Public presentation in Tunisia of the oldest urus skull ever found and new excavation campaigns in Oued Sarrat

PHOTOS – castellano – català

Recently in the Pleistocene site of Oued Sarrat (Tunisia), with an approximately age of 700,000 years, it has been developed a new exploration and excavation campaign under the direction of Professor Narjess Karoui-Yaakoub, of the Cartage University, and the ICREA (Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats) research Professor, assigned to IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro. Coinciding with the end of this campaign a public presentation was conducted, in the City of Sciences of Tunis (Cité des Sciences), of the site and the oldest urus skull finding (primitive bull and the actual ancestor) about 700,000 years old, as was announced a few months ago in the Quaternary Science Reviews journal.

“In this campaign it was carried out a small systematic excavation and continued the survey work and the recording of new fossils along the Sarrat River basin, with a continuous outcrop over 5 km”, says Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro. Work has been done in the lower swampy black levels, corresponding to the base of the Middle Pleistocene (about 700,000 years old), mainly composed by clays very hard to erode, through which the river runs intensely forming large meanders, raising and revealing every year a very good fossil record of large mammals, including: bulls (Bos primigenius), horses (Equus sp.) rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), gazelles (Gazella sp.) orjackals (Canis sp.), as well as a great amount of microvertebrates (micromammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish), associated with the presence of the Acheulean type lithic industry, as in the Upper Pleistocene gray-brown fluvial terraces, overlapping the black basal levels, where an abundant fauna of large mammals also dominated by the presence of bulls (Bos primigenius), gazelles (Gazella sp.), elephant remains, and large carnivores such as lions and large size (Panthera leo) associated with the Aterian type lithic industry, dated between 30,000 and 70,000 years, chronologically equivalent to the European Middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian).

Also, a small excavation was carried out at the lower levels, finding Bos primigenius and more acheulean industries. To this we must add that during the survey, numerous remains of other large mammals were found from both, the Middle Pleistocene and the upper levels.

Is notable the presence of a complete camel metatarsal discovered in the levels of the Late Pleistocene, first record of this species in the site. It is also the first time that fossil wood residues were found in the lower black levels.

“These data will expand the paleobiological information of the site and promote the better understanding of the environment in which the acheulean hunters, 700,000 years ago, and aterian industry between the 30,000 and 70,000 years were developing in northern Africa” says Martínez-Navarro.

On the other hand, it was presented in a crowded public event organized at the Cité des Sciences of Tunis, the oldest bull skull ever found (Bos primigenius). It was in the lower level of Oued Sarrat, dated at 700,000 years. To the event assisted: numerous tunisian academic authorities and scientists from the universities of Carthage, Tunis and Sfax, as from the National Office of Mines (all involved institutions in the research), several parliamentarians from Kef, province where the deposit of Oued Sarrat is located, and the Ambassador of Spain in Tunisia, Juan López-Dóriga.

The IPHES is a new research institute of the Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona

One of the main objectives is to provide added value to the academics

photos – spanish – catalan

The IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), created in 2006 and directed by the archaeologist Eudald Carbonell, is already a new Institute of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona (URV), after the approval of the Conselleria d’ Economia i Coneixement de la Generalitat de Catalunya, dated on 8 July and published in the Diari Oficial de la Generalitat (DOGC) the last August 4th.

Thereby concludes the formalization of a process that began in May 2013 with the signing of an agreement between such counseling and the URV to achieve this recognition, which once published in the DOGC is already fully effective.

The IPHES, located at the campus of the URV Sescelades, whose main objective is to become a center of international reference in the development of research, teaching and transference in the different branches of the study of evolution and human behavior. In this context, from now on it will enhance the teaching area, ensuring the scientific quality and providing added value.

The approval gives a new context to a rich activity that takes place since 2004 in which IPHES researchers elaborate the program to develop the first URV masters Erasmus Mundus in cooperation with three more European universities. Since 2013 it has been also added the Erasmus Mundus doctorate in Quaternary and Prehistory. The expedition of the degree corresponds to the URV.

With regard to the faculty, teaching will be carry out by the researchers from both institutes, IPHES and URV.

The agreement also provides that the IPHES, and in particular, its teaching staff have access to the support services to help in the study and teaching, research and university extension of the URV.

Its origins

Although IPHES was born 8 years ago, its origins go back to 1988, when the archaeologist Eudald Carbonell, co-director of the Equipo de Investigación de Atapuerca (EIA), arrived to Tarragona to join as a Prehistory Professor in the Universitat de Barcelona delegation (UB). Since then, he has worked hard to promote a transdisciplinary team with international projection on the study of human evolution. The first steps were taken with the Grupo de Autoecología Humana when the Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona was created in 1991, where he is a Prehistory Professor. Currently, IPHES is among the three best research centers in the world in its field.

Thousands of new remains found in the Abric Romani support the organizational capacity of the neanderthal communities

This year has been excavated a new rich level of fossil and with an antiquity over 58,000 years


58,000 years ago the neanderthal populations that lived in the Abric Romani in Capellades (Barcelona), a key site for the study of this species, left thousands of archaeological remains during their occupation. This has been found during the excavation campaign that has taken place this month and ends the 24th, directed by the archaeologist Eudald Carbonell, director of IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social). The results support the organizational skills that these prehistoric communities had.

The new fossils, localized, but which have not been removed or fully documented, have been obtained thanks to the work of a team of about 50 people, including researchers of IPHES, centers in other countries and also students from all around the world, who have been dedicated to discover the Q level of the Abric Romani, spending all efforts to reach the surface in an area of ​​about 140m2.

“It should be noted that only in the ceiling level, basically localized, but unexcavated until the depth, have been recovered thousands of lithic pieces and fauna remains. Moreover abundant hearths of rooms were detected next to the wall, as from other types also, biggers and in association with the abundant presence of burnt bones, which it seems that those hominids began to move through the central part of the site”, says Eudald Carbonell. “This distribution or space specialization is the clear evidence of the organizational capacity of the neanderthal populations, in the context of complex behavior that we have always defended,” he added.

One possible room

Eudald Carbonell has advanced: “The evidence available today seems to indicate that we are dealing with the remains of what was a neanderthal room, where different daily life activities were developed reiteratively, such as tools processing”.

It is also a referential site or a central camp where the remains of the hunted animals for the consumption of the whole group were transported. Both, the amount of faunal remains and the diversity of raw materials found indicate that the Abric Romani was more or less occupied for longer periods of time and repeatedly.

A new type of employment

This feature represents a new shift in the type of occupation of this rock shelter, because the level excavated during the last year’s campaign was the product of short occupations. However, we should expect the excavation of the next year to see if the new hypothesis is valid. At least, we can say that the Q level is included among the richest of those which have been intervened until now in the Abric Romani.

With regard to the lithic tools discovered this year, are produced on a wide range of raw materials, including chert, limestone and quartz, as the most exploited types of rocks. In this assemblage there have been a lot of denticulates  and other types of retouched pieces.

Both, these and the already recovered remains for more than thirty years of excavation at the Abric Romani, “clearly show that neanderthals were active hunters”, stated Eudald Carbonell. “The subsistence strategies at this site were intended for hunting large ungulates, mainly horses and deer”, he points out.

Paleolithic inhabitants of Mediterranean Spain may have included snails in their diet 10,000 years earlier than previously thought


Paleolithic inhabitants of the Iberian Mediterranean region may have eaten snails 10,000 years earlier than their Mediterranean neighbors, according to a study published August 20, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Javier Fernández-López de Pablo from Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES) and colleagues.

Snails were widespread in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene, but it is still unknown when and how they were incorporated into human diets. The authors of this study found land snail shell remains from ~30,000 years ago at a recently discovered site of Cova de la Barriada (Benidorm, Spain). To better understand if the inhabitants may have eaten snails, the researchers investigated patterns of land snail selection, consumption, and accumulation at the site, and then analyzed the shells decay, fossilization process, composition, and age at death by measuring the shell size.

Stone tools and other animal

Scientists found groupings of complete shells from a large land snail species at three layers of the site, corresponding to different time points dated 31000-26900 years ago. The adult snails were close to prehistoric human-constructed structures that may have been used to cook the snails, along with stone tools, and other animal remains that were likely roasted in ambers of pine and juniper under 375 ºC. The authors posit that these results point to previously undiscovered patterns of invertebrate use and may highlight a broadening of the human diet in the Upper Paleolithic in the Mediterranean basin. In neighboring Mediterranean areas, eating land snails didn’t appear until about 10,000 years later, which may make these newly found snail shells the oldest known evidence that ancient human populations used them as a food resource in Europe ~30,000 years ago.   

For further information

“Land snails as a diet diversification proxy during the Early Upper Palaeolithic in Europe”, Fernández-López de Pablo, J. et al. PLOS ONE (2014)

The Homo sapiens deposited at El Mirador Cave, in Atapuerca, about 4500 years ago, had genetic affinities with the Near East and Germany

According to the mitochondrial DNA analysis, that for the first time, has been carried out on the fossil remains found at this site

The work was done by the researcher team lead by Carles Lalueza-Fox, from UPF, with the participation of the IPHES and now published in the journal PLOS ONE

During the Middle and Final Neolithic there was a common genetic signal in Central and Western Europe, although in the Chalcolithic the scene becomes much more heterogeneous


Around 4,760 and 4,200 years the Mirador Cave, in Atapuerca (Burgos), functioned as a burial site, where at least 23 individuals of the species Homo sapiens were deposited. In 19 of them, the mitochondrial DNA was extracted in order to know where they came from and with who were they genetically related, among other issues. A recent study published in the PLOS ONE journal brings some light to this question. According to the results, those specimens have genetic affinities with populations in the Middle East and Germany.

This is the first DNA analysis performed on the remains discovered in El Mirador. The research was conducted as part of a wider work on the genetic composition of the European populations contemporaries to the Bell-Beaker culture, although Homo sapiens from this cave did not belong to this technical tradition, as they did not manufactured or used the same ceramic type.

“This research shows that the Chalcolithic people at El Mirador has affinities with the Near East groups and temporary fits in the Middle and Final Neolithic populations of Germany, as the Rossen Salzmünde and Balberge cultures, but has no relationship with the contemporary Bell-Beaker culture”, explain Marina Lozano, IPHES researcher, which is among the signatories of the article, together with Josep Maria Verges, also an archaeologist at the Institute.

Thus, it´s confirmed that during the Middle and Final Neolithic there was a common genetic signal in Central and Western Europe, but throughout the Chalcolithic the scene becomes much more heterogeneous with the presence of more groups.

The traditional hypothesis indicates that the Bell-Beaker culture developed in the European Atlantic coast and spread from there to the rest of Europe. The discovery of ancient sites in Portugal with the presence of ceramic from that culture, suggests its origin in the Tagus River area.

The socioeconomic basis of this populations was livestock (herds of goats and sheeps), the cereals production (wheat and barley, and some legumes) and occasionally the animal part of the diet was complemented by hunting.

Bibliographic reference

“Mitochondrial DNA from El Mirador cave (Atapuerca, Spain) Reveal the Heterogeneity of Chalcolithic Population” Gomez-Sanchez et al. PLOS ONE (2014)

Wild pigeons, another resource of the neanderthal diet

As it indicates a published study today in Scientific Reports

Recently, the systematic exploitation of the birds was considered a unique feature of modern human behavior

Among the suscriptors of this article is the IPHES ´s researcher Jordi Rosell


Not far away in time, the systematic exploitation of the birds for food was considered a unique feature of modern human behavior. However, some studies have hinted that this could not be this way. In this context an investigation that was published in the journal Scientific Reports found that neanderthals could also have hunted wild pigeons (ancestors of today) and formed part of their diet. In this work was involved Jordi Rosell, archaeologist, IPHES´s researcher and professor at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili of Tarragona (Spain).

To reach this conclusion, an international team led by Ruth Blasco and Clive Finlayson, both of the Gibraltar Museum, have analyzed wild pigeons bones discovered in Gorham’s Cave (Gibraltar), with a timeline ranging between 67,000 and 28,000 years before present. This time range coincided with the occupation of the cave by neanderthals and later Homo sapiens.

“In some of these bones -Jordi Rosell commented-, we have observed cut marks or signs of cremation, which may indicate that these birds may have been dismembered and cooked”.  “The amount of the bones found with cut marks, -pointed out the same archaeologist- was relatively small, but we must keep in mind that these animals required a minimum carnage and could be eaten directly with the hands. In this sense, they have identified human teeth marks on some bones, which are another evidence that birds were consumed by the inhabitants of the cave”.

With this work, the researchers propose that neanderthals may have had similar abilities to modern humans in the obtaining the the food.

Bibliographic reference

Blasco, R. et al. The earliest pigeon fanciers. Sci. Rep. 4, 5971; DOI:10.1038/srep05971 (2014)

An international scientific journal explores the antiquity of the Barranc de la Boella site between the 780,000 and one million years ago

The journal PLOS ONE publishes an article this week, which is the first presentation to international scientific community

Archaeological remains found in this site support that in Europe, during this time span, there are distinct technological traditions, the oldowan (older) and acheulian (younger)

At that time, the acheulian technology was extensive in Africa, but had just arrived in Europe and this is the first prehistoric technological innovation that has been reliably documented in the Barranc de la Boella site.


Link to the article in PLOS ONE

The journal PLOS ONE publishes an article this week, which is the first presentation to international scientific community that demonstrates the age of the fossil remains of the Barranc de la Boella site, located in the municipality of the la Canonja (Tarragona, Spain), estimated between 780.000 and one million years ago. At the same time, the Barranc de la Boella findings supports the coexistence of two distinct technological prehistoric traditions in Europe, the Oldowan (older) and Acheulian (younger). The Acheulian technology was extended on sub-Saharan Africa, but had just arrived in Europe. The Barranc de la Boella locality displays this first prehistoric innovation of humankind in Europe.

“The archaeological record at Barranc de la Boella site presented is numerous and their chronology is hardly argued using independent evidences”, points out Josep Vallverdú, first author of the manuscript, archaeologist and researcher joined at IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), co-director of the excavations and researches at the Boella area with Palmira Saladié, researcher associated to the same centre too.

In the study there is the participation of different disciplines and institutions in order to argue a reliable chronology of the locality and to explain the first human dispersions out of Africa during the Early Pleistocene (2.6 to 0.78 millions years ago). With the IPHES team, in the field and researchers have participated in the Departamento de Paleobiología del Museo de Ciencias Naturales de Madrid del CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) integrated as Associated Unit to CSIC led by E. Carbonell (IPHES) and A. Rosas (MCNM-CSIC).

The results are based on stratigraphy (the order of the sedimentary units which forms the site and their relation with the geological time scale) and the description of the archaeological and paleontological levels. In order to obtain the age of the fossil record included in the Barranc de la Boella sediments, the results are based on the lithostratigraphy (description of the physical characteristics if the sediments), the paleomagnestism (measures of the polar orientation found in the ferromagnetic minerals of the sediments), the biochronology of macrovertebrates and microvertebrates (relative chronology of the extinct faunal remains), and the absolute dating using the radioactive decay of the Aluminium and Berilium isotopes accumulated in the mineral quartz fraction of the sediments.

The Early Pleistocene sedimentary units of the Barranc de la Boella site contain more than two hundred lithic industries and five hundred faunal mains. With the fossil description and the chronology, between one million and 780.000 years ago, the Barranc de la Boella evidence supports the first apparition in Europe of a technology more complex than the first stone-tools older than one million years ago. To sum up, the hominid groups of the Iberian Peninsula dating to 1 million and 780.000 years ago could elaborate stone-tools assemblages using distinct technical traditions.

“When the Acheulian arrive to Barranc de la Boella, this technology is widely extended in sub-Saharan Africa, conversely in Europe just arrive”, say Josep Vallverdú. Thus, the cultural repertoires of the hominins found in this site represent a first evidence of the transmission of technological knowledge which point to the Acheulian innovation out of Africa, because during this time span the dominant technological traditions of the oldowan. In fact, the Acheulian technological tradition in the European archaeological assemblages is widely expanded during the definitive colonization of Europe, 500.000 years ago, during the second half of the Middle Pleistocene (500.000 to 125.000 years BP)

“A few lithic industries found in the Barranc de la Boella site are big and standardized stone-tools (hand-axes),  repeated thanks to a complex learning based on a skilled choice of the stone-raw material” suggest Josep Vallverdú.

The archaeologist continue: “With the presentation in the PLOS ONE, the Barranc de la Boella site testify that there are episodes of human dispersals dating between one million and 780.000 years ago which is possible to found distinct cultural traditions or technologies in the archaeological record of the Iberian peninsula in a similar way that occurs in the sub-Saharan Africa between 1.8 and 1 million years ago; and possibly is observed in Central Europe between 700.000 and 200.000 years BP”.

Vallverdú continues: “These temporal spans are different time windows in distinct geographical latitudes of the Old World; when de biogeography of the acheulian technology first occurs in the sub-Saharan Africa, and after Nord Africa and Eurasia”. “It is probable –says- that this biogeography point out distinct episodes of migration out-of-Africa of the humankind, or the transmission of the technological knowledge, to Eurasia (firstly with the form of dispersion and after as colonization): the first biological dispersions with oldowan and acheulian technologies; and finally, the definitive acheulian colonization of Eurasia. The acheulian colonization of Africa finished one million years ago, just when begin their dispersion to Europe; their expansion in some areas of Eurasia, 500.000  years before present, is based on the adaptation to temperate biomes of the Northern hemisphere of the Earth, and thus to colonize Europe definitively”.

Experimental research and faunal remains

In the other hand, the Journal of Arcaheological Science have published recently an article about the faunal record of the Barranc de la Boella, with Antonio Pineda, student of the Maser Erasmus Mundus Quaternari i Prehistoria de la URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili), as first author, and Palmira Saladie and Josep M. Vergés as senior researchers. The study describes the experimental results based on bone-surface modifications observed in the Barranc de la Boella faunal record.

In the Barranc de la Boella there are abundant bone surfaces affected by chemical weathering caused by the acidity of the sediments. As a result, some modifications of the bone assemblage are weathered and their identification is not easy. Between them, there are the cut-marks (produced by humans with stone-tools on bone surfaces) and the trampling (caused by the contact between the sediment and the bone surface). Both marks are analogues and their fit identification is important in order to agents for taphonomical and human-behaviour studies.

The experiments consist of replicating the cut-marks and trampling in current bone surfaces and, after, causing a chemical weather in order to compare the bones with the archaeological record of the Barranc de la Boella. The experimental results suggest that the two induced and weathered modifications are not distinguishable.

Thus, the agent of these bone surface modifications in the Barranc de la Boella site is difficult to argue, and as result often they will be not included as evidence in the zooarchaeological studies.

The experiment confirms that these kind of inferences can be allowed in archaeological researches with well preserved bone assemblages.

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