Friday, April 26, 2019

Trails of Ancient Ashes Reveal Neanderthals' Wanderings and Settlements

The ashes left from Neanderthal fires is a trail followed by archaeologist to find out where they went, how far and how often and when they settled for a while.

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.

 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

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."

Funding: This research was supported by the ERC Consolidator Grant project PALEOCHAR - 648871 https://erc.europa.eu/funding/consolidator-grants. Archaeological research at El Salt is funded by Spanish I+D Project HAR2008-06117/HIST, HAR2015-68321-P (MINECO-FEDER/UE), and the Cultural Heritage Department of the Valencia Government and the Archaeological Museum Camil Visedo of Alcoy, under the direction of Professor Bertila Galván of Universidad de La Laguna. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Contacts and sources:
Lucia Leierer
PLOS

Citation:  Insights into the timing, intensity and natural setting of Neanderthal occupation from the geoarchaeological study of combustion structures: A micromorphological and biomarker investigation of El Salt, unit Xb, Alcoy, Spain.  Leierer L, Jambrina-Enríquez M, Herrera-Herrera AV, Connolly R, Hernández CM, Galván B, et al. (2019)PLoS ONE 14(4): e0214955. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214955




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