Category Archives: Aurignacian

Grotte Chauvet’s Aurignacian dates strongly questioned

The famous rock art of the Cave of Lions (Grotte Chauvet, Ardèche) seems now not to be of such an early date as was claimed by Valladas et al. in 2001 but rather from the Gravettian and Solutrean periods, with more solid dates between 26,000 to 18,000 BP.
Jean Combier & Guy Jouve, New investigations into the cultural and stylistic identity of the Chauvet cave and its radiocarbon dating. L’Anthropologie 2014. Pay per view → LINK [doi:10.1016/j.anthro.2013.12.001]


The discovery of Chauvet cave, at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (Ardèche), in 1994, was an important event for our knowledge of palaeolithic parietal art as a whole. Its painted and engraved figures, thanks to their number (425 graphic units), and their excellent state of preservation, provide a documentary thesaurus comparable to that of the greatest sites known, and far beyond what had already been found in the group of Rhône valley caves (Ardèche and Gard). But its study – when one places it in its natural regional, cultural and thematic framework – makes it impossible to see it as an isolated entity of astonishing precocity. This needs to be reconsidered, and the affinities that our research has brought to light are clearly incompatible with the very early age which has been attributed to it. And if one extends this examination to the whole of the Franco-Cantabrian domain, the conclusion is inescapable: although Chauvet cave displays some unique characteristics (like every decorated cave), it belongs to an evolved phase of parietal art that is far removed from the motifs of its origins (known from art on blocks and on shelter walls dated by stratigraphy to the Aurignacian, in France and Cantabrian Spain). The majority of its works are therefore to be placed, quite normally, within the framework of the well-defined artistic creations of the Gravettian and Solutrean. Moreover, this phase of the Middle Upper Palaeolithic (26,000–18,000) coincides with a particularly intensive and diversified local human occupation, unknown in earlier periods and far less dense afterwards in the Magdalenian. A detailed critique of the treatment of the samples subjected to AMS radiocarbon dating makes it impossible to retain the very early age (36,000 cal BP) attributed by some authors to the painted and engraved figures of Chauvet cave.


Maps of lamp usage in Paleolithic SW Europe

Illustration by Arturo Asensio
Decorating Altamira Cave
As I have briefly mentioned before David Sánchez has a most interesting series of articles (in Spanish language) these days, at his blog Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día, dealing with the usage of oil lamps in SW Europe (France, Iberian Peninsula) in the Upper Paleolithic. If you are familiar with Spanish language (or willing to use an online translator), you can read them at the following links: PART 1, PART 2 and PART 3 (update: part 4 is now also online).
To be most synthetic I will essentially borrow the excellent maps which shall give us a glimpse of the spread and time frame of this illumination fashion in the region:

Lamps found in France with chronology and type of site (Beaune & White 1993)
Lamps found in Iberia (by David Sánchez)

It must be mentioned, following the original articles, that the lamps of Iberia have all been found inside caves (while in France the locations are more diverse) and also nearly all them belong to the Magdalenian period. The exceptions are Bolinkoba (8), which is from a Solutrean chronology, La Trinidad de Ardales (1), which has no context, and a possible ill-documented lamp from Lezetxiki (14), originally argued to be of either Aurignacian or Mousterian context. 
Even if you don’t understand Spanish, I would suggest to take a look at the original articles for the many illustrations of a varied array of lamps.

Cantabrian rock art competes for the title of earliest on Earth

Latest dating of calcite layers on top of rock art from several caves from Cantabria (Northern Iberia) suggest that they could host the oldest rock art on Earth and that this one is extremely old, almost from the earliest possible presence of Homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) in the area.


Paleolithic cave art is an exceptional archive of early human symbolic behavior, but because obtaining reliable dates has been difficult, its chronology is still poorly understood after more than a century of study. We present uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying or underlying art found in 11 caves, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo, and Tito Bustillo, Spain. The results demonstrate that the tradition of decorating caves extends back at least to the Early Aurignacian period, with minimum ages of 40.8 thousand years for a red disk, 37.3 thousand years for a hand stencil, and 35.6 thousand years for a claviform-like symbol. These minimum ages reveal either that cave art was a part of the cultural repertoire of the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or that perhaps Neandertals also engaged in painting caves. 

I have been checking a database (direct download) recommended by John Hawks and Millán Mozota and the dates I find are all Archaic Aurignacian and not anymore Mousterian for the relevant dates, at least for El Castillo cave:
  • Latest Mousterian: 45.5 Ka calBP (42.1 Ka BP, uncalibrated C14)
  • Earliest Aurignacian: 44.7 Ka calBP (41.1 Ka BP, uncalibrated C14) [but see comments on the nature of this “Aurignacian”]
They really leave the Neanderthal possiblity in the unlikely zone… unless you think that Archaic Aurignacian or even Aurignacian in general is the creation of Homo neanderthalensis. 
The also mentioned Altamira and Tito Bustillo caves do not seem to have any date before Solutrean or Magdalenian respectively, nor evidence of Mousterian presence either (I checked other sources as the database only reaches back o c. 50 Ka).

El Castillo rock art (several periods) – source

It is worth reminding however that rock art from Australia depicting the long-gone Genyornis giant duck is probably older than this European art and without any reasonable doubt was made by Homo sapiens.
However there is rock art from Nerja (Andalusia, Southern Iberia) that is dated to c. 43 Ka BP, being in fact older than the mural art from Cantabria. In this case the likelihood of it being Neanderthal-made is quite greater because there is no evidence for Aurignacian in the area until c. 29 Ka BP (raw C14) and no dates from Nerja (unspecific culture but probably Aurignacian from regional context) until c. 25.6 Ka BP (raw C14) or c. 29.6 Ka BP calibrated.
These contradictions between quite older rock art ages than occupations documented from digs should be of some concern but no idea how the contradiction may be solved.
The famous ochre bisons of Altamira are still from the Magdalenian period anyhow, even if much of the rock has been revised towards older dates in the area.

Update (Jun 15): Pileta includes now a video of the presentation of the study in Spanish language (scroll down).

Update (Jun 16): I strongly recommend any interested reader to take a look at the comments section. Prehistorian and Neanderfan Millán Mozota makes many most interesting comments on the chronology and arguable Transitional Aurignacian nature of layer 18 from El Castillo cave.

Update (Jun 19): Jean Clottes and others question the certainty of the dating method.


Aurignacian jaws are modern (Homo sapiens)

The adscription of the Aurignacian techno-culture in Europe to Homo sapiens (alias ‘anatomically modern humans’, or ‘AMH’ or ‘modern humans’ for short) was only indirectly supported, mostly by remains from Palestine (Ahmarian or Ahmiran culture, part of the wider ‘Aurignacoid’ complex of West Eurasia). 
Recently a jaw from England and some teeth from Italy were also alleged to support very early presence of our species in Europe. However the conclusions were controversial and the findings had, like Oase 1, no direct relation with Aurignacian or other Aurignacoid cultures (in fact the Italian teeth belonged to the Uluzzian, what is a very different debate).
Now however a couple of lower jaws from France seem to finally settle the matter regarding the authorship of Aurignacian:
There is a dearth of diagnostic human remains securely associated with the Early Aurignacian of western Europe, despite the presence of similarly aged early modern human remains from further east. One small and fragmentary sample of such remains consists of the two partial immature mandibles plus teeth from the Early Aurignacian of La Quina-Aval, Charente, France. The La Quina-Aval 4 mandible exhibits a prominent anterior symphyseal tuber symphyseos on a vertical symphysis and a narrow anterior dental arcade, both features of early modern humans. The dental remains from La Quina-Aval 1 to 4 (a dm1, 2 dm2, a P4 and a P4) are unexceptional in size and present occlusal configurations that combine early modern human features with a few retained ancestral ones. Securely dated to ∼33 ka 14C BP (∼38 ka cal BP), these remains serve to confirm the association of early modern humans with the Early Aurignacian in western Europe.

Found via Neanderfollia[cat].


Artistic styles of the rock art of the Cantabrian Strip

Doe of Arenaza
While it is always a pity that scientists allow modern artificial borders such as the one between French and Spanish states, to restrict their research, the information obtained can still be full of interest in spite of this undeniable handicap. This is the case of this delightful paper (only available in Spanish language) on the style and chronology of rock art in the Cantabrian Strip (Northern coast of the Iberian Peninsula):
Aitor Ruiz Redondo, Convenciones gráficas en el arte parietal del Paleolítico cantábrico: la perspectiva de las figuras zoomorfas [Graphic conventions in the rock art from Cantabrian Paleolithic: the perspective of the zoomorphic figures]. Trabajos de Prehistoria 2011. Freely accessible. 
The author reviews previous work on the stylistic differences of the rock art of the area concluding that there are three clearly distinct stylistic groups:

Fig. 4 Multivariant analysis

The three groups have not just stylistic differences but also some geographical and chronological variations:

My visual synthesis (on top of fig. 1: map of sites mentioned)

Animal type indicated only where more than 60% of all figures per tab. 1

In spite of the clear stylistic differences group 1 and 2 overlap in time, specially after considering the wide error margins of dates based mostly on accretion layers (I’m showing above only the most overlapping ones, for reference). They also overlap in the dominant motif, which is the doe (less importantly also horses in group 1, buck deer in group 2 and bison in both). These groups are considered to belong to the Gravettian or even Aurignacian periods.
On the contrary, group 3, which is the most stylistically advanced, post-dates the rest by at least the full span of the Last Glacial Maximum. According to Ruiz, there are at least six millennia between these groups and the Magdalenian rock art, which is the most famed one because of the full perspective and great realism achieved. Contradicting previous work, he suggests that there was no rock art in the region in the Solutrean and Early Magdalenian periods. 

Fig. 7 – comparison of three proposed timelines (right: Ruiz Redondo)

While the author thinks that the difference between groups 1 and 2 is chronological, I fail to see the evidence clear. Instead a geographical difference is rather obvious (see map above), with group 1 concentrated in Asturias and Western Cantabria and group 2 in Eastern Cantabria and Western Biscay.

Group 3, which is much better dated than the others, is clearly dominated by the bison, painted almost obsessively, as in the famed Altamira ceiling. Another important animal is the goat, usually painted in black, as well as the horse.

Santimamiñe rock art

There are more interesting articles (all in Spanish however) in the same magazine: Trabajos de Prehistoria (hat tip to Pileta).

Echoes from the Past (Nov 30) – The oldest rock art and other stuff

Again, in short notice, a lot of interesting stuff. Most notably the portrait of the largest bird ever but also a lot of new info on Neanderthal (and Erectus!) Europe, the Iruña-Veleia archaeological scandal, etc.
First of all the giant duck:
Australian Aboriginal Rock Art May Depict Giant Bird Extinct for 40,000 Years : Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted) – hat tip to David. The giant bird depicted at Niwarla Gabarnmung is not an emu but a Genyornis newtoni, the largest bird that ever existed. Its extinction date, c. 40,000 years ago, is the most recent possible date for the artwork therefore.

Middle Paleolithic

The origins of Neanderthals could be in Atapuerca

Pileta de Prehistoria: Atapuerca hominins could be a sister species to Neanderthals[es]. Actually much more is claimed in fact: that they are more related to Neanderthals than any other fossil known and that, for that reason and because of chronology, they are the best candidate to be the direct ancestors of Homo neanderthalensis.

A possible issue is that the site of Atapuerca has provided such a huge number of hominin bones that it is very difficult to compare with even the whole collection of all other European sites.
Serbian Homo erectus in the age of Neanderthals
They have found a Homo ergaster or H. erectus dated to before 110,000 (preliminary dating suggested 130-250,000 years). In this period it was believed that only Neanderthals lived in Europe already. Are these ‘erectus’ related to the equally mysterious occupation of Crete also before 130,000 years ago?

Update: the reference paper is this one (hat tip to Neanderthalerin):

Mirjana Roksandic et al., A human mandible (BH-1) from the Pleistocene deposits of Mala Balanica cave (Sićevo Gorge, Niš, Serbia). Journal of Human Evolution 2011. Pay per view.

Other MP:
BBC News – Moreton-in-Marsh Stone Age axe find leads to seaside theory – a Mousterian axe in England with a whole theory on the environment it was once used.
Upper Paleolithic

Beautifully preserved bulls of Qurta

Franchthi Cave revisited: the age of the Aurignacian in south-eastern Europe << Antiquity. The Aurignacian of Greece overlaps at both sides of the Campanian Ignimbrite Eruption c. 41,000 years ago.

Shell ornaments from Franchthi

Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age

Pileta de Prehistoria: “Guide to Galician Petroglyphs” presented[es] – the book (in Galician language) can be found here. It is notable that the authors emphasize the similitudes with petroglyphs from other areas, be them in the Iberian Plateau or in Ireland. Faro de Vigo[es] titles: 4000 years ago there was a single language that linked the British Islands and Galicia.

Iron Age

Iruña-Veleia scandal
New step in the legal and scholarly controversy on the exceptional findings at the Vasco-Roman site of Iruña-Veleia: state attorney demands physical tests to Basque Autonomous Police. Previously the defense had asked for them to be made by the Guardia Civil (Spanish military police corps, similar to the French gendarmerie or Italian carabinieri).
Various mentions in Spanish:
Also  in relation to the Iruña-Veleia scandal Iruina blog tells us[es] (with video reports) that some scientists have exhausted their patience with the local politicians and tribunals and the abuses that they are inflicting on this most important archaeological site (not just for the history of Basques but also for that of the late provincial Roman Empire, including the origins of Romance languages and new religions like Christianity and Isianism) and have decided to bring the matter to the international arena, so the finger of shame would point to those guilty of unforgivable archaeological destruction.  
Human genetics and biology
Maluku people are one genetically regardless of language:

1-China (Han), 2-Austronesian speakers (Maluku), 3-Papuan speakers (Maluku), 4-Highland New Guinea
Sandwalk: What William the Conqueror’s Companions Teach Us about Effective Population Size – An interesting meditation on key concepts of population genetics, using the well known historical incident of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 that almost turned the Brits into provincial French:

Let’s assume that there are 20 well-documented companions [of William the Conqueror]. Only one of these (William Mallet) has possibly passed on his Y chromosome to the present time and even that male line of descent is disputed. This is fully consistent with our understanding of genetics when you consider that most male lines are likely to die out in a few generations. Those that survive ten generations or so are unlikely to become extinct since there will likely be several male lines at that time.

So what were you saying about Genghis Khan?

Lots of news

Stories of interest are accumulating at my “to do” folder these days. While I may later on deal with some of them in detail, here there is a synthesis:

Prehistory & archaeology:

Unusual hanging decorative/utilitarian retouching stone (left) found at Irikaitz (Zestoa, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country). The item has been dated to c. 25,000 years ago, what may well make it Aurignacian (Gravettian is of very late arrival to the area).

Hanging objects of stone are rare and most belong to later periods (cf. Praileaitz of Magdalenian era).

··> Pileta de Prehistoria[es], video at EiTB[es].

Neanderfollia[cat] mentions that life expectancy seems to have increased dramatically in the Upper Paleolithic. ··> Daily Mail, also discussed at GNXP.

Bronze Age pottery at Hala Sultan Tekke (Larnaca, Cyprus),  indicates mayor contacts with Mycenaean Greece, including import of pottery. Also goddess figurine found, which may be local. ··> Cyprus Mail.

Claims of grave goods indicating when old men became powerful in Traisen Valley (Austria). The study compared burials of the 2200-1800 BCE period (Late Chalcolithic) with the 1900-1600 BCE one (Early Bronze Age). Both elderly women and men gained burial goods  in the later period but men elder were buried with copper axes (quite useless but surely a prestige item), which appears more valuable than the regular axes of young and adult men. ··> Live Science.


A new paper on autsomal variation of Basques in comparison with other populations (by Kristin L. Young, freely accessible at PubMed) is something I want to dedicate some more time when I have it. By the moment:

Fig.2 – Multidimensional Scaling plot of genetic distance (click to expand) – Basques: black dots

Neanderfollia[cat] also mentions a research on several full human genomes that estimates that Humankind may have shrank suddenly c. 100,000 years ago, at the same time that the various populations scattered through the world. They also claim that genetic exchange however continued (with Bushmen too) until c. 20 Ka ago. It raises my eyebrows so high that they have melted with my other hair but must mention anyhow. ··> Daily Mail.

Dienekes mentions a couple of somewhat interesting open access papers:

Bigger heads (and eye sockets) meant  to process dimmer light, not to increase intelligence, research claims. ··> SD.

Jaw bones shaped mostly by diet, not genes. Narrow jaws indicate soft cooked diet, broad ones a harder type of food. Researched on two isolated Native American populations but IMO lacks controls and it could be argued that the differential evolution is genetically programmed in each population regardless of diet. ··> SD.

IQ-specific genes too diluted to be found ··> Medical Press.

Math ability is inborn (but don’t count on the genes to be found anytime soon) ··> SD.

Endurance gene found. A gene exists that makes us non-Olympic or marathon-level quality meat. ··> SD.

Chimpanzees are spontaneously generous and don’t like demanding friends ··> SD.


Did Homo sapiens outnumber Neanderthals 9 to 1?

That is what a recent paper suggests:

I got a copy and lots of complementary information and interesting debate (in Spanish) at Mundo Neandertal.

Mellars and French deal specifically with the transition between Chatelperronian and Aurignacian cultures in the context of the Franco-Cantabrian region.  It is generally accepted that Chatelperronian was a Neanderthal culture and Aurignacian instead was mad by Homo sapiens, our species.
The study estimates population sizes based on an archaeological record that is assumed to be quite complete (something only available for Europe probably). 
All this brings us to an obligated earlier reference:
Which was previously discussed by me here.
To get us fully in situation, I must mention that Bocquet-Appel estimates the following population for Aurignacian Europe:

average: 4424 
(min.: 1738 – max.: 28,359)

And suggests the following geographical distribution:

Aurignacian population est. (Bocquet-Appel 2005)
Even though the demographic preeminence of the Franco-Cantabrian region in Upper Paleolithic Europe becomes more clear later,  with the Last Glacial Maximum, already in the Aurignacian period (c. 41-28 Ka ago) it was the most populated area of Europe without doubt, holding surely 1/3 of all Europeans (later it becomes at least 2/3). 
This makes all of the estimates by Mellars & French 2011 more than quite relevant: what happened in the Franco-Cantabrian Region affected to most Europeans back then, Neanderthal, Sapiens or whatever else.

Nine Sapiens for each Neanderthal (9:1)
Bocquet-Appel found only minor differences in population density between Aurignacian and Solutrean, i.e. for most of the Upper Paleolithic generally accepted to have been made by Homo sapiens, only noticing a clear (and quite brutal) increase in population with the Late Upper Paleolithic, notably in Magdalenian contexts.
Based on genetic estimates, I thought that there would be roughly the same number of Neanderthals as early Homo sapiens in Europe, that some 5000 people (1800-28,000) was the number that Europe could support in such technological conditions and that it did not matter if these were Neanderthals or Sapiens. 

Fig. 1. Site densities. Left: Chatelperronian, right: Aurignacian

But Mellars and French challenge this idea. They compared the densities of Chatelperronian and Aurignacian sites in a rectangle centered in Perigord (the Paleolithic metropolis of Europe) and found that Aurignacian sites are more common than Chatelperronian, after adjusting for time, some 2.5 times.

Fig. 2A
That means 2.5 more Sapiens settlements than Neanderthal ones. But more: they find that the density of use of the sites is also much greater for the Aurignacian ones, reaching a ratio of 9 to 1.
Fig. 4

Is this for real?

Assuming that the average figure proposed by Bocquet-Appel for the Aurignacian population of Europe (4424) would be correct, then there would be only 491 Neanderthals in all the continent. I do not think this is a credible figure. 
Let’s assume then that the correct figure of BA is the maximum (he may well have been too conservative in his estimates, I guess): 28,359 people. This implies 3151 Neanderthals. It is a more credible figure but still a bit too low. 
Remember that the Neanderthal Genome Project estimated 1500-3500 fertile Neanderthal women at any given time (in Europe only), what means at least three times actual people (i.e. 4500-10,500 min.) 
Of course there may be an error here and it is another different way of estimating populations, not directly comparable and much more uncertain than estimates based on factual archaeological data. Still, I have the strong impression that the archaeology-based estimates are too low, that the actual populations are being underestimated. 
Magdalenian harpoons

For example, if the lowest genetic estimates would be correct, then European Neanderthals would be c. 5000. Following Mellars & French, the earliest (Aurignacian) Sapiens population could be then 45,000 (almost double than the maximum figure estimated by Bocquet-Appel), what in turn would make the Late Upper Paleolithic (Magdalenian and Epigravettian) population of Europe (6.5 times that of Aurignacian) roughly of 292,500 people (200,000 or so in the Franco-Cantabrian region). 

It could well be double too. Half a million hunter-gatherers roaming Europe upon the arrival of the first farmers? Does this make any sense? I’m not sure but it’s not totally impossible, specially if we consider that sea resources (seals, fish, mollusks and crustaceans, whales maybe) had become very important by then.
Of course, fine tuning of the figures available may also be recommended. Anyone?

Update: comparing with the Aleuts

A very interesting observation is made by Joy in the comments section: the Aleut people, whose technology and way of life can well be compared with that of Late UP or Epipaleolithic  Europeans, numbered 25,000 people upon contact with modern Europeans (now they are only 15,000 however).

This is a quite sizable population for a relatively small and cold territory. I have calculated that the traditional Aleut territory has some 30,000 km², what is just 5.3% of the territory of modern France (552,000 km², excluding overseas dependencies) and just 0.3% of all Europe. Extrapolating only to “France”, we’d get some 500,000 people. Sure that “France” is not all coast, as the Aleut territory was but it’s neither so far North and cold (the Aleut lands’ climate and geography is more comparable to Norway in fact).

In any case, what I find with this comparison is that the figures mentioned above of 300,000 or more people in late UP Europe are perfectly plausible, even maybe a bit shy and low.