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.