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.

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Link to the article in PLOS ONE

http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0103634

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.

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