The first Europeans: leading roles in a special issue of Quaternary International

The volume focuses on the results of recent investigations discussed in the XVIIth World UISPP Congress held in Burgos in 2014.

The guest editors of the volume are researchers from IPHES.

A growing body of evidence from sites with stone tools confirms that humans occupied Western Europe from 1.4-1.2 million of years ago.

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The renowned international scientific journal Quaternary International recently published a special issue devoted to current research about the first hominins in Western Europe. The data included is based on discussions which took place during the XVIIth World Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences Congress, held in Burgos in September 2014, in which the IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Palaeocology and Social Evolution) contributed significantly. The editors of this special volume, entitled The first peopling of Europe and technological change during the Lower-Middle Pleistocene transition are all members of IPHES: Deborah Barsky, Marina Mosquera, Andreu Ollé and Xosé Pedro Rodríguez-Álvarez.

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The data included is based on discussions which took place during the XVIIth World Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences Congress, held in Burgos in September 2014 – D. Dainat-EPCC-CERPT

The articles included in this volume are the result of the debates that were held by the UISPP Commission “The First Humans in Europe” and which were developed in two specific sessions. The first, entitled “The first peopling of Europe”, dealt with the increasing evidence for “core-and-flake” lithic assemblages dating to the late Lower Pleistocene (between 1.4 and 1.2 million of years ago) in Europe. The second, entitled “Technological change during the Lower-Middle Pleistocene transition in Europe”, revealed new data attesting to the existence of archaeological sites with assemblages attributed to the first European Acheulean, some of which are in excess of 800.000 years old. This new evidence raises debates since this technological tradition is generally believed to have been generalised in Europe only after 500.000 years ago.

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(Left) General view of excavations at the Bois-de-Riquet arqueological site at Lézignan-la-Cèbe (France). (Right) Detail of the fossil-rich archeological level US2 of this site. (Photos: D. Barsky).

The volume contains 15 papers, 13 of which offer new data on already known sites or exposes entirely new data about recently discovered sites, with a chronology ranging from the end of the Lower Pleistocene (around 1.5 million years) to the mid-Middle Pleistocene (around 300.000 years ago). These papers reveal crucial information regarding the first human settlements in Europe and the appearance of the first European Acheulean. The sites included in the volume are: Kermek (Ciscaucasia), Bois-de-Riquet (Lézignan-la-Cèbe, France), Pirro Nord (Italy), Barranc de la Boella and La Cansaladeta (Tarragona, Spain; directed and studied by members of IPHES), as well as La Noira (France), Alto de Picarazas and Valle del Ebro (Spain) and La Ficoncella and Atella (Italia).

In addition, the volume includes two contributions presenting theoretical approaches, one of them focuses on the mechanisms of technological transitions, and the other on introducing computational modelling to illustrate the arrival of the first hominins into Western Europe.

Bibliographical reference

Barsky, D., Mosquera, M., Ollé, A., Rodríguez-Álvarez, X.P. (Eds.) 2016. “The first peopling of Europe and technological change during the Lower-Middle Pleistocene transition”, Quaternary International, vol. 393.

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Clarifying the origins of Sima de los Huesos hominins

Analysis of nuclear DNA isolated from hominins from the 430,000 year-old Sima de los Huesos locality in northern Spain, in Atapuerca (Burgos) provides more conclusive evidence of their evolutionary history. The findings are reported in Nature this week. Eudald Carbonell, researcher IPHES, is coauthor of the article.

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Until now it has been unclear how the 28 hominin individuals found at the Middle Pleistocene Sima de los Huesos (‘pit of bones’) site were related to hominins who lived in the Late Pleistocene and, in particular, to Neanderthals and Denisovans. A previous report based on analyses of mitochondrial genomes (DNA from the mitochondria) from these specimens suggested a close relationship to Denisovans, which is in contrast to other archaeological evidence, including morphological features that the Sima de los Huesos hominins shared with Neanderthals living in the Late Pleistocene.

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Bone powder removed from a thigh bone that yielded the first DNA sequences from the 430,000-year-old hominins from Sima de los Huesos, Spain – Javier Trueba, MADRID SCIENTIFIC FILMS

Using very sensitive sample isolation and genome sequencing technologies, Matthias Meyer (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany) and colleagues extracted and analyzed nuclear DNA sequences from two specimens from Sima de los Huesos, as well as mitochondrial DNA from one of the two specimens. The nuclear DNA shows that these hominins belong to the Neanderthal evolutionary lineage and are more closely related to Neanderthals than to Denisovans. This finding indicates that population divergence between Denisovans and Neanderthals occurred prior to 430,000 years ago.

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Matthias Meyer at work in the clean lab – Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Consistent with the previous study, analysis of the mitochondrial DNA supports a closer relationship to Denisovans than Neanderthals, leading the authors to speculate that the mitochondrial DNA seen in Late Pleistocene Neanderthals may have been acquired by them at a later stage, perhaps owing to gene flow from Africa. They propose that retrieval of further mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from Middle Pleistocene fossils could help to further clarify the evolutionary relationship between Middle and Late Pleistocene hominins in Eurasia.

Javier Fernández-López de Pablo, researcher of the IPHES, awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant 2015

 Javier Fernández-López de Pablo, researcher of the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), has been awarded a  ERC Consolidator Grant to develop a 5-year research project entitled “Late Glacial and Postglacial Population History and Cultural Transmission in Iberia 15,000-8,000 cal BP” (PALEODEM).

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Javier Fernández López de Pablo (PI, first on the left) with other PALEODEM team members and scientific collaborators: Antoni Canals, Ethel Allué, Smantha Jones, Luce Prignano, Sergi Lozano, Magdalena Gómez and Francesc Burjachs.

This project aims to reconstruct population dynamics  between the Late Magdalenian and the Late Mesolithic (between 15,000 and 8,000 years ago) in the Iberian Peninsula, a period that witnessed major climatic and environmental transformations whose impact on human demography still remain unknown. PALEODEM project will compare different palaeodemographic indicators with multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental reconstructions to understand how climate change affected relative population levels at local, regional and macro-regional scales. Finally, the Project will introduce network analysis and computational Agent Based Modelling to study how long-term changes in population density and connectivity influenced cultural transmission and cultural change.

In the European Research Area, the ERC Consolidator Grant is the top funding scheme supporting recognized researchers (7 to 12 years after their PhD) to consolidate their own independent research team or programme.