Category Archives: Research

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

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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.

Genetic data from 1.7 million years ago identified, the oldest recorded to date

The journal Nature has reported the finding of a rhinoceros tooth at the site in Dmanisi, Georgia, where members of IPHES and the URV are working

Molar found in Dmanisi and which has provided the genetic information discussed in the article

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A recent finding has paved the way to a revolution in the study of evolution after an international team working in Dmanisi (Georgia) has acquired genetic data from a 1.7-million-year-old rhinoceros tooth, the oldest to have been identified to date. The data acquired is a full set of proteins – a proteome – identified in the animal’s dental enamel and is 1 million years older than the oldest DNA sequenced from a horse and which dates back 700,000 years.

The finding was announced in an article published in the journal Nature, which was authored by leading scientists from the University of Copenhagen and Saint John’s College (University of Cambridge). However, the project also counted on the participation of 48 other researchers, two of whom were ICREA (Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies) researchers from IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution) and the URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili): Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, who studies the large carnivores at Dmanisi (bears, hyenas and sabre-toothed tigers), and Jordi Agustí, who analyses the small mammals from the same site, which has become one of the main sources of information on the first humans.

Molar found in Dmanisi and which has provided the genetic information discussed in the article. Credits: Natural History Museum of Denmark

The finding reported in Nature is a major advance in the field of biomolecular studies into ancient fossil remains and may provide an answer to some of the mysteries of animal and human biology, enabling scientists to accurately reconstruct evolution over time, now from much further back in the past.

In the last 20 years, ancient DNA has been used to tackle a variety of questions about the evolution of extinct species, adaptation and human migration, but it has its limits. The new genetic information will make it possible to reconstruct molecular evolution beyond the habitual time limits of the preservation of DNA, so the analysis of ancient protein from dental enamel is the start of an exciting new chapter in the analysis of molecular evolution, as the scientists participating in the study have been quick to point out.

The DNA data that genetically track human evolution only cover the last 400,000 years. But the lineages that led to modern humans and chimpanzees – the living species that is genetically closest to humans – separated some 6 or 7 million years ago, which means that the scientific community currently has no genetic information for 90% of the evolutionary path that has led to modern humans.

Neither does the scientific community know how we are genetically linked to extinct species such as Homo erectus – the oldest species known of the genus Homo with human body proportions similar to those of Homo sapiens. Everything known about Homo erectus at the moment is almost exclusively based on anatomic, not genetic, information.

Stephonorhinus rhinoceros skeleton. Credits: Natural History Museum of Denmark.

The researchers used ancient sequencing technology (based on the innovative technology known as mass spectrometry) to retrieve genetic information from the tooth of a 1.7-million-year-old Stephanorhinus, an extinct species of rhinoceros that lived throughout Mediterranean Europe and in western Asia. They managed to sequence the ancient protein and retrieved genetic information that had been impossible to obtain with DNA sequencing.

Tooth enamel is extremely hard, abundant and long-lasting. It is found in mammals and provides more genetic information than collagen, the only other protein that has been retrieved from fossils more than a million years old. As a result, applying mass spectrometry to this material opens up a wide range of possibilities for a more advanced evolutionary study in both humans and mammals, and it will revolutionise research methods based on molecular markers.

Molecular phylogenetic analyses show that the Stephanorhinus rhinoceros comes from a group related to the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis). This shows that Coelodonta evolved from a primitive representative of Stephanorhinus which, therefore, has at least two evolutionary lines.

This rearrangement of the evolutionary lineage of a single species may seem like a mere small adjustment, but the identification of changes in numerous extinct mammals and humans may lead to a new understanding of how the world has evolved. The discovery may enable scientists from all over the world to collect genetic data  from ancient fossils and construct a larger, more accurate picture of the evolution of hundreds of species, including our own.

Bibliographic reference. Cappellini et al., “Early Pleistocene enamel proteome from Dmanisi resolves Stephanorhinus phylogeny”, Nature  (2019).

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.

IPHES participates in the I International Congress of Science, Feminism and New Masculinities

The researcher Magda Gómez presented the communication “Gender equality policies in Humanities research: the IPHES as a case study” with which she made known the “Equal opportunities Plan between men and women” and the progressive incorporation of the Responsible Research and Innovation perspective in the future research projects of this center.

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Magda Gómez, researcher at IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution), participated in the international congress “Science, Feminism and New Masculinities (CICFEM), recently held in Valencia, organized by the University Association Science, Feminism and Masculinities (AUCFEM) , in collaboration with the INGENIO Institute (CSIC-UPV), the Universitat Politècnica de València and various feminist associations. Specifically, he presented the oral communication “Gender equality policies in Humanities research: the IPHES as a case study”.

The goal of CICFEM, as expressed by the organizers of this event, is to offer a space for dialogue and research linked to the lines of work set out in the 2030 United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from a perspective of gender, equality and overcoming violence. Attended by specialists from various scientific fields, such as Humanities, Social Sciences, Engineering or Technological Sciences, in order to deepen and provide evidence specifically dealing with feminism and masculinities, but also about the actions that women undertake to improve society and that promote their presence in the present and future scientific story.

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It was within the framework of the sessions dedicated to Quality Education, where Magda Gómez presented her communication. On the one hand, she presented various actions carried out by IPHES to reduce gender inequalities at an institutional and structural level and, on the other hand, she explained the steps that this institute is conducting to include a gender perspective in the investigations and projects that are carried out.

In this regard, in the context of a strategic scientific policy, Magda Gómez explained how IPHES has signed the “European Charter for Researchers” and the “Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers”, which has resulted in the “Equal opportunities Plan between men and women” in the workplace. Likewise, the IPHES also advocates for the explicit and conscious incorporation of the so-called RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation) perspective in future research projects.

Currently, Magda Gómez works as a postdoctoral researcher in the European project PALEODEM ((ERC Co-Grant 683018), in the scope of chronological modeling and paleodemographic dynamics analysis of the last hunter-gatherers groups of the Iberian Peninsula (between 15,000 ago and 8,000 years before the present.). This project includes the gender perspective in paleodemography, in the line of recent works that claim the important role of women in the demography of small-scale societies.

A new species of reptile: a lizard without legs that lived in Murcia one million years ago

The discoverers have dedicated the new species to the paleontologist Miguel Ángel Mancheño, first director of the excavations in the Murcian site of Quibas, where it has appeared

The findings shows that the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula was the last ecological refuge for subtropical species in Western Europe

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Hugues-Alexandre Blain, researcher at IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), in collaboration with Salvador Bailon from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris (MNHN), have described a new species of lizard without legs of the genus Ophisaurus, family of the Anguidae as the slowworm, present today in the Iberian Peninsula. The remains found include: a maxilla, three jaws, two parietals, numerous vertebrae and an osteoderm. The find is dedicated to Miguel Ángel Mancheño, Professor and paleontologist from the University of Murcia and former director of the Quibas excavations (Abanilla, Murcia), where the fossil remains that gave rise to the new species are from. Thus, the new lizard has been named Ophisaurus manchenioi. Judging by the recovered fossil remains, and the knowledge of the current lizards of this type, it is thought to have about 40 centimeters length.

The genus Ophisaurus is currently represented by other species living in the tropical and subtropical environments of North Africa (Morocco and Algeria), North America and Southeast Asia. The paleobiogeographic analysis of the genus shows that it appeared in Europe during the Eocene (56 and 34 million years ago), and that it had its maximum extension during the Miocene (between 23 and 5.3 million years ago). During the Pliocene (between 5.3 and 2.6 million years ago), its distribution in Europe was restricted to the Mediterranean. It survived longer in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, which apparently acted as a refuge area. The species eventually became extinct one million years ago, with its last mention in the site of Quibas, in Murcia.

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Fossil remains of the new species of lizard discovered in Murcia – Author: IPHES

During the Pliocene (between 5.3 and 2.6 million years ago), its distribution in Europe was restricted to the Mediterranean. It survived longer in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, which apparently acted as a refuge area. The species eventually became extinct one million years ago, with its last mention in the site of Quibas, in Murcia.

“Until now, the fossil presence of this genus was known in other Early Pleistocene sites of the Iberian Peninsula, such as, Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3 (Granada, Spain), but its key defining element -the parietal, a bone from the skull -was not available to compare it with the other fossil species defined from: this bone”, points out Hugues-Alexandre Blain, IPHES researcher and co-author of the scientific article that published the finding. “Osteologically, this new species is more closely related to the fossil species Ophisaurus holeci from the Miocene of Germany and the Czech Republic than to its modern North African representative (Ophisaurus koellikeri)”, he adds. “That is why we can say that it is a European relict species and that it does not come from a landbridge between North Africa and the South of the Iberian Peninsula”, he points out.

By comparison with the other extant species of the genus, it can be inferred that this reptile had tropical or subtropical ecological requirements. Its extinction at the species level in the Iberian Peninsula and in Europe coincides with the progressive disappearance of certain subtropical arboreal taxa (Cathaya, Elaeagnus, Engelhardia, Eucommia, Liquidambar, Keteleeria, Nyssa, Sciadopitys, Symplocos, Pretoria, Parthenocissus, Pterocarya and Tsuga). “Consequently, the extinction of this reptile is contemporary with the disappearance of the last haven with subtropical conditions (warm and humid forests) in southern Europe around 1.2 million years ago, during a period of very important climatic changes known at the transition from the Early to Middle Pleistocene”, notes Hugues-Alexandre Blain.

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The Quibas excavations (Abanilla, Murcia) – Author: IPHES

Since its discovery in 1994, the paleontological site of Quibas (Abanilla, Murcia) has yielded, the fossil remains from more than 70 species of the late Early Pleistocene, around 1 million years old. “It is a karstic site whose importance lies in the great diversity of fauna, excellent preservation of the remains and the possibility of finding human evidence”, says Pedro Piñero, current co-director of the excavations in Quibas and collaborator of IPHES.

Remarkable also is the presence of fossil bones from: macaques, large felids, lynxes, foxes, musk oxen, goats, rhinoceros, deer, porcupines, bearded vultures, eagles (or ibis), as well as a long taxonomic list of small vertebrates, including: hedgehogs, mice, dormice, shrews, bats, snakes, vipers, geckos and agàmid lizards. “Research concerning these remains highlights the importance of this site, now with the presence of a new species previously unknown to the scientific community, as is the case of this new lizard,” says Pedro Piñero.

The studied material from this new lizard species was revealed from excavation campaign dating to 2006. Revision of these fossils is part of the new project, inscribed in the research project CGL2016-80000-P “Climatic crises of the Early and Middle Pleistocene and its incidence in the evolution of the microvertebrate communities of the Spanish Levante” and in the research group of the IPHES Human Paleoecology of Plio-Pleistocene (PalHum). AGAUR-Generalitat de Catalunya, 2017SGR-859.

Bibliographic reference

Hugues-Alexandre Blain & Salvador Bailon. 2019. Extirpation of Ophisaurus (Anguimorpha, Anguidae) in Western Europe in the context of the disappearance of subtropical ecosystems at the Early-Middle Pleistocene transition. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2019.01.023

Research collaboration between the IPHES and the University of La Laguna to study how the last hunter-gatherers in the Iberian Peninsula used fire

The IPHES researcher, Ana Polo, recently carried out a research stay at the AMBI LAB Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarker Lab of the University of La Laguna to promote scientific collaboration between the PALEODEM European project of this research centre in Tarragona and the PALEOCHAR project in the Canary Islands. Both projects include, among their main objectives, the microscopic study of sediments from archaeological hearths to provide information on human behaviour and climate changes during Prehistory.

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The IPHES postdoctoral researcher, Ana Polo Díaz, completed a three-week research stay at the Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarker AMBI Lab of the University of La Laguna (Tenerife, Spain). The aim of the visit was to establish scientific collaboration between the interdisciplinary research teams of the ERC projects PALEODEM (Ref. 683018) and PALEOCHAR (Ref. 648871) led by Dr. Javier Fernández López de Pablo (IPHES) and Dr. Carolina Mallol (ULL), respectively.

Both projects include among their main objectives the study of sediments from archaeological hearths on a microscopic scale. The aim of these investigations is to understand how groups of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies in Southwestern Europe used fire as well as associated domestic activities; the purpose is to offer a clearer picture of their ways of life, how they exploited natural resources and how they adapted to climate challenges.

In Tenerife, Ana Polo had the opportunity to discuss various aspects of the formation process of approximately 9,000-year-old Mesolithic hearth-pits documented in the site of El Arenal de la Virgen (Villena, Alicante) with AMBI Lab’s scientific staff. Similarly, she was able to consult the laboratory’s extensive reference collection of thin films from sites with evidence of occupation by hunter-gatherers who inhabited Europe over the last 50,000 years.

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The IPHES postdoctoral researcher, Ana Polo Díaz

Dissemination work was equally carried out during her stay to circulate the objectives, challenges and geoarchaeological research methods applied to the study of both archaeological sites excavated within the framework of the PALEODEM project: El Arenal de la Virgen and Casa Corona. As part of this task, the researcher shared the results of the sediments’ taphonomy (alterations) obtained from her study of both sites mentioned above and explained the role that human activities and natural processes had in accumulating and altering archaeological deposits. Ana Polo also highlighted the implications of these results: they allow us to better understand the impact of taphonomy on archaeological sites and, therefore, our ability to extract information from them and interpret the past.

This dissemination work included a didactic session in AMBI-LAB on microscopy and the presentation of results as well as a guest lecture, held on 21 November, called Integrative Geoarchaeological Approaches to the Investigation of Mesolithic Campsites in SE Iberia.

Ana Polo’s stay received financial support from the European Commission through the ERC PALEODEM project.