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The challenge of reassembling archaeological remains to understand life in Prehistory

From around the world, Tarragona is bringing together experts in reassembly, in a workshop that will take place from 9 to 11 May at URV’s Campus Catalunya

This technique allows us to understand what the economy was like, whether hominid groups recycled, and their social organisation

The IPHES will provide new information from Neanderthal communities that lived in Abric Romaní and around Sierra de Atapuerca

The event is sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which funds research of excellence

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An archaeological site is the result of a series of events that overlap at different levels through time. Archaeological remains generated by bone breaking and the sculpting of stone blocks are deposited in each of these strata. Refitting the pieces belonging to the same bone or block is an arduous task, but very useful for understanding an endless array of aspects related to human evolution.

With the aim of exchanging experiences, understanding the multidisciplinary applications of reassembly, and its reconstruction in 3D, as well as agreeing on criteria for its use, an international workshop is being held that will bring together the experts in this field. Entitled The Big Puzzle 30 Years After: A shared, multidisciplinary, Palaeolithic perspective, it will take place from 9 to 11 May, in Sala de Graus on Campus Catalunya at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV), in Tarragona.

The title refers to the conference held three decades ago at the Monrepos Archaeological Research Centre and Museum in Neuwied, Germany. It was there that the importance of reassembly was first verified as a method for analysing the technical, economic and social behaviour of past populations. The publication from that conference and the data that has appeared since, have shown not only that reassembly is very useful for research, but have also led to new lines of investigative work.

The workshop is being organised by Francesca Romagnoli, a Marie Curie researcher at the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), and Manuel Vaquero, an IPHES member and professor of Prehistory at the URV, as part of the EU’s H2020 Research and Innovation Program GA. 653667. It is being sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, a United States foundation that funds research of excellence in the field of anthropology, prehistory and the study of human evolution.

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Reassembly with pieces from the Abric Romaní – IPHES

IPHES is deliberately linking this workshop to the symposium held in Germany in 1987, intending to reflect on the development of this technique over the last 30 years, and see whether the expectations generated at that time have been achieved. IPHES is a leader in the study of reassembly and has developed an analysis protocol that has enabled innovative work to be developed on the recycling, techno-economic, and social organisation of  Neanderthal communities. At the workshop, IPHES will present new data from the Abric Romaní site (Capellades, Barcelona) in the workshop, a world reference for work on the social organisation of Homo neanderthalensis, as well as from the Gran Dolina site in the Sierra de Atapuerca.

Reassembly allows researchers to identify what types of actions were carried out at a site, as well as their number and frequency, in addition to detecting the temporal and spatial relationships between the different events. For example, how a certain material was introduced into the archaeological site and where it came from, how tools were made, and so on. In this way one can ascertain aspects of the economy of hominid groups, the length of time they remained in a place, and the size and organisation of the human population that lived there. It also reveals whether the materials have been reused, and the importance of recycling to these hominids.

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In addition, reassembly can be applied when analysing wildlife. This allows us to understand, for example, how humans shared and distributed food in the past.

These are just some of the issues that will be discussed in the workshop. It will be attended by top-level experts who apply reassembly in an interdisciplinary way to better understand what life was like in the Palaeolithic era. The participants include scientists from leading research institutes, such as UCL (University College London), and reference centres in the study of Prehistory, such as the University of Tübingen in Germany, the Autonomous Universities of Madrid and Barcelona, the University of La Laguna, the University of Ferrara, the Anthropos Museum of Brno, and the Monrepos Museum where the original conference took place.

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The Azokh Cave site in the Caucasus was an important passageway for the hominins during their migration from Africa to Europe and Asia

This is reflected in the first international and multidisciplinary monograph dedicated to the site where the members of the IPHES have big input

Students from this region complete their formation and scientific degree through different international programmes where the IPHES participates too

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The study of migratory routs, used by different hominin groups during their migration from Africa to Europe and Asia, is one of the most important branches of investigation. There are different proposals and geographic points, which may have had particular importance. The Azokh Cave site, located in Nagorno Karabakh (Southern Caucasus) is now getting special prominence.

The first international and multidisciplinary monograph dedicated to the excavations and research of Azokh titled “Azokh Cave and the Transcaucasian Corridor” was published by Springer, an international editorial, specialised in science, medicine, and technology.

According to this study, the hominins and different animals inhabited Azokh Cave during their pass from Africa to Europe and Asia around 300 to 100 thousand years ago BP. Moreover, this cave was used by three different hominin species: Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neandertalensis and Homo sapiens, and has almost continuous register of lithic remains (from Middle to Upper Pleistocene) associated with fauna.

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Homo heidelbergensis remains discovered at Azokh Cave – Fernández-Javo et al.

The monograph includes the results of detailed studies of all these remains (hominin, faunal, vegetal and technological) found in Azokh during the excavation seasons of 2002 – 2009. In addition, an important effort was made to contextualise the site in the Caucasus connecting the results obtained from Azokh Cave with other sites of the same chronology and from the same geographic area (e.g., Kudaro I, Kudaro III, Treugol’naya, Tsona, Djruchula, Mezmaiskaya etc.).

More than twenty institutions and research centres from different countries are involved in the monograph’s publication. The IPHES has a great input in it, as five out of fifteen chapters (those of lithic artefacts, macro and micro vertebrate remains, taphonomy and charcoals) are leaded by its researchers and collaborators such as Dr. Isabel Cáceres, Dr. Ethel Allué, Dr. Andreu Ollé, Dr. Hugues A. Blain and Dr. Lena Asryan.

The History

Azokh Cave was discovered by M. Huseinov in 1960’s and was excavated for around twenty years by Russian and Azerbaijani researchers. Almost all the sedimentary infill and fossil contents at the entrance of Azokh 1 was emptied during these excavations leaving a small part at the back of the entrance. During these excavations faunal and lithic remains were recovered together with a hominin mandible fragment in unit V, which was classified as Homo heidelbergensis.

In 2002, an international, multidisciplinary research team restarted the excavations at the site. During these excavations, from Unit V (300.000 years old) together with herbivore (Equus hydruntinus, Equus ferus, Stephanorhinus hemitoechus, Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis, Capreolus pygargus, Dama aff. peloponesiaca, Dama sp., Megaloceros solihacus, Cervus elaphus, Bison schoetensacki, Ovis ammon, Capra aegagrus, Saiga tatarica) and carnivore faunal remains (Canis cf. Lupus, Canis aureus, Meles meles, Martes cf. Foina, Crocuta crocuta, Lynx sp., Felis chaus, Panthera pardus, Ursus spelaeus, Ursus sp.), Middle Pleistocene lithic artefacts (it can be characterised as Late Acheulean or pre-Mousterian without bifaces) and fragments of charcoals were found.

Cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) is present in all the excavated archaeological units, but it is dominant particularly in Unit II with a chronology between 180 to 100 thousand years BP. The cave bear remains are associated with Levallois lithic assemblage in this unit. In addition, a hominin tooth was found at this unit determined as Homo neanderthalensis.

In one of the cave entrances (discovered during 2003 excavation season and named as Azokh 5) remains of Homo sapiens were found dated by 14C between 1.265 and 2.300 years.

Involvement of the IPHES

The IPHES was involved in the “Azokh Caves Project” in 2006 through researchers Ethel Allué and Isabel Cáceres. The participation of the institution was increasing since then, bringing not only experts to the project (they are more than twelve now) but also helping the local students to continue their formation and studies in the IPHES and URV (University Rovira i Virgili) through the international Master’s or pre-doctoral grants in Quaternary and Human Evolution under the supervision of the researchers from the IPHES.

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The monograph includes the results of detailed studies of all these remains (hominin, faunal, vegetal and technological) found in Azokh during the excavation seasons of 2002 – 2009

Doctoral thesis

In this context, Lena Asryan is one of the examples, who studied first the IPHES-URV’s Masters of Erasmus Mundus and then continued the doctoral studies in Quaternary and Prehistory (funded by the Wenner-Gren foundation [WIF-212]) at the same university. In September of 2015 she defended her doctoral thesis titled “Azokh Cave lithic assemblages and its contextualization in the Middle and Upper Pleistocene of South-west Asia”.

This research study is focused on the lithic assemblages of Azokh Cave recovered during the excavations of 2002 to 2013. The study of these assemblages indicates that the human occupation of the cave was short and seasonal in character and that it was alternatively occupied by hominins and large carnivores.

These conclusions are supported also by other studies (geological and paleontological) presented in the monograph, which show occupation of the cave by Ursids for hibernation during the dry periods of the cave (autumn-winter) and opportunistic access of hominins to bear carcases after the hibernation, possibly for obtaining leftover meat, skin and ligaments.

The investigation in Azokh Cave is included within the working lines of the research group known as IPHES-URV “Evolució social, cultual i biológica al Plistocè inferior i Mitjà” (AGAUR, SGR 2014-899) and in the Research Development Programme of the URV (2014PFR-URV-B2-17 and 2015PFR-URV-B2-17).

 

 

 

Members of IPHES teach to undergraduate students in the History and Arts History degree at URV

In some of the curses, doctoral students contribute significantly

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During the 2016-17 academic year, members of the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES), teach a total of four subjects in the frame of the History and Arts History undergraduate degrees of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona (URV), three of which are mandatory. These are: Human evolution and Culture, and Historic Methodology, by Robert Sala, and Prehistory, by Ethel Allué and Eudald Carbonell. In some of these subjects,  doctoral students, Anna Rufà, Esther López, Leopoldo Pérez and Pedro Piñero contribute significantly.

The optional course is Prehistory of the Iberian Peninsula and is taught by Isabel Cáceres and Anna Rufà. Furthermore, the archaeologist Eudald Carbonell makes a number of sessions dedicated to specific items like violence, diet and technology.

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The technology practice by Eudald Carbonell was, focused in a prospection nearby IPHES

In the framework of the Prehistory and Prehistory of the Iberian Peninsula courses recently took place a practical training at IPHES. Like in previous times, in that academic year were offered three workshops: one about zooarchaeology carried outtrained by Isabel Cáceres, the second about microvertebrates, taught by Pedro Piñero, and the last one, on archeobotany, by Ethel Allué.

The technology practice by Eudald Carbonell took also place and was focused, this year, in a prospection nearby IPHES where materials are found in the surface of the so called Tarragona pre-urban zone.

Also, the students visit IPHES guided by Marta Fontanals, member of the Unit of Projects and Transference (UPT). The aim of this practical course is to give an approach to the third year students of History and Arts History degree to the activities made by the members of IPHES. During the workshop, there is a special remark on the different lines of research through the variety of scientific ways such as laboratories, the use of microscopes and fieldwork.

The 2016 Tübingen Prize for Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology goes to Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo of the IPHES

In his PhD thesis, he used ancient animal bone finds to reconstruct human strategies for getting food more than 400,000 years ago

He has demonstrated that early humans were capable of abstract planning, using technology and social skills to get food

The 2016 Tübingen Prize for Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology goes to archaeologist Dr. Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) in Tarragona. Rodríguez-Hidalgo is an archaeozoologist; in his PhD thesis, he used ancient animal bone finds to reconstruct human strategies for getting food more than 400,000 years ago. He found that they used sophisticated hunting strategies. The annual award comes with €5000 prize money, sponsored by Mineralbrunnen EiszeitQuell, making it the richest prize of its kind for archaeological research.

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Yvonne Willy (Romina Mineralbrunnen GmbH), Prof. Nicholas Conard (Universität Tübingen), Dr. Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo (IPHES), Achim Jarck (Romina Mineralbrunnen GmbH), Dr. Britt Starkovich (Universität Tübingen).

Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo (born 1978) first studied History majoring in Archaeology in the Spanish town of Cáceres, then in Parma, Italy. He completed his Master’s degree in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution in 2008 in Tarragona. He has been part of a team excavating in the Sierra de Atapuerca near Burgos in northern Spain, where one of the world’s biggest archaeological sites from the Ice Age is located.  In 2015 he completed his PhD on animal fossils in the Sierra de Atapuerca -and what they say about early humans in the region. “I’m very interested in early humans as hunters – which animals they caught, which strategies they used, and how they carved up their prey”.

“Dr. Rodríguez-Hidalgo has found some very old examples of subsistence behaviors we would recognize as being human,” says Dr Britt Starkovich of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen. Finds from the Sierra de Atapuerca include the remains of some 60 bison butchered by humans. Rodríguez-Hidalgo says the differing ages of the animals indicates an entire herd fell into a natural trap exploited by hunters demonstrating that early humans were capable of abstract planning, using technology and social skills to get food.