Montane Pine Forests Reached the Northeastern Coast of the Iberian Peninsula 50,000 Years Ago

A study conducted by the UAB and the IPHES confirms a continuous presence of montane coniferous forests from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean coast from 50,000 to 15,000 years ago

Carbon analysis of the Cova Gran de Santa Linya indicates that there were abundant Scots pine forests which were used as the main source of firewood by the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens inhabiting the area


The analysis of charcoal from the hearths of the Cova Gran settlement, located in Les Avellanes-Santa Linya, Lleida, at 385 metres above sea level, confirms that montane forests of the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula covered the Pyrenees and reached the Mediterranean coast some 50,000 to 15,000 years ago, with a large predominance of montane pine trees and most probably Scots pine.

The study also allowed researchers to obtain detailed information on the type of firewood preferred by Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens, who successively inhabited the Pyrenean shelter during this period.

The research was conducted by Rafael Mora, Jorge Martínez-Moreno and Miquel Roy from the Centre for the Study of Prehistoric Archaeological Heritage, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (CEPAP-UAB), in collaboration with Ethel Allué, from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) and the Rovira i Virgili University (URV), and Alfonso Benito-Calvo, from the National Centre for Research on Human Evolution (CENIEH). It was published in the journal Review of Palaecobotany and Palynology.

Researchers analysed a total of more than 1,200 carbon fragments from the hearths of some fifteen archaeological units. “The anthracological analysis of such a compound used during so many years as is Cova Gran, together with data from other sites in the region, indicates a hegemonic presence of Scots pine in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula and demonstrates that despite the occurrence of extreme climate changes, the montane coniferous forests cover was continuous”, says IPHES researcher Ethel Allué.

The range of periods covered by the study climatically corresponds to two marine isotope stages (MIS): the MIS 3, (between 59,000 and 29,000 years ago) with relatively short warm periods alternated with cold cycles, and the MIS 2 (from 29,000 to 15,000 years ago), with extremely cold conditions.

“The resilience of these pine trees allowed them to adapt to rigorous ecological and environmental conditions, colder and more arid than now, and be able to live in the plains and Mediterranean pre-coastal range”, the researcher affirms.

Scots pine wood is practically the only firewood identified in the different chronocultural phases recognized in the Cova Gran: Late Middle Paleolithic (LMP), Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP) and Magdalenian. The abundance of hearths located in this Pre-Pyrenean shelter and the fact that Neanderthals and modern humans used it, indicates that both species used these trees systematically for firewood.

A detail of a carbon identified in the Great Cave of Santa Linya corresponding to the Upper Paleolithic Superior – Foto: CEPAP-UAB

“The registries made at Cova Gran in Santa Linya allows us to delve deeper into the aspects of the site’s landscape and the biogeography of a tree which was essential to the survival of Ice Age hunter-gatherers”, indicates CEPAP-UAB Director Rafael Mora. “The continuity in choosing this type of firewood at this site must have been due to its abundance in the immediate surroundings, even though being easy to light and a high energy content also favored the intentional gathering of this type of wood. In consistency, this allows us to strengthen our hypothesis of the continuous presence in the region of these stable and resilient montane pine forests”, he concludes.

Scots pine can currently be found in the range of the northeastern region of the Pre-Pyrenees, at altitudes greater than 600 metres. Current climate conditions, which began to appear some 15,000 years ago, made them retrocede to higher and colder altitudes, while other species such as Aleppo pine, oak and holm oak began to populate the lower wooded areas.

The archaeological site of Cova Gran de Santa Linya, discovered in 2002, measures over 2,500 square metres and is considered to be essential for the study of human presence in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula. Its wide chronological spectrum ranges from 50,000 to 7,000 years ago, which allows researchers to reconstruct the life of humans living in Catalonia’s pre-Pyrenees region.

It is one of the few sites in the Mediterranean in which moments of “transition” have been identified, such as that of the last Neanderthals and the appearance of the first modern humans, or the moment in which hunter-gatherers gave way to the first farmers and herders.

In 2016 engravings dating back to the Upper Paleolithic were discovered on the walls of the rock shelter and are considered to be the earliest artistic representations existing in Catalonia. This year, the head of a deer engraved in bone was found in the layer of the same time period.

Throughout these fifteen years numerous material remains have been recovered, including assegais, needles and bone ornaments such as a perforated deer tooth from the Upper Paleolithic’s Magdalenian epoch. Discoveries from the Neolithic period include several layers of livestock stabling, known as pen deposit.

With regard to hearths, it is one of the sites in the Iberian Peninsula in which the greatest number of hearths have been identified. This demonstrates the importance of fire and its management for the daily life of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. This source of energy not only allowed them to obtain and process food and generate light and heat. It also actively contributed to cementing the relationships among components of the groups inhabiting Cova Gran.


Ethel Allué; Jorge Martínez-Moreno; Miquel Roy; Alfonso Benito Calvo, Rafael Mora. (2018). “Montane pine forests in NE Iberia during MIS 3 and MIS 2. A study based on new anthracological evidence from Cova Gran (Santa Linya, Iberian Pre-Pyrenees)”. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. DOI: 10.1016/j.revpalbo.2018.06.012

New clues about the everyday activities of the first humans

Research provides new data on the use of large tools, such as heavy-duty scrapers, documented onwards from 2.5 million years ago, while many of their uses are still unknown.

catalàespañol photos

osIt is recognized that more than 2.5 million years ago in Africa, hominins were already using large-sized stone tools, such as heavy-duty scrapers, but we still do not know the variety of uses they had. For this reason, a team from the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) has carried out a comprehensive historical and archeological review of these tools, and has experimented to reproduce those found at Orce (Granada), with an age of over 1.3 million years.

Heavy-duty scrapers are tools with a convex and very abrupt extremity displaying traces of use, such as crush marks or irregular retouch. These large tools could have been used for butchery or other kinds of daily tasks that included materials such as wood, tendons or skins. This is explained in the article recently published in the International Journal Comptes Rendus Palevol: “Defining heavy-duty scrapers: their appearance and significance in ancient stone toolkits” by IPHES members Deborah Barsky, Josep Maria Vergès, Stefania Titton, Miquel Guardiola and Robert Sala, who have carried out the research in collaboration with Isidro Toro-Moyano of the Archaeological and Ethnological Museum of Granada.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, heavy-duty scrapers were initially interpreted as intentionally manufactured tools. They were subsequently considered as summarily knapped cores. However, these tools have stigmas that show evidence of their subsequent use. The publication offers a global vision that helps to understand the functional meaning of heavy-duty scrapers, as well as important new archeological and experimental results on percussion technologies during the Lower and Middle Pleistocene, that is, between 2.5 and 100,000 years ago.

This work is the result of a broader research project, underway since 2010, exploring the meaning of the heavy-duty tools that are ubiquitous in ancient stone toolkits. The project specifically addresses questions relating to what these heavy percussion tools can tell us about the types of activities that ancient humans were performing in their daily lives.

The authors provide a wide-ranging review of the documentation available for heavy-duty scrapers, addressing the much-needed renovation of its definitions in accordance to their chrono-geographical representation in major archeological sites. They demonstrate that heavy-duty scraper morphologies appeared at the very onset of hominin toolmaking; during the Oldowan cultural period, which began in Africa some 2.5 million years ago.

Heavy-duty scrapers documented in Orce (Granada, Spain) – Foto: IPHES

The tool is characterized by its flat surface, oriented perpendicularly to an abrupt and convex edge displaying removals, steep retouch and crush marks.

Tools matching these special features are recognized in Oldowan sites in Africa, for example, in Bed I of Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania, 1.8 Ma) and Fejej FJ-1a (Ethiopia, 1.9 Ma), and also in Eurasian sites like, Dmanisi (1.8 Ma, Georgia) Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3 (Spain, 1.4 and 1.2 Ma, respectively), amongst others.

Results show that the heavy-duty scraper morphotype persisted into the Developed Oldowan (ca. 1.6-1.5 Ma), for example at Koobi Fora, Kenya, and at Ubeidiya, Israel, and that it was later replaced, during the Large Flake Acheulian phase (1.5 – 0.8 Ma), by Massive Scrapers made on Large Flakes (examples: Lower Bed II at Olduvai Gorge and Gesher Benot Ya’akov, in Israel). Finally, during the Late Acheulian, smaller tools made on cores and regular flakes (French: Rabots) present similar characteristics that blend progressively into the group of end-scrapers.

Experimental archeology permitted the IPHES team to test the possible or probable uses of heavy-duty scrapers to perform different kinds of percussive activities; including working wood, bone, meat and tendons. This allows them to propose that heavy-duty scrapers could have served to work soft materials on stone anvils.


Deborah Barsky, Josep-Maria Vergès, StefaniaTitton, Miquel Guardiola, Robert Sala Ramos, Isidro Toro Moyano, 2018. “Defining heavy-duty scrapers: their appearance and significance in ancient stone toolkits”. Comptes Rendus Palevol 17 (3), 201-219.