Category Archives: Magdalenian

Praileaitz cave to have even less protection

The new law of coasts passed by the conservative Spanish government and allowing construction only 20 meters from the coast (it used to be 100m), a scandal on its own right, will have direct effects on the already extremely fragile protection of the cave of Praileaitz, located within an active quarry and holding evidence of human existence from the Magdalenian period but also, we know now, from Neanderthal times some 100-120 Ka ago.
Years ago, the (then unelected) Western Basque Government limited the protection area to just 65m, considered by all experts wildly insufficient (Jean Clottes asked for 500m, for example), however a tribunal ruled later that 50m was enough. This new law allows for constructions and economic activities (such as the quarry) to take place just 20m away from the cave galleries, what may be very damaging.
There are possible mechanisms to counter this legislation but require of a political will that so far has been lacking or rather negative, hostile. 
The utmost fragility of the cave is very apparent in this air view highlighting the archaeological sites near the controversial quarry:

Source: Caminando por Iberia
Some ornamental findings and archaeological works at Praileaitz (Bertan)

Sources[es]: Gara, Caminado por Iberia, Bertan, Amigos de Praileaitz.

Update (May 11): a report (in Spanish language) on the Mousterian and new Magdalenian findings from Praileaitz can be read at Noticias de Gipuzkoa (via Pileta).

Screw stoppers of Upper Paleolithic Dordogne

While not really a novelty, I bet that most readers have never heard of this (I had no idea myself admittedly). David Sánchez discusses this week at his (Spanish language) blog Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día the existence of several most intriguing conic screw pieces found in Gravettian and Magdalenian sites from Dordogne (Aquitaine, French Republic), a district that (because of its great density of findings and cultural centrality for Middle and Late UP European prehistory) I have sometimes dubbed the Paleolithic Metropolis of Europe.

Drawing of two ivory stoppers from Combe-Capelle and Fourneau du Diable
(from Don’s Maps, ultimately from S. Lwoff 1968)

Stopper of bone
from Laugerie-Haute
What are these magnificent pieces of Paleolithic craftsmanship? Apparently they are nothing else that that waterskin stoppers. Don’s Maps suggest (scroll down) that the waterskin’s neck hole would be made with a long bone hollow piece (just get out the marrow and tie it tightly to the skin’s neck with a couple of thin ropes after performing two grooves on the external surface of the bone piece), then just apply the screw stopper forcing the bone (which is hard but somewhat flexible) to adapt to it. Naturally the inner groove would be created as you repeat the process once and again, surely having to push a little more each time (the bone tends to expand somewhat under the internal pressure).
Why are they conical and not cylindrical like modern ones? Surely because the same stopper (hard high quality work) was expected to serve many different waterskins, with different neck sizes. Also the very process of creation of the neck’s perfect fit requires of an initial process of expansion for which a cylindrical stopper was not fit.
It never ceases to amaze the ingenuity and creativity of our Paleolithic ancestors, right?

Atlantic thermohaline currents nearly stopped in some cold spells of the Ice Age

That is what researchers claim in a new study:
Stephan P. Ritz et al., Estimated strength of the Atlantic overturning circulation during the last deglaciation. Nature Geoscience 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1038/ngeo1723]


The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation affects the latitudinal distribution of heat, and is a key component of the climate system. Proxy reconstructions, based on sedimentary 231Pa/230Th ratios and the difference between surface- and deep-water radiocarbon ages, indicate that during the last glacial period, the overturning circulation was reduced during millennial-scale periods of cooling. However, much debate exists over the robustness of these proxies. Here we combine proxy reconstructions of sea surface and air temperatures and a global climate model to quantitatively estimate changes in the strength of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation during the last glacial period. We find that, relative to the Last Glacial Maximum, the overturning circulation was reduced by approximately 14 Sv during the cold Heinrich event 1. During the Younger Dryas cold event, the overturning circulation was reduced by approximately 12 Sv, relative to the preceding warm interval. These changes are consistent with qualitative estimates of the overturning circulation from sedimentary 231Pa/230Th ratios. In addition, we find that the strength of the overturning circulation during the Last Glacial Maximum and the Holocene epoch are indistinguishable within the uncertainty of the reconstruction.

Summary of thermohaline circulation (public domain, NASA)
In the North Atlantic the best known thermohaline current is the Gulf Stream, which effectively keeps Europe several degrees warmer than it would be otherwise, allowing a relatively dense population at latitudes unheard of elsewhere on Earth. This current was weak at best in the Ice Age. 
Notice that they say that they can find any difference between present day (Holocene epoch) and the Last Glacial Maximum, so it cannot be inferred, it seems, that the glaciation itself had anything to do with the thermohaline currents but only with  some particular cold spells of the late Upper Pleistocene, particularly the HE1 (c. 18-14.6 Ka ago) and the Younger Dryas (c. 10 Ka ago).

Posted by on February 11, 2013 in climate, Epipaleolithic, Ice Age, Magdalenian, sea


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.

Whale remains reinforce the notion of Magdalenian being linked to sea mammal predation

First it was the whale bone spear point of Isturitz (Basque Country), then the isotope evidence of sea mammal based diet of a Magdalenian individual from Kendric Cave (Wales) and now direct evidence of whale remains in the cave of Nerja (Andalusia). The evidence mounts up for a quasi-Inuit lifestyle of at least some people of the Magdalenian culture of late Upper Paleolithic Europe.
Esteban Álvarez Fernández et al., Occurrence of whale barnacles in Nerja Cave (Málaga, Southern Spain): indirect evidence of whale consumption by humans in the Upper Magdalenian. Quaternary International 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2013.01.014]


A total of 167 plates of two whale barnacle species (Tubicinella majorLamarck, 1802 and Cetopirus complanatus (Mörch, 1853)) have been found in the Upper Magdalenian layers of Nerja Cave, Mina Chamber (Maro, Málaga, southern Spain). This is the first occurrence of these species in a prehistoric site. Both species are specific to the southern right whale Eubalena australis, today endemic in the Southern Hemisphere. Because of Antarctic sea-ice expansion during the Last Glacial Period, these whales could have migrated to the Northern Hemisphere, and reached southern Spain. Whale barnacles indicate that maritime-oriented forager human groups found stranded whales on the coast and, because of the size and weight of the large bones, transported only certain pieces (skin, blubber and meat) to the caves where they were consumed.

The barnacles

According to the authors, this is the first case of consumption of whale meat and blubber ever documented in Europe. 

The hearth where the remains were found is dated to c. 14,000 years ago. 
Previous evidence from this prolific Andalusian cave have previously informed of consumption of seafood and fish, along with rabbits and the occasional goat, a tradition that dates to Neanderthal times in that region. 
A perplexing curiosity is that one of the whale kinds identified is the southern right whale, which was not known to have lived so far north at all (its main habitat is the Antarctic seas with some extension towards Brazil and the Mozambique Strait). I wonder if it is a case of misidentification and the species is either the North Atlantic right whale or an extinct relative of both.
Sources: Materia[es], Pileta[es].

PS- And what was the blubber used for (besides eating)? Our friend David Sánchez coincidentally just published two successive and quite interesting articles (in Spanish) at his blog on the lamps of the Upper Paleolithic: 1st part, 2nd part.

A particularly beautiful lamp from Lascaux (Dordogne)

Update (Jan 29): another finding of whale consumption in Magdalenian contexts unknown to me until now (h/t David) is from Las Caldas (Asturias). One of the two co-researchers is the same as the lead author of the Nerja paper → direct PDF link.

Update (Feb 22): David again added more interesting information on the matter of possible whaling in the Magdalenian period by pointing us to Colchón Rodríguez & Álvarez Fernández 2008, where they discuss (in Spanish) the presence of sea mammal remains in the cave of Las Caldas (Asturias): a seal tooth (pierced as to be part of a necklace or similar decoration), a pilot whale tooth (only initially worked), a sperm whale tooth (fully sculpted into low reliefs of whale and bison) and also several whale and other sea mammal bones used for tool-making (they made spear points on whale bone, as was documented years ago for Isturitz in the same period) and some mollusks, notably the shell of a whale barnacle (Coronula diadema).

Las Caldas (locator map) is some 20 Km. inland nowadays, in the Magdalenian period maybe 30 Km. or so. The whale barnacle suggests that whale meat was moved all that distance from the coast.


Research continues in Santimamiñe Cave (Basque Country) and produces some new information

Littorina littorea
(winkle, magurio, faocha)
Santimamiñe Cave, near Gernika, has one of the most complete archaeological records of all Europe, from Chatelperronian to Iron Age with the only exception of Aurignacian, including some Magdalenian rock art, although not as spectacular as in other sites.
Research continues however and these days a new hearth, at the innermost human habitation area of the cave, dated to c. 12,000 years ago (end of the Upper Paleolithic) has been discovered with tools and food remains that should help us to better understand the way of life of our ancestors.
They ate stuff like deer, goats, bisons, aurochsen, game, salmon, sea snails (winkles) and sea urchins.
The hearth belongs to the Late Magdalenian culture and, for what chief archaeologist Juan Carlos López Quintana says, they are probably contemporary with the artwork located deeper in the cave, in a small hidden room.

Part of the Santimamiñe rock art

The research continues at good pace financed by the Chartered Government of Biscay, having made the work of some 20 campaings in just eight years. They expect to reach the Early Magdalenian layers by 2020 or so. It’s a methodical work. 
Follows video in Spanish:

Sources[es]: ETB, Pileta.


For those only reading the RSS: Magdalenian mtDNA H in Cantabria confirmed by RFLP testing

Just a short heads up mostly for RSS-only readers to an important update/edit of one of today’s entries:
… on Hervella et al., 2012 (oa).
The key element of novelty is that the authors themselves have confirmed to me by email that they did test for RFLP markers, specifically Alu I in the case of mtDNA H. 
Therefore, against all rumors and confusion, we finally have unmistakable confirmation of the presence of mtDNA H (and H6) in Magdalenian Europe, specifically in Cantabria. It is not any Neolithic arrival to Europe and the studies (not peer-reviewed) of Chandler 2005 and Kéfif 2005, both reporting high mtDNA H in pre-Neolithic Portugal and Morocco can now be seen with a bit more credibility, with less systematic doubts.
For more details read the edited section in the relevant entry.  
Thanks again to the authors for the quick clarification.

Ancient mitochondrial DNA from the Basque Country and Cantabria: unmistakable mtDNA H in Magdalenian Cantabria

This seems a very important paper because, if everything is correct, it is the first peer-reviewed publication to establish conclusively that mitochondrial haplogroup H, the most common matrilineage of Europe today, existed in Paleolithic populations in Europe, specifically in Cantabria, Spain.
There have been previous reports of such important presence of mtDNA H in the area, notably Chandler 2005 (on Epipaleolithic and Neolithic Portuguese) and Kéfi 2005 (on Upper Paleolithic Moroccans). However both studies were informal for some reason, what has been used by some to grasp for straws in their claim of this lineage having arrived to Europe (and North Africa) only after Neolithic and oversimplify the Paleolithic genetic pool of Europe to almost only variants of haplogroup U (never mind that U is such a large, ancient and widespread haplogroup that saying “U” is almost like saying nothing).

Edited section: the authors did test for RFLPs, the haplogroup assignation is as good as it can be.

After the first read to the paper my impression was that they had only tested the HVS (both subsectors I and II), leaving some, even if smaller, doubt about the adscription of the Cantabrian Magdalenian lineages to mtDNA H.

But, luckily for truth, Jean Lohizun (see comments) found that the authors, who are partly the same team as Izagirre & De la Rúa 1999 and are using the same methodology up to a point, have actually tested not for coding region SNPs but for a standard list of RFLP markers. However the mention is so cryptic that it is most difficult to find: 

In order to classify the mitochondrial variability of the individuals
analyzed in this study, we proceeded to amplify 11 markers, which are
required for defining the 10 Caucasian haplogroups described [63]. The protocol and primers are described in [17], [20], [42]. The digestion patterns were verified using a fragment Bioanalyzer (Agilent Technologies).

This seemed to imply that when the authors say “H” they mean -7025a (aka -Alu I) but this marker as such are listed nowhere that we can see easily.

So I squeezed my mind until I concluded that Jean must be correct but a very slight doubt remained, so I emailed the authors, who quickly responded confirming Jean’s keen reading.

Excerpts and translations:

Concepción De la Rúa (corresponding author) said:

Para conocer con más seguridad el haplogrupo, se hicieron además 
RFPLs, que es una tecnica que permite evaluar la existencia de
mutaciones puntuales en la region codificante del mtDNA.

Translation: In order to know with greater certainty the haplogroup,
RFLPs were performed, which are a technique that allows for evaluation
of punctual mutations in the coding region of mtDNA.

She added in relation to a previous study of her authorship:

Ambos analisis se realizaron en el paper recien publicado, pero no en
el paper de Izagirre & de la Rúa de 1999, en donde solo se hicieron

Translation: Both analysis [RFLPs and HVS] were made in the recently published
paper but not in that of Izagirre & de la Rúa from 1999, where only
RFLPs were tested for.

Montserrat Hervella (lead author) said:

También, hemos realizado PCR-RFLPs con el fin de determinar los SNPs de la región codificante y así reconfirmar el haplogrupo al que pertenecen cada uno de los haplotipos que hemos obtenido mediante secuenciación. Los enzimas que hemos utilizado aparecen en varias citas bibliográficas en el articulo (17, 20, 42, 63).

La cuestión que nos plantea en torno a la determinación del haplogrupo H, la respuesta es que si hemos usado la enzima Alu I para determinar el SNP en la posición  7025 de la region codificante del ADNmt.

Translation: We have also performed PCR-RLFPs with the purpose of determining the SNPs from the coding region and therefore confirm the haplogroup to which each of the haplotypes obtained by sequenciation belong. The enzimes we used appear in several bibliographic citations in the article (17, 20, 42, 63).

About the question that you ask on the matter of the determination of haplogroup H, the answer is that we have indeed used the enzyme Alu I to determine the SNP in position 7025 of the coding region of mtDNA.

This should dispel any doubt: there was mtDNA H (and H6) in Magdalenian Cantabria.

(End of the edited section)

In any case these are the results as reported by the researchers (and synthesized by me in a single image):
Notice that the dots are not really precise in their geographic locator role (I may try creating a better map later).

Instead of using numerals I repeated the name of the reported haplogroup with the intention of giving a more visually intuitive impression (without going through the process of creating charts). 
The results for Paternabidea (tested for coding region markers) were discussed in November. They basically seem to establish that modern Basques are almost identical to Neolithic Basques.
But what about Paleolithic ones? The results of this one study rather suggest that a little bit of both: on the side of continuity, the same U5 sequence is reported for Erraila (Magdalenian) and Marizulo (Neolithic) but, on the side of change, all Paleolithic Basque sequences (n=2) are U5 lineages, while U5 today is a much less important matrilineage. 
It may well be argued that this result is a fluke, a coincidence, but it is consistent with what we see in Epipaleolithic Central and North Europe (mostly U5 with some U4, Bramanti 2009), suggesting that, while the model of recolonization of much of Europe from the Franco-Cantabrian region may well be correct, the story does not end there at all.
On the other side we see that the dominant lineage today among Basques and Western Europeans in general, haplogroup H, was already present in Magdalenian times in Cantabria, what is consistent with it being found in Epipaleolithic Portugal and Oranian Morocco and really puts to rest the hypothesis that promoted that it had arrived from West Asia with Neolithic colonists (something argued as a matter of fact but without any clear evidence). 

Food for thought (a hypothesis)

As of late, although I have yet to formalize it somehow, I’ve been thinking that a serious possibility is that mtDNA might have spread partly with Dolmenic Megalithism. While there is some apparent Neolithic expansion of H in the Basque area (apparent in this paper and resulting in an almost modern genetic pool), in other parts of Europe this is less obvious, with H showing up but not reaching modern levels just with Neolithic. In fact the loss of other Neolithic lineages like N1a strongly suggests that the populations of Central Europe were largely replaced after the Early Neolithic. Where from? Again from Southwest Europe, I suspect but not in the context that was once believed of Magdalenian expansion, but maybe in the context of Megalithic expansion instead, with origin not in the Franco Cantabrian region but in Portugal. 

This is just a draft hypothesis that I have mentioned before only in private discussions or at best in the comments section somewhere, and certainly it would need more research. My main argument is that before these results for Cantabria, the only pre-Neolithic location where the data clearly suggested very high levels of mtDNA H (near 75%) was Portugal (Chandler 2005) and Portugal played a major role in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Western Europe. As I said above, ancient Portuguese apparently developed the Dolmenic Megalithic pehnomenon (culture, religion…), later they developed some of the earliest Western European civilizations, since the Third millennium BCE, specially Zambujal (also at Wikipedia), which were central elements of this long-lasting Megalithic culture and later of the Bell Beaker phenomenon as well.
And we need very high levels of mtDNA H in a colonizer population to changed the genetic landscape from c. 20% H into c. 45% H, we need something like a 70-80% H ancestral population unless replacement was total, what I think unlikely. 
What happened to that overwhelmingly H population of Portugal (assuming that the hypothesis is correct)? They were probably colonized in due time, possibly in the Bronze Age (the mysterious archaeological “horizons” that replace urban life in much of Southern Portugal in that period with their strange crab-shaped elite tombs, vaguely resembling Mycenaean circular walled ones)  and/or in the period of Celtic invasions from inland Iberia later in the Iron Age (Hallstat periphery).
It’s just a tentative hypothesis so far but one that I believe I must state for your consideration.

Air view of some the acropolis of Zambujal (the roofed area is a modern farm that sits atop)


Another matrilineage spawning from the Franco-Cantabrian Region: HV4a1a

Interesting and straight to the point: that can be said of this new paper. That and that a number of high profile geneticists have co-authored it (Olivieri, Behar, Achilli, Torroni and Salas). The only less known name is in fact that of the lead author:
The finding here is that along with many H subclades and probably V, which have been discussed in older studies, the lineage HV4a1a seems to have originated in the Franco-Cantabrian region, with branches to North-West Europe and, secondarily, South Italy, as can be seen in fig. 1:

Notice that the territory under French jurisdiction has been sampled much more sparsely than that under Spanish rule. This surely explains that most of the apparent diversity is located in the Cantabrian strip and not in Gascony, Occitania or otherwise in French territory. 
Number of known basal subclades of HV4a1a per Upper Paleolithic province:
  • Franco Cantabrian region: 9.5
  • Iberian province: 3
  • NW Europe: 3
  • Italy: 0.5
Or maybe you prefer the representation in fig. 2:

HV4 overall may have originated in or near Eastern Europe however, where most of the basal diversity seems to be.

Echoes from the Past (Feb 17)

And again a quick look to many things which have been showing up around the Net these last few days:

Neanderthal society

Bryan Hayden has a very interesting (and freely accessible!) paper at the Oxford Journal of Archaeology on reconstructing Neanderthals society, which was apparently much like ours for similar conditions (small operative bands of 12-30 people linked in larger ethnic and/or clannic groups through seasonal meetings and general social networks). M. Mozota has a quite interesting review at his blog as well for those who can read in Spanish.

Natufian Mesolithic Syrian site dug

The site of As-Suwayda (or Sweida), dated to c. 14-9 thousand years ago, had 12 circular huts, two of which were more complex, suggesting to some the beginnings of social stratification (or could be communal buildings?)  The two more complex (not larger) huts were located to the south of the village and show, one, inner divisions and an internal elevated platform, and, the other, external platforms and a trench. All huts are 4-5m. round.
The Natufian culture is one of the beginnings of sedentarism, as their members lived largely on recollection of wild cereals, although it is generally understood that there was no productive agriculture yet.

Neolithic driven by aridification in South Asia

D. Fuller at Indian Ocean Corridors discusses how an increasingly drier climate may have aided the expansion of agriculture in the Indian subcontinent:

The significant aridification recorded after ca. 4,000 years ago may have spurred the widespread adoption of sedentary agriculture in central and south India capable of providing surplus food in a less secure hydroclimate.

Relevant paper: Holocene aridification of India (C. Ponton et al. 2012, PPV)

Chalcolithic oxen traction in Iberia

A very interesting article in Spanish language by J.M. Arévalo discusses the use of animal traction in the Chalcolithic of Mucientes in the Northern Iberian Plateau during the 3rd millennium BCE (c. 2830-2290 BCE). Article available at Periodista Digital[es] and Asociación los Dólmenes[es].
The production, use and export of threshing teeth, made on flintstone at Cantalejo, emphasizes the almost necessary use of ox traction (horse domestication is unclear for the period while oxen remains are consistent with such kind of work). Interestingly the article is accompanied by an image of what may well be the oldest preserved wheel in Europe (Ljubljana, 4th millennium BCE, many centuries before Indoeuropean arrival, pictured).
Other archaeology/prehistory
Nerja rock art will be directly dated: the calcite layer over them will be dated so the doubts on authorship may be clarified. ··> Pileta[es].

East Asturian Magdalenian cave sites Tito Bustillo and El Buxu were used by the same group ··> Pileta[es].

Rock art found at Paleoindian site in Clarke Co., Virginia (USA) ··> Clarke Daily News.

England’s Neolithic submerged town had market street ··> BBC

The IVC seal represents a goat

Rare Indus Valley Civilization seal found at Cholistan (Punjab) ··> Dawn.

20 megalithic cairn circles and an apparent fortification from the Iron Age found at Andrah Pradesh, India ··> Firstpost.

Conservation plan to protect the Hill of Tara (Ireland) ··> The Meath Chronicle.

Spanish language specialized open access e-magazine Trabajos de Prehistoria vol. 68, no. 2 is available.

Human genetics

You may want to take a look at the latest exploration of Northern Europe’s autosomal genetics by Fennoscandia Biographic Project, using the most advanced analysis tools available (it seems): as always Scandinavians are somewhat distinct within Western Europe but Finnic peoples are a world on their own.

Other genetics

Rice varieties indica and japonica may have been independently domesticated (paper): Independent Domestication of Asian Rice Followed by Gene Flow from japonica to indica (Chin-chia Yang et al. at MBE, PPV).