International publication on new methods for studying human behaviour

A special volume of the journal Quaternary International will be published by two IPHES members, a Japanese researcher and a UAM lecturer.

It includes the most significant results of a scientific session co-organised by IPHES researchers as part of a conference held in Japan in 2016.

New techniques such as the spatial analysis of refits (fitting pieces together) have revealed that Neanderthal communities recycled tools.

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When a research project focusses on assemblages of remains recovered from an archaeological site, those remains should not be considered as a snapshot of a specific moment in life, but rather as the sum of different events that took place over time. Identifying each of these episodes and studying them in detail to understand what the populations that preceded us were like presents an enormous challenge. To discuss new methods to help achieve this goal, a scientific session was held in 2016, co-organised by researchers from IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution) as part of the 8th World Archaeological Congress (WAC-8), which was attended by more than 1,000 specialists from five continents.

The journal Quaternary International has now published a volume titled Multidisciplinary approaches in the definition of high-resolution events to interpret past human behaviour: a new challenge in archaeology. The editors are Francesca Romagnoli, currently a lecturer at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM), but who at that time belonged to IPHES; Florent Rivals and Manuel Vaquero, who are associated with IPHES; and Yoshihiro Nishiaki from the University of Tokyo.

The volume contains eight articles on the characterisation of high-resolution events in the archaeological record, i.e. moments in human evolution that have been thoroughly documented at archaeological sites and that allow each of these episodes and their primary characteristics to be identified through studies involving wide variety of diverse disciplines. Like imprints, these places accumulate data that specialists then try to collect and interpret.

The articles cover the chronological period spanning from the Middle Palaeolithic (about 100,000 years ago) to the Bronze Age (about 2,000 years ago). A valuable contribution that can be gleaned from this is the observation that the approach taken to analysing events is not related to any specific problem or period but can be applied to any point in prehistory. One of the specific objectives of the publication and of the first conference was to illustrate that the difficulties in studying human behaviour are not specific to the Palaeolithic, but also apply to any subsequent period. As such, the texts compiled in this volume of Quaternary International address the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and the Palaeolithic.

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Just as there are many different periods in prehistory, there are a wide variety of approaches, methods and records. For example, some studies focus on the lithic industry, such as that recovered at Abric Romaní in Capellades near Barcelona, a Neanderthal settlement dating to some 55,000 years ago, where new methods like GIS (Geographic Information System) analysis and statistical language software have been applied, the use of which has helped to identify areas where Neanderthals conducted specific activities and to locate common areas, which has shed light on the dynamics of these human groups.

Also at the Abric Romaní and as part of the project financed by MINECO (Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness) directed by Manuel Vaquero and Florent Rivals, new techniques like the spatial analysis of refits (fitting different pieces together) has revealed that Neanderthal communities recycled some of their tools, a very good indicator of their economic strategies.

Other approaches to studying the past covered in the volume address the study of a wide variety of archaeological materials. For example, Japanese researcher Y. Nishiaki’s study analyses Neolithic mud structures at a site in Azerbaijan to identify reconstruction events. Another article describing a study by Florent Rivals examines the analysis of dental microwear observed in animal fossil remains, which yields data on diet, and consequently, the seasonality of a site, in this case in the Upper Palaeolithic in Russia.

A particularly interesting contribution due to its novelty is the analysis of rock fragments from caves blackened by smoke. The origin of these remains is the result of the following sequence: human groups make a fire inside a cavity, the smoke from the fire permeates the ceiling in the form of soot, and each occupation (and fire) event deposits a new layer of soot. When a block falls from the ceiling to the ground, it remains in that archaeological level. Microscopic analyses of these layers of soot allow researchers to identify different occupational episodes in the cave. This study was conducted by Ségolène Vandevelde in two Upper Pleistocene sites, one in the south of France (Grotte Mandrin) and the other in Andorra (Balma de la Margineda).

 

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