An international scientific journal explores the antiquity of the Barranc de la Boella site between the 780,000 and one million years ago

The journal PLOS ONE publishes an article this week, which is the first presentation to international scientific community

Archaeological remains found in this site support that in Europe, during this time span, there are distinct technological traditions, the oldowan (older) and acheulian (younger)

At that time, the acheulian technology was extensive in Africa, but had just arrived in Europe and this is the first prehistoric technological innovation that has been reliably documented in the Barranc de la Boella site.


Link to the article in PLOS ONE

The journal PLOS ONE publishes an article this week, which is the first presentation to international scientific community that demonstrates the age of the fossil remains of the Barranc de la Boella site, located in the municipality of the la Canonja (Tarragona, Spain), estimated between 780.000 and one million years ago. At the same time, the Barranc de la Boella findings supports the coexistence of two distinct technological prehistoric traditions in Europe, the Oldowan (older) and Acheulian (younger). The Acheulian technology was extended on sub-Saharan Africa, but had just arrived in Europe. The Barranc de la Boella locality displays this first prehistoric innovation of humankind in Europe.

“The archaeological record at Barranc de la Boella site presented is numerous and their chronology is hardly argued using independent evidences”, points out Josep Vallverdú, first author of the manuscript, archaeologist and researcher joined at IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), co-director of the excavations and researches at the Boella area with Palmira Saladié, researcher associated to the same centre too.

In the study there is the participation of different disciplines and institutions in order to argue a reliable chronology of the locality and to explain the first human dispersions out of Africa during the Early Pleistocene (2.6 to 0.78 millions years ago). With the IPHES team, in the field and researchers have participated in the Departamento de Paleobiología del Museo de Ciencias Naturales de Madrid del CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) integrated as Associated Unit to CSIC led by E. Carbonell (IPHES) and A. Rosas (MCNM-CSIC).

The results are based on stratigraphy (the order of the sedimentary units which forms the site and their relation with the geological time scale) and the description of the archaeological and paleontological levels. In order to obtain the age of the fossil record included in the Barranc de la Boella sediments, the results are based on the lithostratigraphy (description of the physical characteristics if the sediments), the paleomagnestism (measures of the polar orientation found in the ferromagnetic minerals of the sediments), the biochronology of macrovertebrates and microvertebrates (relative chronology of the extinct faunal remains), and the absolute dating using the radioactive decay of the Aluminium and Berilium isotopes accumulated in the mineral quartz fraction of the sediments.

The Early Pleistocene sedimentary units of the Barranc de la Boella site contain more than two hundred lithic industries and five hundred faunal mains. With the fossil description and the chronology, between one million and 780.000 years ago, the Barranc de la Boella evidence supports the first apparition in Europe of a technology more complex than the first stone-tools older than one million years ago. To sum up, the hominid groups of the Iberian Peninsula dating to 1 million and 780.000 years ago could elaborate stone-tools assemblages using distinct technical traditions.

“When the Acheulian arrive to Barranc de la Boella, this technology is widely extended in sub-Saharan Africa, conversely in Europe just arrive”, say Josep Vallverdú. Thus, the cultural repertoires of the hominins found in this site represent a first evidence of the transmission of technological knowledge which point to the Acheulian innovation out of Africa, because during this time span the dominant technological traditions of the oldowan. In fact, the Acheulian technological tradition in the European archaeological assemblages is widely expanded during the definitive colonization of Europe, 500.000 years ago, during the second half of the Middle Pleistocene (500.000 to 125.000 years BP)

“A few lithic industries found in the Barranc de la Boella site are big and standardized stone-tools (hand-axes),  repeated thanks to a complex learning based on a skilled choice of the stone-raw material” suggest Josep Vallverdú.

The archaeologist continue: “With the presentation in the PLOS ONE, the Barranc de la Boella site testify that there are episodes of human dispersals dating between one million and 780.000 years ago which is possible to found distinct cultural traditions or technologies in the archaeological record of the Iberian peninsula in a similar way that occurs in the sub-Saharan Africa between 1.8 and 1 million years ago; and possibly is observed in Central Europe between 700.000 and 200.000 years BP”.

Vallverdú continues: “These temporal spans are different time windows in distinct geographical latitudes of the Old World; when de biogeography of the acheulian technology first occurs in the sub-Saharan Africa, and after Nord Africa and Eurasia”. “It is probable –says- that this biogeography point out distinct episodes of migration out-of-Africa of the humankind, or the transmission of the technological knowledge, to Eurasia (firstly with the form of dispersion and after as colonization): the first biological dispersions with oldowan and acheulian technologies; and finally, the definitive acheulian colonization of Eurasia. The acheulian colonization of Africa finished one million years ago, just when begin their dispersion to Europe; their expansion in some areas of Eurasia, 500.000  years before present, is based on the adaptation to temperate biomes of the Northern hemisphere of the Earth, and thus to colonize Europe definitively”.

Experimental research and faunal remains

In the other hand, the Journal of Arcaheological Science have published recently an article about the faunal record of the Barranc de la Boella, with Antonio Pineda, student of the Maser Erasmus Mundus Quaternari i Prehistoria de la URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili), as first author, and Palmira Saladie and Josep M. Vergés as senior researchers. The study describes the experimental results based on bone-surface modifications observed in the Barranc de la Boella faunal record.

In the Barranc de la Boella there are abundant bone surfaces affected by chemical weathering caused by the acidity of the sediments. As a result, some modifications of the bone assemblage are weathered and their identification is not easy. Between them, there are the cut-marks (produced by humans with stone-tools on bone surfaces) and the trampling (caused by the contact between the sediment and the bone surface). Both marks are analogues and their fit identification is important in order to agents for taphonomical and human-behaviour studies.

The experiments consist of replicating the cut-marks and trampling in current bone surfaces and, after, causing a chemical weather in order to compare the bones with the archaeological record of the Barranc de la Boella. The experimental results suggest that the two induced and weathered modifications are not distinguishable.

Thus, the agent of these bone surface modifications in the Barranc de la Boella site is difficult to argue, and as result often they will be not included as evidence in the zooarchaeological studies.

The experiment confirms that these kind of inferences can be allowed in archaeological researches with well preserved bone assemblages.

La Hoya de Baza, the Andalucía prehistoric spa

A scientific paper published in the journal of Quaternary Science Reviews endorses a strong hydrothermal activity in the area during the last million years

1.5 million years ago there was a lake with a permanent sheet of water that was partially fed by hot springs around 36º C


The Guadix-Baza, located in the Granada highlands and surrounded by the highest peaks of the Betic Cordillera (Sierra Nevada, Sierra de Baza, Sierra de las Estancias, Sierras de la Sagra, Cazorla and Segura) is a semidesert region of unusual beauty, whose landscape recalls the last strongholds of the moorish kingdom in Andalucia. Its regions harbor a unique historical and natural heritage, giving it an international dimension to this wild region. Thus, in the Hoya de Baza depression, are found the most important archaeo-paleontological localities in the northern stream of the Mediterranean, only comparable to the legendary Rift Valley in East Africa.

Currently at several sites in the basin, located in the vicinity of the village of Orce, as Barranco León, Fuente Nueva-3 and Venta Micena are taking place systematic excavations sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of the Junta de Andalucia, in an unprecedent effort to value this heritage. These excavations have recovered the oldest fossil evidence of human presence in Western Europe, dated at one million four hundred thousand years, accurately documenting the ecological and paleoenvironmental setting of the large mammal communities where these remote villagers were inserted, developed in the environment of a large salty lake.

However, the basin holds many other surprises, as the work that has just appeared in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, an elite review of the Quaternary research. It analyzes and documents a variety of geochemical evidence, mineralogical and stratigraphic, as the presence of celestine deposits of native sulfur, magnesium clays, stromatolites and travertine formations, pointing to the existence of a strong hydrothermal activity in the region during the last million years.

The study was led by Dr. José Manuel García Aguilar, professor at the University of Malaga, along with other scientists from the fields of Paleontology, Stratigraphy and Botany from the same center, as Drs. Antonio Flores Moya, Antonio Guerra Merchan, Paul Palmqvist Barrena and Francisco Serrano Lozano, as well as Dr. Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, ICREA researcher at the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES), who is the coordinator in turn of the paleontological research project at Orce.

About this hydrotherapy, which is linked to the evolution of the basin fill, product of the erosion of the surrounding mountains and conditioned by the existence of high seismicity manifested by the presence of numerous active faults, stay today as ruins in the spas at Alicún of Torres or Zújar, or the less warm water springs of Fuencaliente in Orce and Huescar, among others.

Unusual aspects

It is precisely the discovery of such anomalies related to hydrothermal phenomena which can explain a number of unusual aspects of La Hoya de Baza in the early Pleistocene, about 1.5 million years ago, at the time the deposit of Venta Micena was formed, as the existence of a lake that held a sheet of permanent water throughout the year. The rain that falls today in the region just represents 350 millimeters per year, clearly insufficient to recharge the aquifer when it was an endorheic basin. This means that the lake would have drained seasonally, as today in the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, current analog but in a smaller scale of Lake Baza.

In addition, the low winter temperatures would have indicated the freeze of the water surface, which would preclude the existence of certain elements of the fauna, as the giant Pleistocene hippopotamus, well documented in the  paleontological region. “Now, this megaherbivore, whose body mass is the double of that of the current specie, had a greater dependence on the liquid medium, as was only fed with the aquatic vegetation,” says Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro.

The key lies in the isotopic values ​​recovered in the fossil collagen of the fauna at Venta Micena, they indicate that a million and a half years ago, rainfall in the basin of Baza, was around 800 milliliters, much more higher than the actual. This water level, added to the hotsprings whose temperatures were around the 36 ° C, would result in the hydrological stability of the lake, necessary for the existence of the fauna with a significant subtropical character. This scenario configure what is known as a hotspot of a high biological productivity, similar to that found in the chain of lakes in East Africa, cradle of humanity.


García-Aguilar, J.M et al. “Hydrothermal activity and its paleoecological implications in the latest Miocene to Middle Pleistocene lacustrine environments of the Baza Basin (Betic Cordillera, SE Spain)”. Quaternary Science Reviews 96, 204-221 (2014)

A study of bears in the Pyrenees of Lleida helps to clarify how the behaviour of these animals was in prehistory

It has been found that bears are quite different from other carnivorous predators possibly because of the shape of their paws and their omnivorous diet

This work identifies the authorship of bites and fractures produced by different carnivores there thanks to the shooting of bears consuming carcasses and the involvement of the Equips de Seguiment de l’Ós Bru del Conselh Generau d’Aran i del Pallars Sobirà

The results can be applied in the Atapuerca Caves and Cova de les Llenes (Pallars Jussà, Lleida)


Bears are one of the most iconic prehistoric animals. Their cave habits are well known, particularly those related to hibernation, which makes them very common in the oldest archaeological sites. Their behaviour, however, is still largely unknown, especially as carnivorous consumers of the other animals. In fact, in many fields their presence has been inferred from bites on the bones of other animals, including dead bears during hibernation. However, the characterization of these animals from a taphonomic point of view (study of the brands associated with the bones and teeth) is still an unresolved archaeological assessment. A new study published in the journalPLOS ONE lead by IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) aims to clarify this subject.

The archaeologist Jordi Rosell, researcher and professor at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili of Tarragona, IPHES member and one of the signers of the article, highlights one of the singularities of this research now presented: “Some previous studies based their conclusions on very small samples or work done with captive breeding animals, which have a quite different behaviour of the wild. We have studied 17 carcasses eaten by bears in the Pyrenees of Lleida (Spain) and were able to identify patterns of consume of the whole corpses from these animals”.

The study has been carried out by Jordi Rosell, Maite Arilla (also IPHES), in collaboration with Ruth Blasco, post-doctoral researcher Beatriu of Pinós-A, co-financed by the European Union through the Acciones Marie Curie of the 7th Programme framework for I + D; Manuel Domínguez Rodrigo from the Complutense University of Madrid and Travis R. Pickering, University of Wiskonsin.

The objective was to characterize the bears as carnivores, to distinguish them from other predators and hominids. “The great virtue of this research is that it will serve to help to identify not only whether a body found in a site was eaten by a bear, or what kind of carnivore did it,” said Jordi Rosell.

Distinguishing the types of bites

Bears are very abundant in the prehistoric sites, especially in caves, and as carnivores produce many disturbances, as they die inside after hibernation, the bodies of the deceased bears are eaten, mixed with the garbage left by hominids, etc. “In this case,  continued Rosell, “we have focused on a very specific aspect: consumption of whole carcasses to see what could happen when a bear find one of them and what types of bites left. After doing this work, we are now able to check whether the observed behaviour of the actual bears was reproduced in the past species, such as the cave bear, or even earlier”.

The goal has been achieved through the collaboration of the Equips de Seguiment de l’Ós Bru del Conselh Generau d’Aran i del Pallars Sobirà Cova de les Llenes (Pallars Jussà, Lleida) and of DAAM (Departament d’Agricultura, Ramaderia, Pesca, Alimentació i Medi Ambient) de la Generalitat de Catalunya, which has allowed 17 carcasses eaten by bears in the Pyrenees of Lleida. In addition, thanks to them, the researchers have obtained the images of natural dead animals and those scavenged by bears from photo-trap and video-trap, and used the images to track the patterns of consumption of these animals. Simultaneously,  the animal carcasses that were hunted by the bears were collected and studied.

Video and photo traps

The photo-trap is where cameras with motion sensors are placed around the corpses, so that a bear is captured in pictures and you can follow its process of consumption. “Obviously, this can only be done in cases of scavengers when the guards know about the natural death of an animal. They go and put the cameras”, said Jordi Rosell.

Bears skin corpses

According to this research, bears begin the eating sequence skinning corpses, “a phenomenon that has not been observed between any other carnivore”, said Jordi Rosell. “Then show a preference for the rib cage and the visceras contained, which consistently consume after fracturing the ribs and part of the vertebrae squashing with their front legs, or expanding them with their hands. In contrast, do not seem to show much interest in the muscle mass of the legs”, said the same archaeologist.

Statistical treatment

All these observations have enabled to establish comparisons, using a statistical treatment of the changes produced by bears on the bones of animals eaten (fractures and signs of bites) with those made by other European predators (wolves) and African (lions and hyenas). These data have also been obtained by some of the authors in previous works. “The results show bears as different carnivores from the others, which could be related to their physiology and their omnivorous habits, since these animals do not rely exclusively on meat to survive,” said Rosell.

Thus, this work is a global reference for interpreting the activities of different predators that are found in archaeological sites. Examples of the Iberian Peninsula where these results can be applied due to the abundance of these animals are the caves in Atapuerca (Burgos) or Cova de les Llenes (Pallars Jussà, Lleida)

The IPHES and other international teams sum efforts to know better the use and functions of the prehistoric tools

Researchers from Paris have been in Tarragona to move forward in the study of the microscopic use wear of the stone tools.

The discipline in charge is Traceology, and it will have a specific section within the international congress UISPP done in Burgos during September.


An international team made ​​up of scientists from Paris and IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution) have joined efforts to become more competent in the knowledge of the use of prehistoric tools. In this context, Marie- Hélène Moncely and Antony Borel (researchers of the Prehistory Departement at– Muséum National d’ Histoire Naturelle ), Sabine Martin (grant holder at the University of Exeter, UK), Antonella Pedergnana (grant holder at IPHES) and Andreu Ollé (researcher in the IPHES and associate professor at the URV -Universitat Rovira i Virgili) recently held a working meeting in Tarragona.

As part of this meeting in IPHES, the researchers have presented one of their investigation lines, “The quartz and quartzite tools from Payre: technology and use – wear analysis on the technology and functionality of the tools (Traceology) in quartz and quartzite of the French site of Payre “The problematic was presented, such as the work done and the two thesis that have been launched this year with two new predoctoral achieved in 2014: A research training -FI– of the Generalitat of Catalunya, for Antonella Pedergnana, and one from the University of Exeter, to Sabine Martin, points Andreu Ollé. Both researchers have formed as students in the mobility of theErasmus Mundus in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution in the URV.

The complementary nature of the devices

The same researcher noted: “In addition, all together in IPHES, were watching how the different microscopes available can be used, such as the optical microscopes of our institute and the electronic ones of the Microscopy Service of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, hopefully those joining in the near future in our scientific network (such as Confocal Laser Microscope, digital microscopes, etc), in the specific subject of study of quartz and quartzite.

In the working sessions also participated Juan Luis Fernández Marchena, who last year defended a DEA (Diploma of Advanced Studies ) in the field of Traceology, but in an another type of quartz and crystal rock. Who a few days ago also made a presentation on the IPHES entitled “Functional Analysis of Crystal Rock Artifacts in theEiros Cave: Experimental Approach Traceology and use waste”.

Research Summary

All these initiatives are included in the microscopic use-wear research analysis of prehistoric stone tools, which is inside the unit of lithic technology of the IPHES. The discipline that deals with this type of study is the Traceology, which aims the study of the stone tools. “It is based on microscopic analysis of these artefacts and the description of the marks (polished, impacts, stretch marks … ) that remain on the surface as a result of their use”, says Andreu Ollé.

“The principle that applies is: every action performed and each work leaves features or marks that to be recognized needs essentially two things. They need to be experimentally reproduced and characterized with the help of meticulous microscopic observation, so far has basically included the use of conventional optical microscopy and scanning electron microscopy”, adds the same investigator.


Traceology data is used to identify if an archaeological artefact is really an instruments, how they were used and what specific activities are represented (butchery, abandoned skins, wood work… ) is conducted at the sites studied in the IPHES, such as Atapuerca , Abric Romani, the Boella or Cativera.

“Our interest in the application of Traceology, the different techniques in the microscopic observation and the collaboration between different specialists has led in to the organization of a specific session in the next international congress of the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (UISPP), which be held next September in Burgos”, Andreu Ollé stated. This session is entitled “Recent Trends and Aspects of Use-wear Analysis and their contribution to the Modernization of Archaeology ” and is coordinated by the same investigator, along with Juan José Ibáñez (CSIC), Adrian E. Evans (Univ. Bradford ) and Laura Longo (Musei Civici Fiorentini).