaped into sharp tools roughly 90,000 years ago.

Now, a team led by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder has uncovered new secrets from those decades-old discoveries. In research published today (editor's note: January 15) in the journal PLOS ONE, she and her colleagues report that the Neanderthals didn't just collect shells that were lying out on the beach. They may have actually held their breath and went diving for the perfect shells to meet their needs.

Villa, an adjoint curator in the CU Museum of Natural History, said the results show that Neanderthals may have had a much closer connection to the sea than many scientists thought.

"The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known," Villa said. "But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it."

Cave discoveries

When archaeologists first found shell tools in Grotta dei Moscerini, it came as a surprise. While Neanderthals are well-known for crafting spear tips out of stone, few examples exist of them turning shells into tools.

But the find wasn't a fluke. The 1949 excavation of the cave unearthed 171 such tools, all valves from shell belonging to a local species of mollusk called the smooth clam (Callista chione). Villa explained that the ancient humans used stone hammers to chip away at these shells, forming cutting edges that would have stayed thin and sharp for a long time.

"No matter how many times you retouch a clam shell, its cutting edge will remain very thin and sharp," she said.

But did the Neanderthals, like many beachgoers today, simply collect these shells while taking a stroll along the sand?

To find out, Villa and her colleagues took a closer look at those tools. In the process, they found something they weren't expecting. Nearly three-quarters of the Moscerini shell tools had opaque and slightly abraded exteriors, as if they had been sanded down over time. That's what you'd expect to see, Villa said, on shells that had washed up on a sandy beach.

The rest of the shells had a shiny, smooth exterior.

Those shells, which also tended to be a little bit bigger, had to have been plucked directly from the seafloor as live animals.

"It's quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as 2 to 4 meters," Villa said. "Of course, they did not have scuba equipment."

Researchers also turned up a large number of pumice stones from the cave that Neanderthals had collected and may have used as abrading tools. The stones, Villa and her colleagues determined, washed onto the Moscerini beach from volcanic eruptions that occurred more than 40 miles to the south.

Going for a dip

She's not alone in painting a picture of beach-loving Neanderthals.

In an earlier study, for example, a team led by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus identified bony growths on the ears of a few Neanderthal skeletons. These features, called "swimmer's ear," can be found in people who practice aquatic sports today.

For Villa, the findings are yet more proof that Neanderthals were just as flexible and creative as their human relatives when it came to eking out a living--a strong contrast to their representation in popular culture as a crude cavemen who lived by hunting or scavenging mammoths.

"People are beginning to understand that Neanderthals didn't just hunt large mammals," Villa said. "They also did things like freshwater fishing and even skin diving."

Other coauthors on the new study included researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Geneva, Roma Tre University, Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Pisa.

Press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder

 

 

 

 

 


Neanderthals glue stone tools

Neanderthals used resin 'glue' to craft their stone tools

Neanderthals used resin 'glue' to craft their stone tools

Neanderthals glue stone tools
Artist's rendition of Earth approximately 60,000 years ago. Picture from nasa.gov

Archaeologists working in two Italian caves have discovered some of the earliest known examples of ancient humans using an adhesive on their stone tools--an important technological advance called "hafting."

The new study, which included CU Boulder's Paola Villa, shows that Neanderthals living in Europe from about 55 to 40 thousand years ago traveled away from their caves to collect resin from pine trees. They then used that sticky substance to glue stone tools to handles made out of wood or bone.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that these cousins of Homo sapiens were more clever than some have made them out to be.

"We continue to find evidence that the Neanderthals were not inferior primitives but were quite capable of doing things that have traditionally only been attributed to modern humans," said Villa, corresponding author of the new study and an adjoint curator at the CU Museum of Natural History.

Neanderthals glue stone tools
Flints bearing traces of pine resin. The letter "R" indicates the presence of visible resin, and the arrows point to spots where researchers sampled material for chemical analysis. (Credit: Degano et al. 2019, PLOS ONE)

That insight, she added, came from a chance discovery from Grotta del Fossellone and Grotta di Sant'Agostino, a pair of caves near the beaches of what is now Italy's west coast.

Those caves were home to Neanderthals who lived in Europe during the Middle Paleolithic period, thousands of years before Homo sapiens set foot on the continent. Archaeologists have uncovered more than 1,000 stone tools from the two sites, including pieces of flint that measured not much more than an inch or two from end to end.

In a recent study of the tools, Villa and her colleagues noticed a strange residue on just a handful of the flints--bits of what appeared to be organic material.

"Sometimes that material is just inorganic sediment, and sometimes it's the traces of the adhesive used to keep the tool in its socket" Villa said.

Warm fires

To find out, study lead author Ilaria Degano at the University of Pisa conducted a chemical analysis of 10 flints using a technique called gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. The tests showed that the stone tools had been coated with resin from local pine trees. In one case, that resin had also been mixed with beeswax.

Villa explained that the Italian Neanderthals didn't just resort to their bare hands to use stone tools. In at least some cases, they also attached those tools to handles to give them better purchase as they sharpened wooden spears or performed other tasks like butchering or scraping leather.

"You need stone tools to cut branches off of trees and make them into a point," Villa said.

The find isn't the oldest known example of hafting by Neanderthals in Europe--two flakes discovered in the Campitello Quarry in central Italy predate it. But it does suggest that this technique was more common than previously believed.

The existence of hafting also provides more evidence that Neanderthals, like their smaller human relatives, were able to build a fire whenever they wanted one, Villa said--something that scientists have long debated. She said that pine resin dries when exposed to air. As a result, Neanderthals needed to warm it over a small fired to make an effective glue.

"This is one of several proofs that strongly indicate that Neanderthals were capable of making fire whenever they needed it," Villa said.

In other words, enjoying the glow of a warm campfire isn't just for Homo sapiens.

Other coauthors on the study included researchers at Paris Nanterre University in France, University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, University of Wollongong in Australia, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, Istituto Italiano di Paleontologia Umana and the University of Pisa.

The research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant to Paola Villa and Sylvain Soriano.

 

Press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder.


'Ein Qashish Neanderthal

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

This site provides a rare opportunity to study long-term use of an open air settlement

'Ein Qashish Neanderthal
The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues. Credit: Ekshtain, 2019, CC-BY

The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues.

In the Levant region of the Middle East, the main source of information on Middle Paleolithic human occupation comes from cave sites. Compared to open air settlements, sheltered sites like caves were easily recognized and often visited, and therefore are more likely to record long periods of occupation. The open-air site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel, however, is unusual in having been inhabited over an extended prehistoric time period. This site provides a unique opportunity to explore an open-air locality across a large landscape and over a long period ranging between 71,000 and 54,000 years ago.

In a joint collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority Ekshtain and colleagues identified human skeletal remains in 'Ein Qashish as Neanderthal and observed more than 12,000 artifacts from four different depositional units in the same location on the landscape. These units represent different instances of occupation during changing environmental conditions.

From modification of artifacts and animal bones at the site, the authors infer that the occupants were knapping tools, provisioning resources, and consuming animals on-site.

Whereas many open-air settlements are thought to be short-lived and chosen for specialized tasks, 'Ein Qashish appears to be the site of repeated occupations each of which hosted a range of general activities, indicating a stable and consistent settlement system. The authors suggest that within a complex settlement system, open-air sites may have been more important for prehistoric humans than previously thought.

Ekshtain adds: "Ein Qashish is a 70-60 thousand years open-air site, with a series of stratified human occupations in a dynamic flood plain environment. The site stands out in the extensive excavated area and some unique finds for an open-air context, from which we deduce the diversity of human activities on the landscape. In contrast to other known open-air sites, the locality was not used for task-specific activities but rather served time and again as a habitation location. The stratigraphy, dates and finds from the site allow a reconstruction of a robust settlement system of the late Neanderthals in northern Israel slightly before their disappearance from the regional record, raising questions about the reasons for their disappearance and about their interactions with contemporaneous modern humans."

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flint tools

Early humans deliberately recycled flint to create tiny, sharp tools

Early humans deliberately recycled flint to create tiny, sharp tools

Exceptional conditions at Israel's Qesem Cave preserved 400,000-year-old 'tool kit,' Tel Aviv University researchers say

flint tools
Experimental activity of cutting tubers with a small recycled flake and a close-up of its prehension (inset). Credit: Flavia Venditti/AFTAU

A new Tel Aviv University study finds that prehistoric humans "recycled" discarded or broken flint tools 400,000 years ago to create small, sharp utensils with specific functions. These recycled tools were then used with great precision and accuracy to perform specific tasks involved in the processing of animal products and vegetal materials.

The site of Qesem Cave, located just outside Tel Aviv, was discovered during a road construction project in 2000. It has since offered up countless insights into life in the region hundreds of thousands of years ago.

In collaboration with Prof. Cristina Lemorini of Sapienza University of Rome, the research was led jointly by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Flavia Venditti in collaboration with Profs. Ran Barkai and Avi Gopher. All three are members of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. It was published on April 11 in the Journal of Human Evolution.

In recent years, archaeologists working in caves in Spain and North Africa and digs in Italy and Israel have unearthed evidence that prehistoric people recycled objects they used in daily life. Just as we recycle materials such as paper and plastic to manufacture new items today, early hominids collected discarded or broken tools made of flint to create new utensils for specific purposes hundreds of thousands of years ago.

"Recycling was a way of life for these people," Prof. Barkai says. "It has long been a part of human evolution and culture. Now, for the first time, we are discovering the specific uses of the recycled 'tool kit' at Qesem Cave."

Exceptional conditions in the cave allowed for the immaculate preservation of the materials, including micro residue on the surface of the flint tools.

"We used microscopic and chemical analyses to discover that these small and sharp recycled tools were specifically produced to process animal resources like meat, hide, fat and bones," Venditti explains. "We also found evidence of plant and tuber processing, which demonstrated that they were also part of the hominids' diet and subsistence strategies."

According to the study, signs of use were found on the outer edges of the tiny objects, indicating targeted cutting activities related to the consumption of food: butchery activities and tuber, hide and bone processing. The researchers used two different and independent spectroscopic chemical techniques: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX).

"The meticulous analysis we conducted allowed us to demonstrate that the small recycled flakes were used in tandem with other types of utensils. They therefore constituted a larger, more diversified tool kit in which each tool was designed for specific objectives," Venditti says.

She adds, "The research also demonstrates that the Qesem inhabitants practiced various activities in different parts of the cave: The fireplace and the area surrounding it were eventually a central area of activity devoted to the consumption of the hunted animal and collected vegetal resources, while the so-called 'shelf area' was used to process animal and vegetal materials to obtain different by-products."

"This research highlights two debated topics in the field of Paleolithic archaeology: the meaning of recycling and the functional role of small tools," Prof. Barkai observes. "The data from the unique, well-preserved and investigated Qesem Cave serve to enrich the discussion of these phenomena in the scientific community."

"Our data shows that lithic recycling at Qesem Cave was not occasional and not provoked by the scarcity of flint," Venditti concludes. "On the contrary, it was a conscious behavior which allowed early humans to quickly obtain tiny sharp tools to be used in tasks where precision and accuracy were essential."

The researchers are continuing to investigate prehistoric recycling by applying their analysis to other sites in Africa, Europe and Asia.

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ancient hearths fire Neanderthal settlements Paleolithic

Modern analysis of ancient hearths reveals Neanderthal settlement patterns

Modern analysis of ancient hearths reveals Neanderthal settlement patterns

Microscopic and molecular evidence at paleolithic hearth sites helps uncover Neanderthal mobility habits

ancient hearths fire Neanderthal settlements Paleolithic
Field photograph of Neanderthal combustion structure and microscope photograph of organic components in the black layer of the combustion structure. Credit: Leierer et al, 2019. CC-BY

Ancient fire remains provide evidence of Neanderthal group mobility and settlement patterns and indicate specific occupation episodes, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE on April 24, 2019 by Lucia Leierer and colleagues from Universidad de La Laguna, Spain.

Most paleolithic household activities are thought to have taken place around hearths or fires. The author of the present study chose to examine the Middle Paleolithic site El Salt in Spain, which contains eleven well-preserved and overlapping open-air hearth structures. It was previously unclear whether these hearths were formed during successive short-term site occupations or fewer, longer term occupations. The authors examined the micromorphology of the different layers within the hearth structures to assess occupation timings within the study unit and conducted both a lipid biomarker analysis and isotope analysis to gain information about potential food and fuel.

The results of the analyses show stratified hearths built on multiple different topsoils over different periods of time. The burned organic matter present at the El Salt hearths is rich in herbivore excrement and flowering plant residues. The presence of flint and bone shards, as well as conifer wood charcoal collected from trees not present at the site, provide evidence of limited activity at the site. The authors suggest these data indicate at least four successive short-term Neanderthal occupations separated by relatively long periods of time, potentially based around the seasons.

The authors suggest their molecular and micromorphological methods would work well at similar paleolithic sites where fires were built. Their findings provide evidence for successive short-term Neanderthal occupations at this site, and could inform our understanding of Neanderthal group mobility and settlement more generally.

Leierer adds: "Micromorphology combined with lipid biomarker analysis is a powerful approach to investigate anthropogenic combustion-related archaeological contexts from a microstratigraphic perspective which can contribute valuable information on the timing and intensity of Neanderthal occupations as well as the natural setting of the site. These are key factors of group mobility and settlement patterns."

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Paleolithic rock art Montsant valley Spain

Researchers find a piece of Palaeolithic art featuring birds and humans

Researchers find a piece of Palaeolithic art featuring birds and humans

An exceptional milestone in European Palaeolithic rock art

Paleolithic rock art Montsant valley Spain Hort de la Bequera
Image of the findings with a tracing of the engraved figures on the piece. Credit: UNIVERSITY OF BARCELONA

It is not very common to find representations of scenes instead of individual figures in Palaeolithic art, but it is even harder for these figures to be birds instead of mammals such as goats, deer or horses. So far, historians have only found three scenes of Palaeolithic art featuring humans and birds in Europe.

Now, an article published in the journal L'Anthropologie tells how University of Barcelona researchers found -in the site of Hort de la Bequera (Margalef de Montsant, Priorat)-, an artistic piece from 12,500 years ago in which humans and birds try to interact in a pictorial scene with exceptional traits: figures seem to star a narration on hunting and motherhood. Regarding the Catalan context in particular, this is an important finding regarding the few pieces of Palaeolithic art in Catalonia and it places this territory within the stream of artistic production of the upper Palaeolithic in the Mediterranean.

The piece they found is a 30-centimeter long limestone which shows two human figures and two birds, which the researchers identified as cranes. Since they found the piece in 2011, they underwent all cleaning, restoration and 3D copying procedures to study it in detail. Those figures were engraved in the stone board with a flint tool so that they created an organized composition compared to the other pieces of the same period.

"This is one of the few found scenes so far which suggest the birth of a narrative art in Europe, and this theme is unique, since it combines an image of hunting and a motherhood one: a birth with its young one", says the first signer of the article, ICREA researcher and lecturer at the UB Inés Domingo. "In the represented scene the birds catch the attention, they are copied or chased by two human figures", continues Domingo. "We do not know the meaning of the scene for prehistoric peoples, but what it says is that not only they were regarded as preys but also as a symbol for European Palaeolithic societies", she continues.

"We do not doubt this is an exceptional milestone in European Palaeolithic rock art due its singularity, its excellent conservation and the chances to study it within a general context of excavation", say the authors of the article; members of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP). Apart from Domingo, other signers are the UB lecturers of Prehistory Pilar García Argüelles, Jordi Nadal, directors of the excavation in Host de la Boquera, Professor Josep Maria Fullola, director of SERP, and José L. Lerma and the researcher Miriam Cabrelles, from Universitat Politècnica de València, who worked on the 3D reproduction of this piece.

Palaeolithic art in Montsant valley

The other sites in Europe researchers had found so far with human and bird figures are rock paintings in the site of Lascauz, a perforated baton in Abri Mege (Teyjat, Dordogne), and the Great Hunter plaque in the site of Gönnersdorf (Germany).

SERP researchers have been excavating in the valley of Montsant since 1979, an exceptional area regarding findings of this period of the late upper Palaeolithic. In particular, excavations have taken place in Host de la Boquera since 1998 and it provided a great amount of flint tools and structure such as rooms for a fireplace.

The director of the excavation, Pilar García Argüelles notes that "the findings of the engraved scene are exceptional, and proves the importance of the site and the area regarding Palaeolithic art in the peninsular north-east area; where we can find nearby the only Palaeolithic cave engraving in Catalonia, the deer in the cave of Taverna (Margalef de Montsant), and about 40 kilometres away there is Molí del Salt (Vimbodí), with an interesting series of stone blocks with engraved animals and a representation of huts".

The first to identify the engraving was the co-director of the excavation, Jordi Nadal, who remembers that moment with excitement: "Since the first moment I was aware of the importance of this finding, of its uniqueness; these things do not happen very often, this is seeing a figure that has been forgotten and buried for 12,500 years".

 

Press release from the Universitat de Barcelona