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Concept: Upper Paleolithic


The hypothesis that Neanderthals exploited birds for the use of their feathers or claws as personal ornaments in symbolic behaviour is revolutionary as it assigns unprecedented cognitive abilities to these hominins. This inference, however, is based on modest faunal samples and thus may not represent a regular or systematic behaviour. Here we address this issue by looking for evidence of such behaviour across a large temporal and geographical framework. Our analyses try to answer four main questions: 1) does a Neanderthal to raptor-corvid connection exist at a large scale, thus avoiding associations that might be regarded as local in space or time?; 2) did Middle (associated with Neanderthals) and Upper Palaeolithic (associated with modern humans) sites contain a greater range of these species than Late Pleistocene paleontological sites?; 3) is there a taphonomic association between Neanderthals and corvids-raptors at Middle Palaeolithic sites on Gibraltar, specifically Gorham’s, Vanguard and Ibex Caves? and; 4) was the extraction of wing feathers a local phenomenon exclusive to the Neanderthals at these sites or was it a geographically wider phenomenon?. We compiled a database of 1699 Pleistocene Palearctic sites based on fossil bird sites. We also compiled a taphonomical database from the Middle Palaeolithic assemblages of Gibraltar. We establish a clear, previously unknown and widespread, association between Neanderthals, raptors and corvids. We show that the association involved the direct intervention of Neanderthals on the bones of these birds, which we interpret as evidence of extraction of large flight feathers. The large number of bones, the variety of species processed and the different temporal periods when the behaviour is observed, indicate that this was a systematic, geographically and temporally broad, activity that the Neanderthals undertook. Our results, providing clear evidence that Neanderthal cognitive capacities were comparable to those of Modern Humans, constitute a major advance in the study of human evolution.

Concepts: Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic, Human evolution, Bird, Middle Paleolithic, Human, Pleistocene, Neanderthal


Cut-marked and broken human bones are a recurrent feature of Magdalenian (~17-12,000 years BP, uncalibrated dates) European sites. Human remains at Gough’s Cave (UK) have been modified as part of a Magdalenian mortuary ritual that combined the intensive processing of entire corpses to extract edible tissues and the modification of skulls to produce skull-cups. A human radius from Gough’s Cave shows evidence of cut marks, percussion damage and human tooth marks, indicative of cannibalism, as well as a set of unusual zig-zagging incisions on the lateral side of the diaphysis. These latter incisions cannot be unambiguously associated with filleting of muscles. We compared the macro- and micro-morphological characteristics of these marks to over 300 filleting marks on human and non-human remains and to approximately 120 engraved incisions observed on two artefacts from Gough’s Cave. The new macro- and micro-morphometric analyses of the marks, as well as further comparisons with French Middle Magdalenian engraved artefacts, suggest that these modifications are the result of intentional engraving. The engraved motif comfortably fits within a Magdalenian pattern of design; what is exceptional in this case, however, is the choice of raw material (human bone) and the cannibalistic context in which it was produced. The sequence of the manipulations suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, implying a complex ritualistic funerary behaviour that has never before been recognized for the Palaeolithic period.

Concepts: Thought, Pleistocene, Religion, Bone, Burial, Upper Paleolithic, Paleolithic, Neanderthal


The importance of the Grimaldi complex of caves and rock shelters is twofold: scientific and historical. Scientifically, it is one of the major Upper Paleolithic sites, considering the variety of mobiliary and parietal art, the number of single and multiple burials and associated grave goods, and the abundant lithic and fauna remains. Historically, the documentation of activity that took place in this site starting from the second half of the 19 th century and the studies carried out on the materials that have been recovered in the decades between 1870s-1910s, provide instructive examples of methods and goals of Paleolithic archeology and anthropology of the epoch. This paper combines the scientific and the historic interest of the site through a chronicle of the events that took place during the period of the most sensational discoveries, i.e. beginning with the identification in 1872 of the first Upper Paleolithic burial and ending with the results of the excavations carried out in 1901 at Grotte des Enfants published in four volumes a few years later. The paper discusses early interpretations and modern views on the different findings and documents changes in perspectives and goals of paleoanthropological research in over a century, raising some of the major issues of contemporary Upper Paleolithic studies.

Concepts: Stone Age, Social sciences, Science, Burial, Anthropology, History, Upper Paleolithic, Paleolithic


Landscapes and features of the everyday world were scarcely represented in Paleolithic art, especially those features associated with the human landscape (huts and campsites). On the contrary, other figurative motifs (especially animals) and signs, traditionally linked to the magic or religious conceptions of these hunter-gatherer societies, are the predominant themes of Upper Paleolithic art. This paper seeks to present an engraved schist slab recently found in the Molí del Salt site (North-eastern Iberia) and dated at the end of the Upper Paleolithic, ca. 13,800 years ago. This slab displays seven semicircular motifs that may be interpreted as the representation of dome-shaped huts. The analysis of individual motifs and the composition, as well as the ethnographic and archeological contextualization, suggests that this engraving is a naturalistic depiction of a hunter-gatherer campsite. Campsites can be considered the first human landscape, the first area of land whose visible features were entirely constructed by humans. Given the social meaning of campsites in hunter-gatherer life-styles, this engraving may be considered one of the first representations of the domestic and social space of a human group.

Concepts: Anthropology, Human, Meaning of life, Landscape, Behavioral modernity, Upper Paleolithic, Prehistory, Human evolution


Aranbaltza is an archaeological complex formed by at least three open-air sites. Between 2014 and 2015 a test excavation carried out in Aranbaltza III revealed the presence of a sand and clay sedimentary sequence formed in floodplain environments, within which six sedimentary units have been identified. This sequence was formed between 137-50 ka, and includes several archaeological horizons, attesting to the long-term presence of Neanderthal communities in this area. One of these horizons, corresponding with Unit 4, yielded two wooden tools. One of these tools is a beveled pointed tool that was shaped through a complex operational sequence involving branch shaping, bark peeling, twig removal, shaping, polishing, thermal exposition and chopping. A use-wear analysis of the tool shows it to have traces related with digging soil so it has been interpreted as representing a digging stick. This is the first time such a tool has been identified in a European Late Middle Palaeolithic context; it also represents one of the first well-preserved Middle Palaeolithic wooden tool found in southern Europe. This artefact represents one of the few examples available of wooden tool preservation for the European Palaeolithic, allowing us to further explore the role wooden technologies played in Neanderthal communities.

Concepts: Mousterian, Europe, Upper Paleolithic, Stick, Digging stick, Middle Paleolithic, Archaeology, Stone Age


We analyze a radius bone fragment of a raven (Corvus corax) from Zaskalnaya VI rock shelter, Crimea. The object bears seven notches and comes from an archaeological level attributed to a Micoquian industry dated to between 38 and 43 cal kyr BP. Our study aims to examine the degree of regularity and intentionality of this set of notches through their technological and morphometric analysis, complemented by comparative experimental work. Microscopic analysis of the notches indicate that they were produced by the to-and-fro movement of a lithic cutting edge and that two notches were added to fill in the gap left between previously cut notches, probably to increase the visual consistency of the pattern. Multivariate analysis of morphometric data recorded on the archaeological notches and sets of notches cut by nine modern experimenters on radii of domestic turkeys shows that the variations recorded on the Zaskalnaya set are comparable to experimental sets made with the aim of producing similar, parallel, equidistant notches. Identification of the Weber Fraction, the constant that accounts for error in human perception, for equidistant notches cut on bone rods and its application to the Zaskalnaya set of notches and thirty-six sets of notches incised on seventeen Upper Palaeolithic bone objects from seven sites indicate that the Zaskalnaya set falls within the range of variation of regularly spaced experimental and Upper Palaeolithic sets of notches. This suggests that even if the production of the notches may have had a utilitarian reason the notches were made with the goal of producing a visually consistent pattern. This object represents the first instance of a bird bone from a Neanderthal site bearing modifications that cannot be explained as the result of butchery activities and for which a symbolic argument can be built on direct rather than circumstantial evidence.

Concepts: Circumstantial evidence, Mind, Bird, Middle Paleolithic, Stone Age, Perception, Evidence, Upper Paleolithic


Radiocarbon dates for the ancient drawings in the Chauvet-Pont d'Arc Cave revealed ages much older than expected. These early ages and nature of this Paleolithic art make this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) site indisputably unique. A large, multidisciplinary dating program has recently mapped the anthropological evolution associated with the cave. More than 350 dates (by(14)C, U-Th, TL and(36)Cl) were obtained over the last 15 y. They include 259 radiocarbon dates, mainly related to the rock art and human activity in the cave. We present here more than 80 previously unpublished dates. All of the dates were integrated into a high-precision Bayesian model based on archaeological evidence to securely reconstruct the complete history of the Chauvet-Pont d'Arc Cave on an absolute timescale. It shows that there were two distinct periods of human activity in the cave, one from 37 to 33,500 y ago, and the other from 31 to 28,000 y ago. Cave bears also took refuge in the cave until 33,000 y ago.

Concepts: Upper Paleolithic, Petroglyph, United Nations, Prehistory, Pleistocene, Archaeology, UNESCO, Cave painting


Cueva de los Aviones (southeast Spain) is a site of the Neandertal-associated Middle Paleolithic of Europe. It has yielded ochred and perforated marine shells, red and yellow colorants, and shell containers that feature residues of complex pigmentatious mixtures. Similar finds from the Middle Stone Age of South Africa have been widely accepted as archaeological proxies for symbolic behavior. U-series dating of the flowstone capping the Cueva de los Aviones deposit shows that the symbolic finds made therein are 115,000 to 120,000 years old and predate the earliest known comparable evidence associated with modern humans by 20,000 to 40,000 years. Given our findings, it is possible that the roots of symbolic material culture may be found among the common ancestor of Neandertals and modern humans, more than half-a-million years ago.

Concepts: Upper Paleolithic, Stone Age, Neanderthal, Mousterian, Human evolution, Pleistocene, Middle Paleolithic, Prehistory


The appearance of anatomically modern humans in Europe and the nature of the transition from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic are matters of intense debate. Most researchers accept that before the arrival of anatomically modern humans, Neanderthals had adopted several ‘transitional’ technocomplexes. Two of these, the Uluzzian of southern Europe and the Châtelperronian of western Europe, are key to current interpretations regarding the timing of arrival of anatomically modern humans in the region and their potential interaction with Neanderthal populations. They are also central to current debates regarding the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals and the reasons behind their extinction. However, the actual fossil evidence associated with these assemblages is scant and fragmentary, and recent work has questioned the attribution of the Châtelperronian to Neanderthals on the basis of taphonomic mixing and lithic analysis. Here we reanalyse the deciduous molars from the Grotta del Cavallo (southern Italy), associated with the Uluzzian and originally classified as Neanderthal. Using two independent morphometric methods based on microtomographic data, we show that the Cavallo specimens can be attributed to anatomically modern humans. The secure context of the teeth provides crucial evidence that the makers of the Uluzzian technocomplex were therefore not Neanderthals. In addition, new chronometric data for the Uluzzian layers of Grotta del Cavallo obtained from associated shell beads and included within a Bayesian age model show that the teeth must date to ~45,000-43,000 calendar years before present. The Cavallo human remains are therefore the oldest known European anatomically modern humans, confirming a rapid dispersal of modern humans across the continent before the Aurignacian and the disappearance of Neanderthals.

Concepts: Middle Paleolithic, Gibraltar, Upper Paleolithic, Human evolution, Europe, Pleistocene, Neanderthal, Human


The transition from the Middle Paleolithic (MP) to Upper Paleolithic (UP) is marked by the replacement of late Neandertals by modern humans in Europe between 50,000 and 40,000 y ago. Châtelperronian (CP) artifact assemblages found in central France and northern Spain date to this time period. So far, it is the only such assemblage type that has yielded Neandertal remains directly associated with UP style artifacts. CP assemblages also include body ornaments, otherwise virtually unknown in the Neandertal world. However, it has been argued that instead of the CP being manufactured by Neandertals, site formation processes and layer admixture resulted in the chance association of Neanderthal remains, CP assemblages, and body ornaments. Here, we report a series of accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dates on ultrafiltered bone collagen extracted from 40 well-preserved bone fragments from the late Mousterian, CP, and Protoaurignacian layers at the Grotte du Renne site (at Arcy-sur-Cure, France). Our radiocarbon results are inconsistent with the admixture hypothesis. Further, we report a direct date on the Neandertal CP skeleton from Saint-Césaire (France). This date corroborates the assignment of CP assemblages to the latest Neandertals of western Europe. Importantly, our results establish that the production of body ornaments in the CP postdates the arrival of modern humans in neighboring regions of Europe. This new behavior could therefore have been the result of cultural diffusion from modern to Neandertal groups.

Concepts: Western Europe, Accelerator mass spectrometry, Spain, Middle Paleolithic, Mousterian, Upper Paleolithic, Pleistocene, Neanderthal