Category Archives: General

Systematic manufacture of skull cups was a ritual from the end of Palaeolithic to Bronze Age

It has been revealed through the study of cut marks on fossils from Atapuerca and other European sites

The extraction of the scalp and meat was meticulous and intended to clean this part of the body in order to make bowls

The research has been led by Francesc Marginedas, a student of the Erasmus Mundus Master’s in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution Degree at the Rovira i Virgili University

Skull cups from El Mirador Cave in Atapuerca. Photo: IPHES/Psaladie


The ritual use of human skulls has been documented in several archaeological sites of different chronologies and geographical areas. This practice could be related to decapitations for obtaining war trophies, to the production of masks, as decorative elements (even with engravings) or to what is known as skull cups. In fact, some ancient societies considered that human skulls possessed powers or life force, justifying sometimes its collection as evidences of superiority and authority during violent confrontations.

Different signals preserved on the bones help us to recognize possible ceremonial practices. The most common modifications related to the ritual treatment of skulls are those produced by stone tools or metal knives, that is, cut marks, during scalp removal. This practice is archeologically well documented among American Paleo-Indians, for example, who show circular arrangements around the head as signs of this type of practices.

Representation of the cut marks (blue) found in the skulls from El Mirador Cave (Atapuerca) – IPHES

In Europe, skull cup have been identified in assemblages ranging from Upper Paleolithic, about 20,000 years old to the Bronze age, about 4,000 years ago. The meticulous fracturing of these skulls suggests that they are not only related to the need to extract the brain for nutritional purposes, but that they were specifically and intentionally fractured for obtaining containers or vessels. This is evidenced in a study carried out by a team of researchers from IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution), the URV (Rovira and Virgili University of Tarragona) and the Natural History Museum in London (NHML), which have developed a statistical analysis to assess whether the cut marks on skull fragments of the TD6.2 level of Gran Dolina in Atapuerca, Gough’s Cave (Great Britain), Fontbrégoua (France), Herxheim (Germany), and la Cueva de El Mirador also in Atapuerca respond to a systematic processing.

Map of the sites treated in the paper

The results conclude that these striate certainly respond to a specific pattern in the most recent chronological sites, showing treating skulls practices that were perpetrated during almost 15,000 years. The results of this research have been published in the prestigious Journal of Archaeological Science. The study has been led by Francesc Marginedas, who is currently pursuing the Erasmus Mundus Master in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution (taught at the URV) and doing his research work in IPHES under the supervision of Dr. Palmira Saladié. Marginedas studied the degree in “Cultural Anthropology and Human Evolution”, jointly taught by the URV and the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). It was while he was receiving these courses that he began his research career, specializing in this subject.

Francesc Marginedas first author of the paper and student of the Master of Archeology of Quaternary of the URV. Photo: IPHES/Psaladie

The study considered the bone as a map on which surface modifications are distributed and where it can be assessed whether if it is possible to identify specific patterns on  the elaboration of cup skulls, by comparing evidences among the different sites mentioned above.  Specific modifications related to this human behaviour have been identified and the relevance of the cut marks location in specific areas of the skulls has been statistically described. Signals made by using stone tools, when meticulously and repeatedly extracting the scalp and meat., Actions that indicate an intense cleaning of skulls in the specific cases of Gough’s Cave, Fontbrégoua, Herxheim and El Mirador. However, this model has not been observed on the remains of Homo antecessor from level TD6.2.

Systematic fabrication of the skulls began with the removal of the scalp and continued with the removal of muscle tissue. The elaboration of the skulls ended fracturing them to preserve the thickest part of the cranial vault. The use of these container-shaped bones is still unknown. The repetition of this observed pattern provides new evidences of skulls preparation for ritual practices, and are associated in most cases to human cannibalism during recent Prehistory.


Marginedas, F., Rodríguez-Hidalgo, A., Soto, M., Bello, S.M., Cáceres, I., Huguet, R., Saladié, P., 2020. Making skull cups: Butchering traces on cannibalised human skulls from five European archaeological sites. Journal of Archaeological Science. 114: 105076. DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2020.105076

A study provides new data on the bears preserved in the site of Dmanisi in the Caucasus 1.8 million years ago

The journal Scientific Reports, edited by the Nature group, clarifies the characteristics of the species Ursus etruscus, the ancestor of the Cave Bear lineage

Three members of IPHES participate in this research: Tsegai Medin, Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro and Florent Rivals


The Dmanisi site, 1.8 million-years-old, is located in the Republic of Georgia, in the heart of the Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This paleontological locality records the earliest human presence located outside Africa. In addition, it preserves an extraordinary collection of paleontological remains, with a variety of spectacular extinct mammals. This collection of fossils is deposited, together with many others from the rich Georgian sites, in the National Museum of Georgia, in Tbilisi, and is now under study.

This study has been performed by three researchers from the IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution) and the Prehistory Area of ​​the URV (Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona) -Tsegai Medin (fellow of the Atapuerca Foundation), Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro and Florent Rivals (ICREA Research Professors)-, together with other paleontologist from the National Museum of Georgia –David Lordkipanidze, Gocha Kiladze and Giorgi Kopaliani-,  the University of Málaga-Borja Figueirido and Paul Palmqvist-, and the ICP (Catalan Institute of Paleontology Miquel Crusafont) – Joan Madurell-Malapeira-. They have carried out the classification of the bear fossil remains that inhabited the emblematic paleoanthropological Early Pleistocene site of Dmanisi, and have described the diet of this extinct species. For doing so, the study has combined the anatomical study with the use of morphometric data and other techniques for estimating dental microwear, which have allowed comparing the Dmanisi bears with other fossil and extant species.

The jaw of the bear of Dmanisi – Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro/IPHES

The teeth of the Dmanisi bear show a wide variation in size and correspond to the species Ursus etruscus, described two centuries ago, in 1823, by the great French paleontologist Georges Cuvier. Therefore, the systematic adscription of this ursid has been subject to controversy; in fact, in 1995, the late Professor Abesalom Vekua, from the Georgian Academy of Sciences, based on the high differences in size among the specimens, considered that there were two different species at Dmanisi, Ursus etruscus and Ursus sp. However, in this study it is observed that, regardless of size, all the specimens show a very similar anatomical variability. For this reason, the huge differences in the size of teeth are the result of an accused sexual dimorphism, where males are considerably larger than the females, as happens in the modern brown bears as well as in other fossil species. Ursus etruscus is also very well represented in the deposits of Orce: Venta Micena, Fuente Nueva-3 and Barranco León, the last two associated with human presence, as in Dmanisi.

The analysis of tooth microwear reports that the Dmanisi bears lived in a mixed environment, with prairies and patches of open forest, where they fed on fruit, tubercles and tree leaves, complementing their diet with variable amounts of meat and fish. Also, the comparative morphometric analysis of this fossil species with modern bears (brown, polar, Tibetan, etc.) confirms that the species of Dmanisi had an omnivorous diet, similar to that of the current brown bear, Ursus arctos.

The study also allows to discuss, based on this new evidence, on the ecological interactions of this fossil bear with other elements of the fauna, including the first hominins that dispersed outside Africa. It is especially interesting the relationship among the different omnivorous species, basically hominins, bears and pigs, which eat a variety of general foods, vegetable and animal products.

The study concludes that the degree of competition between hominins and bears was less than previously considered, because during the cold winter months, when edible leaves and soft fruits were scarce in the middle latitudes, hominins would have more dependence on animal products (meat and fat) and dry fruits (acorns, nuts, chestnuts, tubers, etc.) and bears would be hibernating. The study also concludes that pigs, which are active during the winter season, would maintain a greater competition with hominins, and this fact could possibly contribute to its extinction in Europe shortly after, disappearing from the European ecosystems during half a million years, until the latest Early Pleistocene, around 1.2 million-years-ago.

Bibliographic reference
Tsegai Medin., Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, Joan Madurell-Malapeira, Borja Figueirido, Giorgi Kopaliani, Florent Rivals, Giorgi Kiladze, Paul Palmqvist, and David Lordkipanidze, 2019. “The bears from Dmanish and the first dispersal of early Homo out of Africa.” Scientific Reports,

The last Neanderthal necklace

Found for the first time in the Peninsula: remains of personal ornaments with eagle talons from the Neanderthal Period 

These remains are older than 39,000 and were found in the cave Foradada in Calafell, they were probably part of a necklace

This use of eagle talons as ornaments could have been a cultural transmission from the Neanderthals to modern humans, who adopted this practice after reaching Europe

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Eagle talons are regarded as the first elements used to make jewelry by Neanderthals, a practice which spread around Southern Europe about 120,000 and 40,000 years ago. Now, for the first time, researchers found evidence of the ornamental uses of eagle talons in the Iberian Peninsula. An article published in the cover of the journal Science Advances talks about the findings, which took place in the site of the cave Foradada in Calafell (Tarragona, Spain). The article was led by Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, researcher at the Institute of Evolution in Africa (IDEA), researcher at the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) and member of the research team in a project of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the UB (University of Barcelona). Palmira Saladié is another author and she’s researcher at the IPHES too and teacher at the Rovira i Virgili University.

The interest in these findings lies in the fact that it is the most modern piece of the kind so far regarding the Neanderthal period and the first one found in the Iberian Peninsula. This circumstance widens the temporary and geographical limits that were estimated for this kind of Neanderthal ornaments. This would be “the last necklace made by the Neanderthals”, according to Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

“Neanderthals used eagle talons as symbolic elements, probably as necklace pendants, from the beginnings of the mid Palaeolithic”, notes Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo. In particular, what researchers found in Cova Foradada are bone remains from Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti), from more than 39,000 years ago, with some marks that show these were used to take the talons so as to make pendants. The found remains correspond to the left leg of a big eagle. By the looks of the marks, and analogy regarding remains from different prehistorical sites and ethnographic documentation, researchers determined that the animal was not manipulated for consumption but for symbolic reasons. Eagle talons are the oldest ornamental elements known in Europe, even older than seashells Homo sapiens sapiens perforated in northern Africa.

Imperial eagle phalanx from Cova Foradada and Neanderthal skull

The findings belong to the châtelperronian culture, typical from the last Neanderthals that lived in Europe, and coincided with the moment when this species got in touch with Homo

Morales, researcher in the program Juan de la Cierva affiliated at SERP and signer of the article, presents this use of eagle talons as ornaments could have been a cultural transmission from the Neanderthals to modern humans, who adopted this practice after reaching Europe.

Cova Foradada covers the most meridional châtelperronian culture site in Europe. The discovery involved a change in the map of the territory where the step from Middle Palaeolithic to Upper Palaeolithic took place 40,000 years ago, and where interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens sapiens probably took place. Studies in Cova Foradada started in 1997. At the moment, the supervision of the excavation is led by Juan Ignacio Morales and Artur Cebrià. The archaeological study of this site is included in a SERP project funded by the Department of Culture of the Catalan Government and another funded by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, headed by UB professor and SERP director Josep M Fullola.

In addition to researchers mentioned above, the article is also signed by members of the Museum the Natural History Museum of Paris, the University of Salamanca, the University of Calgary (Canada) and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Reference of the article

A. Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al. 2019. “The Châtelperronian Neanderthals of Cova Foradada (Calafell, Spain) used imperial eagle phalanges for simbòlic purposes”. Science Advances.

The UE renews the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Quaternary and Prehistory that is taught in Universitat Rovira i Virgili at Tarragona

Carlos Lorenzo, professor at URV: “This is a very good news in order to maintain the international commitment in education that is being promoted jointly with the IPHES’s team”

Last September, 9 students defended their final thesis Works ate Ferrara (Italy) and 1 student defended last June in Paris


Since the academic year 2004-2005, thanks to the collaboration with the IPHES (Institut Català en Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), the Universitat Rovira i Virgili at Tarragona (URV) offers the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution. Right now, the European Commission has just announced the agreement to renew it: “That will allow us to enjoy during four more years the guarantee and quality which means to be part of the Erasmus Mundus programme for student recruitment and internationalization of URV”, said Carlos Lorenzo, Coordinator of the master and Head of Education in the IPHES.

This academic offer is carried out jointly with other European institutions: Università degli Studi di Ferrara (Italy), Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris, France), Instituto Politécnico de Tomar (Portugal) and Universitat Rovira i Virgili.

Since the time the master’s programme started, every year around fifteen new students join URV, coming from all the regions in the Spanish state and from countries of many areas of the world: Italy, Portugal, Algeria, India, Thai, Morocco, Georgia and Mexico. Teaching staff from other countries such as Argentina, Chile and Mexico has come in order to teach their knowledge.  In these years more than 150 master dissertations have been presented, which consist in original research works mandatory to obtain the Erasmus Mundus certificate together with a research mobility abroad in a second international center that possibility to obtain the title Erasmus Mundus.

The research projects currently developed in Eurasia, which the IPHES is actively taking part in, such as Atapuerca in the Spanish state and Dmanisi in Georgia “are some of the appeals for recruiting students, who see the opportunity to work in excavations key for solving very important topics in studying human evolution; like the fact of knowing how the first human dispersals happened, the routes which were used, the species involved an so on”, points out Carlos Lorenzo.

The research projects currently developed in Eurasia, which the IPHES is actively taking part in, such as Atapuerca (photo) in the Spanish state and Dmanisi in Georgia “are some of the appeals for recruiting students, who see the opportunity to work in excavations key for solving very important topics in studying human evolution;

Precisely, the Coordinator of this master and Head of Education in the IPHES highlights: “One of the elements which the EU took into consideration for renewing our master’s programme as well as initially including us as an Erasmus Mundus is that we carry out research of high quality since more than 20 years ago and we develop join projects with our partners which are based on the most important records regarding human evolution”.

The same researcher has pointed out that “all this activity and the fact that the EU renews the academic programme shows our master degree belongs to the international elite, in the framework of the mobility which the Bologna process requires”.

In this way it is expected to consolidate Tarragona as a worldwide reference in studies on human evolution.  Indeed, last September nine students from the master’s degree defended their thesis in an academic session at the Università degli Studi di Ferrara, and one student did the same last June in Paris. The topics of analysis have been the anatomy of Neanderthals; 3D study of brain asymmetries and sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens, Pan troglodytes, Gorilla gorilla and fossils of the genus Homo; the consolidation of fossil bony material, the ictofauna marina processing with flint tools, the tapirs of the Camp dels Ninots (Caldes de Malavella), the funerary practices in the Neolithic, the forestry resources for firefighting, the mechanical cleaning of fossils in the process of conservation and restoration to facilitate its study and new methods to investigate the tafonomy of the deposits of Olduvai (Africa).

Brazilian capuchin monkeys stone use may show similarities with earlier hominin activities

An international team investigate primates looking for clues about hominin technological development and to learn more about the use of pounding stones by Homo antecessor (dated ca. 1 Ma). These primates have been observed using stones to crack open nuts or dig holes looking for spiders or roots.


Fossils and stone tools are key findings unearthed at any archaeological site focused on human evolution studies, however, behavior does not fossilize, and it is not possible to observe hominins using their tools. Thus, primatology plays an important role, as the study of modern primates can help us to understand the behavior of the earliest human populations. In this context, an international research team is focused on the analysis of capuchin monkeys from Serra da Capivara, in Brazil. The main goal is to investigate the use-wear marks developed on the stone tools used by these monkeys and build a theoretical model that could help to understand the emergence of hominin behavior.

“There are around 30 individuals (capuchin monkeys) that live in the wild across the Oitenta area at Serra da Capivara”, explain Adrián Arroyo, a Juan de la Cierva fellow at IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) and specialised in functional studies of prehistoric tools through the analysis of the marks left on them. Dr Arroyo, who compared on his PhD pounding tools from African sites (Olduvai Gorge and West Turkana) and stones used by chimpanzees, is currently applying this methodological approach to the objects found at Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, Burgos), used by Homo antecessor, species that was discovered here for the first time and is dated to ca. 1 Ma.

Brazilian capuchin monkeys at Serra da Capivara, in Brazil – Tomos Proffitt (UCL)


“The study of capuchin monkeys can help us to understand those activities that our ancestors could do by comparing the stone tools used by these primates and the ones identified in archaeological places like Atapuerca, although this methodology can also be applied to the earliest stages of human evolution. In fact, this is one research field with a great potential, as it can be used to interpret the beginning of the technology, how did it emerge as well as investigate if before stone flaking, the use of stones was already assumed by hominins, and how they began knapping stone tools”, explain Adrián Arroyo.

Hominin activities are investigated through the use of microscopic and functional studies, a discipline that allows researchers to observe the traces developed on the stones tools after being used and compare them to the ones identified on other experimental reference collections. Thus, continuing the functional studies developed at IPHES, a group of stone used by capuchin monkeys from Serra da Capivara will be studied, allowing the researchers to understand their tools and will help to understand potential activities carried out within the earliest stages of Atapuerca.

This study is part of an international project funded by the Leakey Foundation and led by Dr Tomos Proffitt, British Academy Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology (University College London). Team members are Dr Adrián Arroyo (IPHES), Dr Lydia Luncz (Oxford University) and Dr Tiago Falótico (Sao Paulo University). As well as collaborators, Prof Ignacio de la Torre (UCL), Prof Sonia Harmand and Dr Nicholas Taylor (Stoney Book University).

“At Serra da Capivara we re-visit those places where the monkeys have done their activities. They use stones to crack nuts, dig holes to search for spiders or roots, they also hit others stones to pulverize the surface and lick the dust produced, in fact, this activity is still investigated to determine why they do it”.

During the field season, the team map the stones that have been used by the monkeys and document their position as it is done in an archaeological site. The main difference is that in this case, the tool users are present. “It is quite a new research line within human evolution studies, especially because till now there were no systematic studies of the stones used by primates from an archaeological perspective. There were quite a number of behavioral studies, but very few about their lithic technology”, detail Adrián Arroyo.

The systematic research of capuchin monkeys from an archaeological perspective began in 2012 in Oxford. Before then, archaeologist did not have access to the archaeological signature made by capuchin monkeys in order to identify similarities and differences with the hominin record. Thus, thanks to the collaboration with this international team, functional studies of hominin stones tools developed at IPHES are increased now with stones used by primates.


Abundant molds of wooden remains were found in the Abric Romaní site evidences from 60,000 years old Neanderthal communities

They were discovered during the excavation, conducted since August 5th and will end next Wednesday

This fieldwork season celebrate the 110 years of the discovery of prehistoric remains, in this site. Since then, 36 annual campaigns have been held

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Abric Romaní preserves traces of some plants remains, including wood, thanks to the precipitation of carbonates over them. After the decay of the wood or vegetal materials, only its footprints remain as negatives. Author: Palmira saladié/IPHES

From the 5th of August to the 28th, the annual archaeological excavation is being carried out at the Abric Romaní site in Capellades (Barcelona, Spain). A group of 35 people have been collaborating in the excavation tasks under the coordination of Dr. M. Gema Chacón, Dr. Josep Vallverdú and the Dra. Palmira Saladié, three researchers from the IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution). The other doctors and participating students come from this research center, from the URV (Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona, including the Erasmus Mundus Master in Quaternary and Human Evolution Archeology) and other Spanish and international institutions.

The continuation of the level R excavation will allow the analysis of the whole archaeological assemblage and especially the hearths preserved on the surface of the shelter. Author: Palmira Saladié

Abric Romaní is an important site with archaeological remains, evidence of Neanderthal life. Sixteen archaeological levels have been fully excavated until nowadays, in an area of 300 m2. We have documented different types of occupations, suggesting societies with high mobility and with complex social structures. The mainly hunted species are reed deer, horse, aurochs and rhinoceros. The tools associated were mostly made of flint and limestone, and probably on wood.

Reed deer (Cervus elaphus), one of the mainly hunted species – Palmira Saladié/IPHES

This season is the 110 anniversary of the discovery of prehistoric remains in this site and since then 36 annual campaigns have been held. This year, the works were focused on the excavation of level R dated to 60,000 years old. Although it is the beginning of the level excavation, and the remains of fauna and the stone tools have not already been studied, we can document a very important amount of wood negatives or molds. Abric Romaní preserves traces of some plants remains, including wood, thanks to the precipitation of carbonates over them. After the decay of the wood or vegetal materials, only its footprints remain as negatives.

If the presence of some wood tool can be attested, the knowledge of wooden tools productions during the Middle Paleolithic could by implemented, given the perishable nature of wood. The continuation of the level R excavation will allow the analysis of the whole archaeological assemblage and especially the hearths preserved on the surface of the shelter. All this data will permit a better knowledge about the Neanderthal lifestyle.

Open the pre-enrollment for the Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution

There are many student who after obtaining the title have found work in their countries.

The link with the IPHES allows the students to learn from the best team that investigate human evolution and acquire knowledge of the best techniques.

In the master there are students from countries as diverse as Algeria, India, Thailand, Morocco, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Chile, Georgia and Mexico.


Until next July 19th, the pre-enrollment for the 2019-20 course of the Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution, taught at the Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona (URV) is open. In this master participates researchers of the Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).

This master’s degree is taught since the 2004-2005 academic year, in partnership with other European institutions: Università degli Studi di Ferrara (Italy), Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris, France), and the Tomar Polytechnic Institute.

Students in a practical class at IPHES

Since the start of the course, at the URV every year, more than fifteen new students from all the regions of Spain and from many other places in the world, including Italy, Portugal, Algeria, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Indonesia, Armenia, Chile, Argentina, Georgia and Mexico. At the same time, teachers from France, Italy, Chile, Georgia, Israel, Morocco and Mexico have come to Tarragona to teach their expertise, and experts from the URV and IPHES have traveled for educational purposes to these places. In these years, more than one hundred fifty students have obtained the master’s degree after presenting their final research work and after performing a mobility period in other center of the Erasmus Mundus consortium. This mobility period has been financed with Erasmus+ mobility grants.

Carlos Lorenzo, professor of the URV and coordinator of the Teaching Area of IPHES, declared: “All these reasons makes the master’s degree very attractive because, in addition, there are many who after obtaining the degree they have found work in the countries where they come from”. The archaeologist himself emphasize, “The link with the IPHES allows students to learn from the best teams that investigate human evolution in different European centers. Our consortium ins a great school that allows them to learn the best techniques. ” In this sense, Carlos Lorenzo pointed out that the aforementioned institutions are the hard core of this consortium, but there are other collaborations with others institutions from Germany, England, different parts of Spain, etc.

The attractiveness

The research projects that are currently being developed in Eurasia, by the IPHES, such as Atapuerca, Orce in Spain, or Dmanisi in Georgia are some of the attractiveness to students. They foresee the possibility to work in key sites to develop a research about important issues in the study of human evolution, such as the different aspects that explain the first dispersions, the routes followed, the species that carried them out, etc.