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CENIEH - Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana

Teixoneres Cave could have been one of the last Neanderthal refuges in the Iberian Peninsula

The CENIEH is part of a study published in the journal Radiocarbon, where new dates place this Catalan site in the discussion about Neanderthal extinction in Western Europe
Fri, 17/06/2016

Few topics have attracted as much research or generated as much controversy as the Neanderthals. Most discussions about this human lineage have focused on the problem of their disappearance and possible contact with modern humans during the transition from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Upper Palaeolithic, dated between approximately 38 and 35 thousand years ago in Western Europe.

The Teixoneres Cave archaeological site, located in the region of Moianès (Barcelona, Spain), may have witnessed the disappearance. This emerged from a study recently published in the journal Radiocarbon by an international team, including Ruth Blasco, researcher at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) and co-director of that site, together with Jordi Rosell and Florent Rivals from the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES).

According to this study, Teixoneres Cave has recorded a continued presence of alternating human groups with large carnivores from over 50,000 years ago until about 35,000 years ago, at which point the cavity was abandoned and not reoccupied until 7,000 years later with the next phase of human occupation (about 28,000 years) and now with Homo sapiens.

New dating method
The conclusions from this research have been based on the dates obtained by the new method of ultrafiltration (ABOX), which allows 14C samples to be refined more accurately than with previous systems.

After applying this technique, the researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany), Sahra Talamo, obtained a series of coherent AMS14C datings from the stratigraphic perspective via the processing of 16 bone samples (and one of carbon).

The analysed samples included bones showing anthropogenic alterations in the form of cut marks; therefore, they were related solely and exclusively to the human occupation. ‘These alterations are striations accidentally produced by lithic tools during the processing of a carcass and are therefore linked to human activity conducted in the cave’, said Ruth Blasco.

The dates obtained regarding these materials come from the last two sedimentary units of the cave (units II and III) and provide a final period of occupation between 35 and 40 thousand years ago, respectively.

The new datings have proven to be consistent with each other. They situate the oldest at the bottom of the stratigraphic sequence and the most recent at the top, indicating that the sediment was neither excessively disturbed by post-depositional processes nor by the action of carnivores themselves, which suggest continuous human activity in the cave until 35,000 years ago.

‘From there, it seems that an interruption of more than 7,000 years occurs and the cave is not re-inhabited until 28,000 years ago by Homo sapiens, as during the Upper Palaeolithic’, noted Jordi Rosell.

Who inhabited the cave during the formation of unit II?
One of the remaining unknowns is what hominid produced the lithic industry located in the IIa sub-unit 35,000 years ago because it lacks the conclusive techno-typological features to assign it to one species or another from the two candidates that inhabited the area during the time period in question.

However, this scarcity can also be taken as a significant feature to say that there were no large population groups in the Moianès region during these chronologies, and that the carnivores were the main occupants of the cave’, stated Ruth Blasco.

The fieldwork season for this year, which will be held from 4 to 25 August, will try to deepen, among other aspects, the debate on the disappearance of Neanderthals with the excavation of the IIa sub-unit in the inner area of the cavity. ‘The excavation of this sub-unit will allow us to recover more archaeo-faunal material; and perhaps then, the new data will allow us to unravel the mystery of what hominid inhabited Teixoneres 35,000 years ago’, concluded Ruth Blasco.

The excavation in the Cova de les Teixoneres has been underway since 2003 on the basis of systematic interventions, which are part of the research project ‘Sharing space: The interaction between hominids and carnivores in the Northeast of the Iberian Peninsula’, which is funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya (Num. Ref. 2014-100573).


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