A catalan research team discovers the eruption mechanisms and inner structure of a 3.5-million-year-old volcano in Caldes de Malavella

To find out, the researchers have generated a 3D model, the first of its kind in this type of geological structures.

Two researchers from IPHES-CERCA and URV have participated in this investigation

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The ancient volcano El Camp dels Ninots located in the town of Caldes de Malavella hosts one of the most relevant paleontological sites of Pliocene age in Europe. The site is part of the lake sediments developed within the crater of the volcano. The volcano eruption, which is known as maar-diatreme, took place 3.5 million years ago. This type of volcanic eruption is highly explosive due to the underground interaction between magma and groundwater, resulting in a crater that lacks the volcanic edifice that characterises other types of volcanoes. For this reason, the main volcano structure is buried underground. An international team of researcher including two members from Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES-CERCA) and from Àrea de Prehistòria from Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) have published a study that reveals details on the eruption process and the inner structure of the volcano.

Through eleven boreholes drilled into the crater of the volcano –among them two research wells drilled in 2015 reaching more than 100 m depth– and geological and geophysical observations, the researchers have reconstructed the inner structure of El Camp dels Ninots volcano. This data has led to the generation of the first 3D model of a maar-diatreme volcano. The model reveals that the volcanic eruption took place through a combination of phreatomagmatic and strombolian explosions at a depth of 210 m generating a volume between 0.012 and 0.004 km3 of volcanic tuff and slag. The results of this research have been published this month in the international Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

The ancient volcano El Camp dels Ninots located in the town of Caldes de Malavella hosts one of the most relevant paleontological sites of Pliocene age in Europe – Gerard Campeny/IPHES

“The results obtained at El Camp dels Ninots using 3D geological modelling software typically applied in hydrocarbon and raw materials exploration will allow us to better understand the details on the behaviour of this type of volcanic eruption, which represents the second most important volcano type on Earth”, Xavier de Bolós, the main author of this research and postdoctoral research in Geology and Vulcanology at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), has said.
In addition, this research “has revealed the eruptive phases that led to the formation of the volcano, its internal structure as well as the theoretical volume of volcanic and subsequent lacustrine sediments”, Bruno Gómez de Soler, researcher at IPHES-CERCA, co-director of the excavations at Camp dels Ninots, lecturer in the programme in anthropology and human evolution offered jointly by UOC (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) and la URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili), and one of the co-authors of this research, has said.

Through eleven boreholes drilled into the crater of the volcano –among them two research wells drilled in 2015 reaching more than 100 m depth– and geological and geophysical observations, the researchers have reconstructed the inner structure of El Camp dels Ninots volcano – G. Campeny/IPHES

The research arises from the project El Plio-Pleistocè del Camp dels Ninots i la depressió Prelitoral: evolució paleoclimàtica, dispersions faunístiques i humanes II (CLT009/18/00052) funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya led by IPHES-CERCA. The research has been carried out by a team of catalan researchers working in international universities, Xavier de Bolós from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM); Oriol Oms from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB); Pablo Rodríguez-Salgado from the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG) at University College Dublin (UCD); Joan Martí from the Spanish Scientific Research Council (GEO3BCN-CSIC); Bruno Gómez and Gerard Campeny from IPHES-CERCA and URV.

Article
Bolós et al. (2021). Eruptive evolution and 3D geological modelling of Camp dels Ninots maar-diatreme (Catalonia) through continuous intra-crater drill coring. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 419: 107369. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2021.107369

A current study on the Cansaladeta site confirms that it is a key place for the knowledge of the human population in the Francolí river valley 400,000 years ago

This is confirmed by the results of the first detailed techno-spatial analysis carried out on this place in La Riba, in the Alt Camp (Tarragona)

The methodology used enabled to document an excellent conservation of the archaeological record, which is basically made up of stone tools

Despite currently having a small-scale excavated area, it has been possible to distinguish several moments of occupation and, within them, to identify areas of activity

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A study carried out by a team from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHESCERCA) and the Prehistory Area of ​​the Rovira i Virgili University (URV) on La Cansaladeta (la Riba, Alt Camp) confirms that this site is a key to know the populations of the Francolí valley 400,000 years ago. This is confirmed by the results of the first detailed techno-spatial analysis carried out on this place in La Riba. The results have just been announced with a scientific article published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (Springer) as part of a doctoral thesis in progress.

The methodology used for the study has allowed to document an excellent conservation of the archaeological records. This, consisting basically of stone tools, has not been negatively affected by the post-depositional processes (various phenomena with erosive potential, common in Paleolithic sites). Thus, despite currently having a small-scale excavated area (about 8 m2), it has been possible to distinguish several moments of occupation and, within them, to identify areas of activity. These results show the importance of La Cansaladeta as a key site for understanding the behaviour of the inhabitants of the Francolí river valley 400,000 years ago. At the same time, they provide consistent data to interpret the technological and subsistence variability in ​​the Iberian Peninsula at a crucial time, the interglacial known as Marine Isotopic Stage 11 (or MIS11, ranging from 430,000 to 360,000 years before the present). This period is characterized by the appearance of human settlement in ecologically more diverse enclaves than at in previous times, and by the emergence of certain elements of a subsistence or behavioural nature (in terms of hunting strategies, in symbolic issues or, for example, in the mastery of fire) that will take us to the world of Neanderthal communities.

Quartzite connections of level E – IPHES

The study, which is available in open access, shows that the analysis of the spatial distribution of archaeological remains can provide valuable information even in small sites, if their record is very well preserved. And this is the case of La Cansaladeta site. To reach this conclusion, the stone tools of levels E and J of the site have been analyzed. With an excavated area not exceeding 8 m2, these assemblages have 1,675 and 3,166 elements respectively.

Based on the refitting study, that is, the reconstruction of flaking sequences from pieces that fit together, the spatial distribution of both these elements and the rest of the recovered materials has been analysed. This has been done by delimiting the concentrations and quantifying the density of remains using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) tools. Then, the elements of each of these accumulations have been technologically characterized (type of the raw material used, parts of the production sequence represented, typo-metrical features …), so that correspondences between the different concentrations have been recognized, and estimations of its possible contemporaneity have been made.

La Cansaladeta 2019. A retouched tool on Chert from level J – IPHES

It should be noted that different characteristics have been observed in terms of the types of refit/conjoin connections and spatial patterns between the levels E and J. At level J, the refits document multiple retouching sequences (modification of a flake by means of small extractions, in this case, to produce a jagged edge), and multiple areas of concentration have been identified, although there is no clear evidence that they are interconnected. In addition, it is a level that has some large tools characteristic of the Acheulean assemblages, in this case produced in hornfels or schist. At level E, slightly younger, the refits enable to document basically processes of flakes production, which appear in the form of almost complete reduction sequences of flaking on an anvil of small-sized pebbles of quartz and quartzite, accompanied by simple flaking systems, with alternating platforms, on flint.

The scarcity and poor preservation of the faunal remains at both levels limits the interpretation of these occupations in some ways. However, the results obtained help us to reconstruct the dynamics of human occupations that generated the preserved record and revealed details of the behaviour and subsistence strategies of the groups that inhabited La Riba area about 400,000 years ago. From what has been found, members of those hunting and gathering societies periodically visited the Cansaladeta rock shelter and made relatively short stays there, probably taking advantage of the situation of the enclave in the middle of the La Riba strait as a checkpoint for the seasonal movements of their preys. Additionally, presence of the snapshot refit connections between the two archaeological levels is an important indicator concerning the short time activity in the site.

La Cansaladeta 2021 – The excavation team – IPHES

The research is part of the doctoral thesis that Görkem Cenk Yeşilova is carrying out at the URV and at IPHES-CERCA, under the direction of Drs. Josep Maria Vergès and Andreu Ollé, both associate lecturers at this university and researchers at this centre. His research is part of the project entitled “Paleoenvironmental evolution and prehistoric settlement in the Francolí, Gaià, Siurana and Camp de Tarragona river basins”, funded by the Department of Culture of the Generalitat de Catalunya. This refitting program is also being applied intensively to the other levels (10 in total), as one of the objectives of this thesis is to evaluate well the whole sequence of the Cansaladeta, and compare the results with those obtained in assemblages of similar chronology studied from the IPHES-CERCA, such as TD10 in the Gran Dolina site (Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos), with an age similar to that of La Cansaladeta, or in older assemblages in the same Francolí basin , such as Cala 1 at Barranc de la Boella (La Canonja, Tarragonès), with an age close to one million years.

La Cansaladeta is located on the left bank of the Francolí river, as it passes through the Roixel·les gorge. Excavation began in 1999, under the direction of J. M. Vergès and A. Ollé. This site represents one of the oldest evidences of human presence in the Camp de Tarragona, and, in a way, shows the continuity in the territory of a human settlement that we have for the first time documented in the Barranc de la Boella, where the oldest Acheulean elements in Europe have been recorded, dated around one million years old.

Bibliographic reference (available in Open Access)

Yeşilova, G.C., Ollé, A., Vergès, J.M., 2021. Is a spatial investigation possible without long-distance refit/conjoin? Application to the MIS 11 lithic assemblage of levels E and J from La Cansaladeta site (Tarragona, Spain). Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-021-01384-3.

A fossil ancestor of the African painted dog is found in Dmanisi

This finding was announced today in Scientific Reports, a journal of the Nature group

It was a hypercarnivorous super-predator large dog that exhibits the most developed altruistic social behavior of all carnivores

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The site of Dmanisi in Georgia, southern Caucasus, placed between the Black and the Caspian Seas, is dated to 1.8 million-years-old. This locality is world-wide known because it yielded the earliest evidences of human presence out of Africa. This includes the presence of five human skulls preserved almost complete together with abundant postcranial fossil specimens and a huge amount of lithic artifacts.

Dmanisi also shows one of the best records of fossil fauna for the Early Pleistocene around all the Eurasian continent. In this context, the research on the fossil carnivores developed at this site by an international Georgian-Italian-Spanish team, has described, by first time, several teeth specimens, corresponding to a large-sized hypercarnivorous fossil dog, ascribed to the species Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides, which is the ancestor of the African extant hunting dog, Lycaon pictus. This finding has been published in the journal Scientific Reports, of the Nature group.   

Mandibular remains of fossil Lycaon found at Dmanisi. – IPHES/CERCA

This study has been leaded by the Florentine paleontologist Saverio Bartolini Lucenti, together with Lorenzo Rook, from the University of Florencia; David Lordkipanidze from the National Museum of Georgia, and the paleontologists Joan Madurell-Malapeira from the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP-CERCA) and the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB); Paul Palmqvist from the University of Málaga, and Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro ICREA Research Professor from the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES-CERCA) and the Universitat Rovira i Virgili of Tarragona (URV), who, together with S. Bartolini Lucenti, are the corresponding authors of the paper.

The anatomical and morphometric analyses of the fossil specimens from Dmanisi, together with data coming from all over the world, show that this species was a super-predator hypercarnivore and large-sized dog, suggesting that it was a highly social altruistic species, similar to the extant African hunting dogs. Of course, it was an important species in the ecological scenario where early Homo survived and evolved.

A) Dmanisi hominids caring for and feeding an old, toothless, individual. B) Lycaons hunting a goat in Venta Micena (Orce, Spain), followed by a crippled individual who will be allowed to feed, even if it did not participate in the hunting. This demonstrates the high degree of altruistic social behavior in both, fossil humans and fossil lycaon species. Drawings made by Mauricio Antón.

Contrary to other large-sized canids, such the common wolfs, it was capable of social care toward other members of its group, as it was demonstrated in a pathologic mostly complete cranium of Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides at the Spanish site of Venta Micena in Orce, showing that this individual managed to survive during several years thanks to the assistance of the pack. Curiously, social care was also described in the fossil humans recorded at Dmanisi based on an edentulous cranium and mandible corresponding to an old human individual, specimens D3444/D3900, which was helped to feed and survive by other members of the family group. This suggests parallel behavior in humans and this large carnivore.

The origin

The origin of the African hunting dogs is not African. These forms originated in Asia at the base of the Pleistocene, around 2.5 Myrs ago, and then dispersed into Europe and Africa at the age of Dmanisi, 2.0-1.8 Myrs. At the same time, humans, coming from Africa, dispersed into Eurasia, following the same route but in the opposite direction. Finally, these wild dogs disappeared from Europe and Asia one million years later, during the Early-Middle Pleistocene transition, but they survived in Africa until nowadays.

Hominins and hunting dogs, both recorded in Dmanisi at the beginning of their dispersal across the Old World, are the only two Early Pleistocene large mammal species with proved altruistic behavior towards their group members, an issue discussed over more than one century in evolutionary biology. 

Reference:

Bartolini Lucenti, S., Madurell-Malapeira, J., Martínez-Navarro, B., Palmqvist, P., Lordkipanidze, D., Rook, L., 2021. The early hunting dog from Dmanisi with comments on the social behaviour in Canidae and hominins. Scientific Reports, DOI. 10.1038/s41598-021-92818-4

Open the pre-enrollment for the Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution

There are many students who after obtaining the title have found work in their countries.

The link with the IPHES allows the students to learn from the best team that investigate human evolution and acquire knowledge of the best techniques

In the master there are students from countries as diverse as Algeria, India, Thailand, Morocco, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Chile, Georgia and Mexico

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Until next July 15th, the pre-enrollment for the 2021-22 course of the Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree in Quaternary Archaeology and human Evolution, taught at the Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona (URV) is open. In this master participates researchers of the Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).

This master’s degree is taught from the 2004-2005 academic year, in partnership with other European institutions: Università degli Studi di Ferrara (Italy), Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris, France), and the Tomar Polytechnic Institute.

Some students this year worked at the Molí del Salt (Vimbodí i Poblet, Tarragona) – IPHES/CERCA

Since the start of the course, at the URV every year, more than fifteen new students from all the regions of Spain and from many other places in the world, including Italy, Portugal, Algeria, India, Thailand, Morocco, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Indonesia, Armenia, Chile, Argentina, Georgia and Mexico. At the same time, teachers from places like Argentina, Chile, Georgia, Israel, Morocco and Mexico have come to Tarragona to teach their expertise, and experts from the URV and IPHES have traveled for educational purposes to these places. In these years, more than one hundred students have obtained the master’s degree after presenting their final research work and after performing a mobility period in another center of the Erasmus Mundus consortium. We always look for resources to make this possible.

The students have the possibility to work in key sites to develop a research. Camp dels Ninots this year – Gerard Campeny/IPHES

Carlos Lorenzo, professor of the URV and coordinator of the Teaching Area of ​​IPHES, declared: “All these reasons makes the master’s degree very attractive because, in addition, there are many who after obtaining the degree they have found work in the countries where they come from”. The archaeologist himself emphasize, “The link with the IPHES allows students to learn from the best teams that investigate human evolution in different European centers. Our consortium is a great school that allows them to learn the best techniques. “In this sense, Carlos Lorenzo pointed out that the aforementioned institutions are the hard core of this consortium, but there are other collaborations with others institutions from Germany, England, different parts of Spain, etc.

The attractiveness
The research projects that are currently being developed in Eurasia, by the IPHES, such as Atapuerca and Orce in Spain, or Dmanisi in Georgia are some of the attractiveness to students. They foresee the possibility to work in key sites to develop a research about important issues in the study of human evolution, such as the different aspects that explain the first dispersions, the routes followed, the species that carried them out, etc.

1.4 million years ago in Europe, Orce became an area of attraction for the manufacture and use of stone tools

Torrential rains in Barranco León allowed the first hominins to opportunistically take advantage of an accumulation of raw materials

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Located in the northeastern sector of the Guadix-Baza basin, at the foot of the Sierra de la Umbría (Granada), the 1.4 million year old Barranco León site (Orce) is known for its exceptionally rich archeological collection, which currently comprises some 2,500 items made of local limestone and flint. The site has also provided an abundant paleontological record that includes herbivores and carnivores, numerous microvertebrate remains, and even a hominin tooth that is currently the oldest human fossil in Western Europe. In this context, the presence of both fresh and eroded lithic artifacts and faunal remains had baffled researchers for decades.

Now, after many years of meticulous excavation campaigns, exhaustive lithic analyses and conscientious geological studies, it has been disclosed that, after a period of heavy rains, Barranco León became a raw materials reservoir: an accumulation that was used by the first peoples to occupy Europe. This research, led by Stefania Titton, funded by the Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano (Italy) post-master scholarship, has just completed her doctorate in Quaternary and Prehistory from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES-CERCA), describes an unprecedented behavior amongst our most remote ancestors. The highly significant results have just been published in the prestigious journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Main refitted lithic set revealing the original shape of these knapped materials found in Barranco León – Author: Stefania Titton).

This research is part of the Orce Project led by Juan Manuel Jiménez Arenas, Professor of the Department of Prehistory and Archeology at the University of Granada, and which includes Deborah Barsky, IPHES-CERCA researcher and associate professor at the URV, and Hugues-Alexandre Blain, IPHES-CERCA researcher.

A trove of surprises

Following years of investigation, these researchers conclude that initially, Barranco León provided a source of fresh water from the subsoil that attracted a rich and abundant fauna that inhabited this part of the Province of Granada 1.4 million years ago. Then, a catastrophic event was converted into an opportunity: torrential rains endured by the first inhabitants of Orce amassed stones and bones along their way, among which were numerous limestone cobbles and some flint fragments that had formed over millions of years in the Sierra de la Umbría. All of this resulted in a deposit similar to what we observe today in the channels of many rivers.

When calm returned and the waters had receded, Barranco León had become a lithic reservoir that was opportunistically exploited by humans. Initially composed of eroded materials washed into the site from nearby, the site became an area where our ancestors developed multiple kinds of tools that they used in situ to process plants and animals primarily for their subsistence.

Schematic drawing showing the changes that occurred in Barranco León 1.4 million years ago – Authors: Oriol Oms and Juan M. Jiménez-Arenas.

The presence of freshwater springs from the subsoil in the same lithic reservoir environment made Barranco León a place where herbivores would quench their thirst, while also sometimes falling prey to predators. Humans would then consume them using their newly manufactured tools.

Looking for needles in a haystack

This newly published study took root when the attention of the Orce research team studying the 2,500 stone tools that the Barranco León deposit has provided up to now, was turned to a few items coming from a single block of flint or from the same limestone cobble.  It is like looking for needles in a haystack. The lithic technology section achieved this milestone by reconstructing the puzzle with refitted lithic sets, that is; putting together fragments of single stones that fit together.

To give more consistency to the study, a spatial analysis was carried out for the first time, allowing to follow the trajectory of the people who knapped these items. All of this demonstrates without a doubt that humans carried out multiple activities at Barranco León. After this moment of effervescence, human activity declined and eventually disappeared, at which time activity became centered at Fuente Nueva 3, another Orce Oldowan site situated only a few kilometers away from Barranco León.

Stefania Titton, who has just completed her doctorate in Quaternary and Prehistory from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES-CERCA), at Barranco León – José Cámara

The research, funded by the Junta de Andalucía, was carried out by a transdisciplinary team in which, in addition to the staff already mentioned, three other members of IPHES-CERCA also took part: Amèlia Bargalló, postdoctoral researcher Juan of the Cierva of the Ministry of Science, grant Innovation and Universities; Christian Sánchez-Bandera, María de Maeztu predoctoral fellow and Robert Sala, director of the aforementioned research center and full professor of Prehistory at the URV, Oriol Oms of the Autonomous University of Barcelona; José A. Solano of the University of Seville; José Yravedra of the Complutense University; Isidro Toro-Moyano, of the Provincial Archeological Museum of Granada and Alexia Serrano-Ramos and Juan Manuel Jiménez Arenas of the University of Granada.

Reference

Titton, S., Oms, O., Barsky, D., Bargalló, A., Solano-García, J., Sánchez-Bandera, C., Yravedra, J., Blain, H.-A., Toro-Moyano, I., Jiménez-Arenas, J.M., Sala, R. (2021) Oldowan stone knapping and percussive activities on a raw material reservoir deposit 1.4 million years ago at Barranco León (Orce, Spain). Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

A new fossil species of small wolf, dated 1.6 million-years-old, is found at the sites of Orce, southern Spain

Its name, Canis orcensis, is dedicated to the Andalusian town where it has been found

The finding is published by Comptes Rendus Palevol in a paper leaded by Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, ICREA researcher at IPHES-CERCA and contracted professor at the URV

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The site of Venta Micena, located in Orce (Baza basin, Granada), dated 1.6 million-years-old, preserves one of the best paleontological records of large Quaternary mammals in Europe and the world. It was found 45 years ago by a team from the Institute of Paleontology Miquel Crusafont, led by Prof. Josep Gibert. Since then, Orce has become one of the world benchmarks of Paleontology and Prehistory. The reason is that the earliest evidences of human presence in Western Europe are there, located at the sites of Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3, dated at 1.4 and 1.3 million-years-old, consisting of a fossil human tooth, abundant lithic artefacts, and cut and fracture marks on the fossil bones left by the use of the stone tools for feeding the carcasses of large mammals.    

Venta Micena, Orce and all the Baza basin continue providing new interesting findings. In this context, a team of paleontologists led by Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, ICREA researcher at the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES-CERCA) and contracted professor at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV), have described a new species of small wolf, of 15-20 kg of bodyweight, dated 1.6 million-years-old. Its name is Canis orcensis, in homage to the town of Orce.

Artwork of the little wolf, Canis orcensis, made by Antonio Monclova.

The discovery was announced today in a paper published in the journal Comptes Rendus Palevol. Together with Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, the other authors are Saverio Bartolini Lucenti from the University of Florence; Mª Patrocinio Espigares, Sergio Ros-Montoya and Paul Palmqvist, from the University of Malaga, and Joan Madurell-Malapeira, from the Institut Català de Paleontologia (ICP).

This team has reinterpreted all the fossil remains of the site corresponding to the genus Canis, verifying that their anatomical and metric data differ from the classic records of the species Canis etruscus, described in 1877 in Italy, and are more closely related to those of the later species, Canis mosbachensis, described in 1925 at the site of Mosbach in Germany, and also recorded in Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3, the latter two in Orce. “The new species identified in Venta Micena is different -says Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro-, it is characterized by a dentition with a tendency to hypercarnivory, which indicates that it consumed more meat from vertebrates than other similar middle-sized Pleistocene canids, whose dietary habits were more omnivorous, with higher consumption of vegetables”.

This conclusion, based on the comparative study of its craniodental morphology, “is also supported by geochemical evidence, such as the abundance of stable nitrogen isotopes in fossils, which indicate quite carnivorous habits for this little wolf”, says the same paleontologist from IPHES.

Mandible and dentition of the new species Canis orcensis.

Venta Micena is a paleontological site with unique dimensions. It is a fertile horizontal level one meter thick, which can be followed on the surface for 2.5 km. It has been calculated that it has more than 1 km2 with fossils, that is, more than a million m2 with paleontological remains, with an average record of more than 60 fossils per m2. “It is probably the richest paleontological site of the Quaternary in the world. For this reason, it has become one of the most studied localities in the continent”, says Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro.

Its record of large fossil mammals is very diverse, with an abundance of mammoths, rhinos, horses, hippos, large and small deer, two species of buffalos and four species of smaller bovids, together with a very spectacular variety of carnivores, that include two species of saber-toothed tigers, a panther and a lynx, among the felids, a giant hyena, the famous Pachycrocuta brevirostris, a bear, a badger and three species of canids, which include a fox, a lycaon and the small wolf Canis orcensis. To this must be added two species of rabbits, five of rodents, some insectivores (shrews) and other vertebrates, among them some scarce remains of aquatic birds.

“Thanks to this extraordinary quantity of fossils, countless studies of great international scientific projection on taxonomy, taphonomy, biogeochemistry, ecology, etc., have been carried out”, remarks the ICREA paleontologist from IPHES-CERCA and URV.

Article

Martínez-Navarro B., Bartolini Lucenti S., Palmqvist P., Ros-Montoya S., Madurell-Malapeira J. & Espigares M. P. 2021. A new species of dog from the Early Pleistocene site of Venta Micena (Orce, Baza Basin, Spain). Comptes Rendus Palevol 20 (17): 297-314.

For the first time Neanderthal nuclear DNA preserved in cave sediment has been successfully extracted and analyzed

Some of the samples were obtained from Atapuerca, a confirmed international benchmark for genetic studies of the first hominin populations

This has been revealed in an article published in Science with the participation of Eudald Carbonell, Professor of Prehistory at the URV and researcher at the IPHES-CERCA

Among the disclosures, it has been made known that two Neanderthal populations coexisted in the Gallery of Statues of Atapuerca and that one replaced the other

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For the first time, a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has recovered chromosomal DNA of Neanderthal populations conserved in cave sediment; previously extracted only from bones or teeth. Some of the samples used were obtained from the Galería de las Estatuas, in Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain).

In this way, “Atapuerca is consolidated as a benchmark for advancement in genetic studies of the first human populations, since only a year ago the oldest human genetic evidence was made public, specifically, protein material obtained from Homo antecessor teeth discovered in the Gran Dolina site, with a chronology of over 800,000 years old and, in 2016, nuclear DNA isolated in fossils from the Sima de los Huesos, allowed us to progress in establishing links between Homo sapiens, Denisovans and Neanderthals”, highlights Eudald Carbonell, Professor of Prehistory from Rovira i Virgili University (URV), researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES-CERCA), co-director of the Atapuerca Project and one of the authors of the article published today in the journal Science, explaining the new method that makes it possible to obtain DNA from sediment.

Galería de Estatuas. © Javier Trueba. Madrid Scientific Films

The samples used on this occasion come from deposits in northern Spain and southern Siberia. “Their study has provided new clues about the history of Neanderthal populations that will complement what we know so far from the analysis of DNA obtained from teeth and bones”, says Carbonell.

Ancient DNA has revealed important aspects of our evolutionary past, but its preservation is extremely rare, making large parts of human history inaccessible for genetic analysis. A pathway has now been opened up thanks to the new method developed by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, allowing to analyze human nuclear DNA obtained from sediment. Up to now, only mitochondrial DNA has been recovered from archeological sediment, but it is of limited value for studying population relationships. The implementation of nuclear DNA acquired from sediment provides new opportunities to investigate humanity’s past.

Avoid genetic material from other mammals

When extracting ancient human DNA from sediment, care must be taken to avoid confusing it with that of other mammals, since, for example, there is a lot of similarity between some fragments of the human genome and that of a bear. The techniques developed in this study are very new and their testing began using samples from caves where bear DNA had already been analyzed, in order to ensure its functionality and that no errors were committed, as was the case in two caves, Chagyrskaya and Denisova, situated in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.

Neanderthal phalanx – © Javier Trueba. Madrid Scientific Films

The third place where the method was applied was in the Galería de las Estatuas, in Atapuerca, where years of excavations have yielded stone tools and animal remains consumed by hominins between 115,000 and 70,000 years ago. But only a single Neanderthal toe bone too small to obtain DNA (a phalanx), had been found. Now, however, with the nuclear DNA extracted from sediment, it has even been revealed that not one, but two Neanderthal populations lived in the cave and that one group replaced the other one some 100,000 years ago; for reasons that remain unknown.

In any case, the opportunity to analyze nuclear DNA recovered from sediment greatly expands the range of options available for investigating hominin evolutionary history, allowing to overcome the limitations posed by finding ancient DNA in human remains and expanding the number of sites potentially suitable for research that will allow to study many more hominin populations.

A transdisciplinary study of the dietary evolution of the first agricultural and pastoral communities in Central Europe

This study applies the complementary approaches of stable isotope and dental microwear analyses to study the diets of past Hungarian people

This research, led by members of IPHES-CERCA and URV, has just been published in the journal Scientific Reports

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The Great Hungarian Plain is considered one of the most interesting areas for archaeology because of its central geographic position in the European continent. The area played a key role in the spread and development of farming across Europe and was the meeting point for eastern and western European cultures. As such, it was a major cultural and technological transitional region throughout prehistory. But despite being a rich archaeological region, few studies have analysed the diets of the past Hungarian people. In this context, researchers from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES-CERCA) and the Universtitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) in Tarragona (Spain), have carried out interdisciplinary research contributing new data about the evolution of the diets of the first agricultural and pastoral communities in Central Europe. This investigation has just been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The study is focused on Great Hungarian Plain populations that lived from Middle Neolithic (5,500 – 5,000 BC) to Late Bronze Age (1,450 – 800 BC). Important changes in human diets occurred during this timeframe, influenced, most probably, by the socioeconomic, demographical and cultural transformations characterizing this period of some 5,000 years.

Hungarian map showing the location of sites analysed in the study. Archaeological sites represented: Middle Neolithic (1. Bükkábrány-Bánya; 2.Rásonysápberencs-Szőlő alja; 3. Csincse-Gomba Barna földje (M3- site 14–16); 4. Arnót-Nagy-bugyik; 5. Arnót-
Arnóti-oldal Dél); Middle Copper Age (6. Mezőkövesd-Klementina (Szentistván-Reptér); 7. Mezőkövesd-
Patakra járó dűlő); Middle Bronze Age (8. Mezőzombor-Községi temető; 9. Mezőkeresztes-Csincsetanya; 10.
Nagyrozvágy-Papdomb; 11. Vatta-Dobogó); Late Bronze Age (12. Felsődobsza-site 2; 13. Oszlár-Nyárfaszög
(M3-site 32); 14. Mezőkeresztes-Cet halom (M3-site 10); 15. Köröm-Kápolna-domb; 16. Pácin-Alsókenderszer).
(B) Scale 1:10,000; Bükkábrány-Bánya lignite mine area with archaeological sites (BB) represented.

Raquel Hernando is a co-author of the paper carrying out her PhD studies with the URV and IPHES-CERCA and is beneficiary of a predoctoral Martí-Franquès Research Grant. She says: “The demographic increase during the transition from Neolithic to Copper Age, produced changes in the settlement pattern and an increased focus on animal husbandry with a more reliance on cattle. With the arrival of bronze metallurgy from the eastern steppe, significant changes occurred in the intensification of agriculture, with more hierarchical societies and fortified settlements”. All of these events took place at the same time over much of the European continent and “…had implications on the dietary subsistence patterns of the human populations of that time”, points out Beatriz Gamarra, a postdoctoral Beatriu de Pinós AGAUR Fellow and co-author of the paper in collaboration with other academics of research centres and universities from Ireland, Hungary and Portugal.

The team studied the diets of past human populations living in the Great Hungarian Plain from the Middle Neolithic and Late Bronze Age periods, demonstrating that, compared with subsequent periods, people consumed less abrasive and more processed foods during Middle Neolithic period. The Middle Neolithic people consumed meat and cereals (like wheat, einkorn and barley), although their diets varied between the sites. The researchers also found that, although other crops were consumed increasingly during the Middle Bronze Age (such as millet), this did not have any effects on the abrasiveness of the food and the way they processed it.

These results have been obtained from the same individuals using two approaches that were found to be complementary: stable isotope and dental microwear analyses. Each method is indicative of different dietary traits and few studies have combined both of them to infer ancient diets.  In this sense, Raquel Hernando states: “The novelty of our study is that, thanks to the rich Hungarian archaeological human record, we have been able to employ both approaches on the same individuals, something that it has rarely been applied in previous studies and has been developed in this exhaustive work”.

Dental microwear analysis applied on molars provides information about the abrasiveness of the diets and the previous process of the foods consumed. Meanwhile, the stable isotopes study provides information about the origins of the animal proteins present in the ingested foods. Beatriz Gamarra highlights: “We have demonstrated the complementary of these two techniques, which is not very common on this kind of research, as many of the archaeological context of the samples employed (such as collective burials) do not allow for this kind of combination on the same individuals’ skeletal remains”.

To carry out this research, a total of 89 individuals sampled from 17 archaeological sites dating to different periods and situated in the north-eastern part of the Great Hungarian Plain were employed. The material is stored in the Herman Ottó Museum in Miskolc, Hungary. “From each individual, we have employed their teeth (first and second molars) for the dental microwear study, postcranial remains for the stable isotope analysis, and the petrous bone (inner ear) to perform ancient DNA analyses in order to biologically sex them “, specifies Raquel Hernando.

Dental microwear consists of quantifying a series of marks, such as striations and pits, formed on tooth enamel surfaces during the chewing process due to the presence in the foods of particles harder than tooth enamel. Using information from the microwear patterns, the abrasiveness of the food ingested and/or the previous process the foods might suffered before its consumption, can be inferred. To avoid damaging the original remains, cast of the teeth were made during the stay abroad of Raquel Hernando at the University College Dublin (UCD, Ireland). These cast were later analysed at the Servei de Recursos Científics i Tècnics facilities of the URV (at Sescelades Campus, Tarragona).

The stable isotope analyses are based on the principle that the biochemical composition of the food consumed by animals is preserved in their body tissues. The carbon and nitrogen isotopic fractions were calculated from bone collagen and are indicative of the origin of the proteins consumed by the individuals a few years prior to their death. This research was carried out by Beatriz Gamarra at the School of Archaeology of University College Dublin (Ireland) thanks to funding from her previous MSCA (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions) project.

Moreover, ancient DNA analyses were performed on some of the individuals to determine their biological sex and highlight any differences between women and men. The ancient DNA was extracted from the petrous bone, generally one of the better preserved cranial remains. This was carried out by the laboratories of the University College Dublin (Ireland) and the University of Vienna in collaboration with Harvard University; a reference laboratory for ancient DNA analyses.

Bibliographic reference

Hernando, R et al (2021). Integrating buccal and occlusal dental microwear with isotope analyses for a complete paleodietary reconstruction of Holocene populations from Hungary. Scientific Reports.

450,000 years ago, technological and subsistence advances could have helped to overcome climatic conditions marked by aridity and cold

This expansion of the ecological niche of Europeans hominins from that date is related to more efficient technology and subsistence strategy

This is stated in an article published in the Journal of Human Evolution and headed by members of the IPHES-CERCA and the URV

The study is based on a new ecological model developed with amphibian and reptile data from Atapuerca and Orce, which has been extrapolated to other European sites

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The Earth’s climate has changed significantly throughout its history. Thus, the alternation of glacial periods (cold and dry) and interglacial periods (temperate and humid) have conditioned the occupation of certain territories. Until 450,000 years ago, in the Iberian Peninsula, we have no evidence of human presence in a large part of the Meseta. However, from that time on, we find sites as emblematic as Ambrona (Soria) or Cuesta de la Bajada (Teruel).

Why is this change taking place? There is no simple explanation, but it is clear that this is a period of transformation. In terms of stone tools, there is a more efficient management of the raw materials with which they are made, and their diversity and specialization is expanded. At the same time, more complex gathering and hunting strategies are documented, such as, for example, the communal bison hunting events at Gran Dolina (level TD10.2), in Atapuerca (Burgos), or the first wooden spears at sites such as Schöningen (Germany). In addition, there is a greater use of caves, an increasingly constant presence of evidence of fire, as well as growing evidence of symbolic behavior. In short, elements that point to a more cohesive social structure, which contributed to overcoming the difficulties inherent to unfavorable climatic conditions, marked by aridity and cold.

Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, BUrgos) – Susana Santamaria/Fundación Atapuerca

This is stated in a scientific article published in the Journal of Human Evolution, whose main authors are the researcher of the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES-CERCA) and the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) Hugo Blain, and Juan Manuel Jiménez-Arenas, professor at the University of Granada (UdG), but which has also had the participation of the archaeologist Andreu Ollé (IPHES-CERCA and URV), the researcher Paula Garcia, Postdoctoral Fellow, and the biologist Ana Fagoaga, from the same center. Francisco Ruiz-Sánchez from the University of Valencia and the Museu Valencià d’Història Natural has also collaborated. Together they have carried out an extensive study of the climate between 2 million and 150,000 years ago, based on the remains of amphibians and reptiles found at the sites. This research has been carried out within the framework of the Orce Project, led by the University of Granada, and the Atapuerca subproject, led by IPHES-CERCA and URV.

Potential distribution of hominids in Europe according to the ‘Iberian ecological model’ established in this study: before (blue) and after (green) 450,000 years. We can see the expansion of the favorable territories for human settlement after 450,000 years both in the interior of the Iberian Peninsula and towards central Europe and inland areas of the Near East.

From these data, the team of scientists has created an Iberian ecological model that has been transferred to the rest of the European continent. They have based their work on two fundamental sites for understanding human evolution and the scenario in which it took its first steps in Europe: Orce (Granada) and Atapuerca (Burgos).

The collaboration and integration of results from these emblematic sites has made it possible to create a model on a European scale, before and after 450,000 years ago. Why this limit? “First of all, because at that time the climate becomes more extreme: the warm periods are warmer and the cold periods much colder and longer”, says Hugo Blain. Secondly, because very important technical changes are taking place”, he continues, “for the history of humankind. The most evident is the use and control of fire”.

the researcher of the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES-CERCA) and the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) Hugo Blain

It has been observed that the preferred habitat for the first Europeans (1.4 million – 450,000 years ago) was warmer, rainier and more forested than today. However, early European populations faced very different situations: “Orce was relatively dry and warm with respect to Atapuerca which presented more rainy and temperate conditions. On the other hand, the long and complete temporal sequence that Atapuerca offers us is key because it intersperses some        -few- colder, drier intervals with fewer trees. And those moments are characterized because there is no human presence or because it is very weak”, explains Jiménez-Arenas.

The results of the study show that much of the Atlantic coast was very favorable for living before 450,000 years ago, but, after that date, the space potentially inhabited by humans expands significantly. The team was surprised that “although most of the climatic and habitat data come from Mediterranean contexts, many of the areas most likely to have been inhabited by the oldest humans on the European continent are located in areas close to the Atlantic Ocean”, says Blain.

Thus, the north of France and Germany would be ideal places for the first European populations to live, especially in times of greater climatic amelioration. Also the British Isles where the southwest of Great Britain (which was part of the continent at that time) and the whole of Ireland. “These would be areas where winters would be quite cold, although with a high rainfall regime and good tree cover”, says Jiménez-Arenas.

Bibliographic reference

Blain, H.-A., Fagoaga, A., Ruiz-Sánchez, F.J., García-Medrano, P., Ollé, A., Jiménez-Arenas, J.M. (2021) Coping with arid environments: A critical threshold for human expansion in Europe at the Marine Isotope Stage 12/11 transition? The case of the Iberian Peninsula. Journal of Human Evolution 153, 102950. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2021.102950.

New macaque remains about 2,5 million years old to fulfil a gap in the fossil record have been discovered

The discovery is the result of the research of an international team composed by specialists from IPHES-CERCA, URV, University Mohammed Premier of Oujda and INSAP

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According to their morphology, teeth were assigned to the Macaca genus – María D. Guillén/IPHES

The presence of macaques in northern Africa dates back to the upper Miocene, about 6-7 million years ago. Shortly thereafter (about 5,5 million years ago), first representatives are found in Europe (Spain and Italy), which migrated on during the Messinian Salinity Crisis. Now, an article published in Journal of Human Evolution and led by research staff from the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP), the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES-CERCA), the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) , the Geology Department (Science school of the Mohammed Premier de Oujda university) and the Institut National des Sciences d’Archéologie et du Patrimoine (INSAP), describes new fossil macaque remains from the Guefaït site, in northeastern Morocco, 2,5 million years old.

The macaque remains that have been published are part of an ensemble recovered during fieldwork carried out in 2018 and 2019 – Rodríguez-Hidalgo UCM/IPHES/IDEA

The fossils studied in this research consist of six cercopithecid teeth. According to their morphology, teeth were assigned to the Macaca genus. Based on the size of the teeth, researchers estimated that these macaques weighed approximately 12 kilos. Both the size and morphology of the teeth are compatible with those of the current North African species (the Barbary macaque, Macaca sylvanus), although the ascription to this species is tentative.  Molecular data show that Macaca sylvanus diverged earlier than the rest of living macaques found in Asia. Guefaït’s teeth are more similar to those of the current African subspecies than to the European fossil forms. Probably, the species was present during the last 5 million years in Africa, but surprisingly there is a gap in the fossil record between 2,5 and 0,2 million years, which contrasts with the more continuous record in Europe. Our research is now partially fulfilling this gap. Future studies should clarify if this absence is due to a local extinction of this species in Africa or if it is only a matter of sampling. The research also highlights the absence of geladas in Guefaït, a genus that has already been found in Ahl al Oughlam, a Moroccan site of almost the same age. This absence could be due to insufficient sampling or could indicate a slightly earlier age for Guefaït (prior to the dispersal of the geladas to North Africa). The macaque remains that have been published are part of an ensemble recovered during fieldwork carried out in 2018 and 2019 as part of an interdisciplinary collaborative project between Spain and Morocco. This fieldwork provided more than 3,200 vertebrate fossil remains (comprising amphibians, reptiles, and small and large mammals, including elephants, rhinos and hippos, among others) from the initial Early Pleistocene, around 2,5 million years old.

The macaques (genus Macaca) are a group of Old World monkeys (Cercopithecoidea) belonging to the papionine tribe, which also includes mangabeys, baboons, mandrills, and geladas. Wikipedia

The macaques (genus Macaca) are a group of Old World monkeys (Cercopithecoidea) belonging to the papionine tribe, which also includes mangabeys, baboons, mandrills, and geladas. Together with humans, macaques currently are the most widely distributed primates in the world. There are 23 living species, distributed throughout Africa and Asia. In Europe, their presence is restricted to the anecdotal Gibraltar macaques, which are the result of introductions of specimens of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) by humans. This species inhabits in the wild in North Africa, unlike while the rest of the species of this genus live in Asia. However, according to the fossil record it is known that this species has been previously distributed not only in North Africa but throughout a great part of Europe in the past. In Catalonia, around one-million-year old remains have been described from Cal Guardiola and Vallparadís (Terrassa), and Incarcal (Pla de l’Estany), among other sites. It is thought that all Pliocene European macaques belong to this species, except the insular Pliocene macaques from Sardinia (Macaca majori) and the oldest terminal Miocene remains (around 5 million years old) that have not been assigned to any species.

Research team in this research includes David M. Alba (ICP), Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo (UCM, IDEA, IPHES-CERCA), Hassan Aouraghe (Université Mohammed Premier, Oujda), M. Gema Chacón and Robert Sala-Ramos (IPHES-CERCA and Universitat Rovira i Virgili), and Jan van der Made (MNCN-CSIC), among others.

The research has been carried out with the support of the CERCA program (Generalitat de Catalunya) and Agencia Estatal de Investigación (Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades). The research project in Morocco is possible thanks to the collaboration of the Jerada government, local authorities in Aïn Beni Mathar and Guefaït and the Moroccan Institute National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine (INSAP) and is funded by the Fundación Palarq , the Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte, the Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades, the María de Maeztu program, the Ministery of Culture and Heritage of the Kingdom of Morocco and to financial support to the research group activities (SGR) of the Generalitat de Catalunya, among others.

Paper reference

Alba, D. M., Rodríguez-Hidalgo, A., Aouraghe, H., van der Made, J., Oujaa, A., Saladié, P., Aissa, A. M., Marín, J., Farkouch, M., Lorenzo, C., Bengamra, S., Delson, E., Chacón, M.G., & Sala-Ramos, R. (2021). New macaque fossil remains from Morocco. Journal of Human Evolution. 153: 102951 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2021.102951