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Concept: Paleolithic


Pleistocene skinning and exploitation of carnivore furs have been previously inferred from archaeological evidence. Nevertheless, the evidence of skinning and fur processing tends to be weak and the interpretations are not strongly sustained by the archaeological record. In the present paper, we analyze unique evidence of patterned anthropic modification and skeletal representation of fossil remains of cave lion (Panthera spelaea) from the Lower Gallery of La Garma (Cantabria, Spain). This site is one of the few that provides Pleistocene examples of lion exploitation by humans. Our archaeozoological study suggests that lion-specialized pelt exploitation and use might have been related to ritual activities during the Middle Magdalenian period (ca. 14800 cal BC). Moreover, the specimens also represent the southernmost European and the latest evidence of cave lion exploitation in Iberia. Therefore, the study seeks to provide alternative explanations for lion extinction in Eurasia and argues for a role of hunting as a factor to take into account.

Concepts: Skin, Europe, Spain, Lion, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Archaeology, Archaeological site


The Neandertal lineage developed successfully throughout western Eurasia and effectively survived the harsh and severely changing environments of the alternating glacial/interglacial cycles from the middle of the Pleistocene until Marine Isotope Stage 3. Yet, towards the end of this stage, at the time of deteriorating climatic conditions that eventually led to the Last Glacial Maximum, and soon after modern humans entered western Eurasia, the Neandertals disappeared. Western Eurasia was by then exclusively occupied by modern humans. We use occlusal molar microwear texture analysis to examine aspects of diet in western Eurasian Paleolithic hominins in relation to fluctuations in food supplies that resulted from the oscillating climatic conditions of the Pleistocene. There is demonstrable evidence for differences in behavior that distinguish Upper Paleolithic humans from members of the Neandertal lineage. Specifically, whereas the Neandertals altered their diets in response to changing paleoecological conditions, the diets of Upper Paleolithic humans seem to have been less affected by slight changes in vegetation/climatic conditions but were linked to changes in their technological complexes. The results of this study also indicate differences in resource exploitation strategies between these two hominin groups. We argue that these differences in subsistence strategies, if they had already been established at the time of the first contact between these two hominin taxa, may have given modern humans an advantage over the Neandertals, and may have contributed to the persistence of our species despite habitat-related changes in food availabilities associated with climate fluctuations.

Concepts: Human, Diet, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Homininae, Hominini


Most Chinese lithic industries dated between 300,000 and 40,000 are characterized by the absence of Levallois debitage, the persistence of core-and-flake knapping, the rarity of prepared cores, their reduction with direct hard hammer percussion, and the rarity of retouched flakes. Here we report the discovery of seven bone soft hammers at the early hominin Lingjing site (Xuchang County, Henan) dated to 125,000-105,000. These artefacts represent the first instance of the use of bone as raw material to modify stone tools found at an East Asian early Late Pleistocene site. Three types of soft hammers are identified. The first consists of large bone flakes resulting from butchery of large herbivores that were utilized as such for expedient stone tools retouching or resharpening. The second involved the fracture of weathered bone from medium size herbivores to obtain elongated splinters shaped by percussion into sub-rectangular artefacts. Traces observed on these objects indicate intensive and possibly recurrent utilization, which implies their curation over time. The last consists of antler, occasionally used. Lingjing bone tools complement what we know about archaic hominin cultural adaptations in East Asia and highlight behavioural consistencies that could not be inferred from other cultural proxies. This discovery provides a new dimension to the debate surrounding the existence of the Middle Palaeolithic in the region. The attribution of East Asian sites to the Middle Palaeolithic assumes that cultural traits such as the Levallois method represent evolutionary hallmarks applicable to regions of the world different from those in which they were originally found. Here, we promote an approach that consists in identifying, possibly from different categories of material culture, the original features of each regional cultural trajectory and understanding the behavioural and cognitive implications they may have had for past hominin populations.

Concepts: Culture, People's Republic of China, Asia, East Asia, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Stone Age, Stone tool


Ancient genomic sequences have started to reveal the origin and the demographic impact of farmers from the Neolithic period spreading into Europe. The adoption of farming, stock breeding and sedentary societies during the Neolithic may have resulted in adaptive changes in genes associated with immunity and diet. However, the limited data available from earlier hunter-gatherers preclude an understanding of the selective processes associated with this crucial transition to agriculture in recent human evolution. Here we sequence an approximately 7,000-year-old Mesolithic skeleton discovered at the La Braña-Arintero site in León, Spain, to retrieve a complete pre-agricultural European human genome. Analysis of this genome in the context of other ancient samples suggests the existence of a common ancient genomic signature across western and central Eurasia from the Upper Paleolithic to the Mesolithic. The La Braña individual carries ancestral alleles in several skin pigmentation genes, suggesting that the light skin of modern Europeans was not yet ubiquitous in Mesolithic times. Moreover, we provide evidence that a significant number of derived, putatively adaptive variants associated with pathogen resistance in modern Europeans were already present in this hunter-gatherer.

Concepts: Gene, Genetics, Genome, Europe, Neolithic, Human evolution, Paleolithic, Stone Age


Reconstructions of the vegetation of Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) are an enigma. Pollen-based analyses have suggested that Europe was largely covered by steppe and tundra, and forests persisted only in small refugia. Climate-vegetation model simulations on the other hand have consistently suggested that broad areas of Europe would have been suitable for forest, even in the depths of the last glaciation. Here we reconcile models with data by demonstrating that the highly mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that inhabited Europe at the LGM could have substantially reduced forest cover through the ignition of wildfires. Similar to hunter-gatherers of the more recent past, Upper Paleolithic humans were masters of the use of fire, and preferred inhabiting semi-open landscapes to facilitate foraging, hunting and travel. Incorporating human agency into a dynamic vegetation-fire model and simulating forest cover shows that even small increases in wildfire frequency over natural background levels resulted in large changes in the forested area of Europe, in part because trees were already stressed by low atmospheric CO2 concentrations and the cold, dry, and highly variable climate. Our results suggest that the impact of humans on the glacial landscape of Europe may be one of the earliest large-scale anthropogenic modifications of the earth system.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Earth, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glacial period


Luminescence dating at the stratified prehistoric site of Attirampakkam, India, has shown that processes signifying the end of the Acheulian culture and the emergence of a Middle Palaeolithic culture occurred at 385 ± 64 thousand years ago (ka), much earlier than conventionally presumed for South Asia. The Middle Palaeolithic continued at Attirampakkam until 172 ± 41 ka. Chronologies of Middle Palaeolithic technologies in regions distant from Africa and Europe are crucial for testing theories about the origins and early evolution of these cultures, and for understanding their association with modern humans or archaic hominins, their links with preceding Acheulian cultures and the spread of Levallois lithic technologies. The geographic location of India and its rich Middle Palaeolithic record are ideally suited to addressing these issues, but progress has been limited by the paucity of excavated sites and hominin fossils as well as by geochronological constraints. At Attirampakkam, the gradual disuse of bifaces, the predominance of small tools, the appearance of distinctive and diverse Levallois flake and point strategies, and the blade component all highlight a notable shift away from the preceding Acheulian large-flake technologies. These findings document a process of substantial behavioural change that occurred in India at 385 ± 64 ka and establish its contemporaneity with similar processes recorded in Africa and Europe. This suggests complex interactions between local developments and ongoing global transformations. Together, these observations call for a re-evaluation of models that restrict the origins of Indian Middle Palaeolithic culture to the incidence of modern human dispersals after approximately 125 ka.

Concepts: Human, Africa, Indian Ocean, Islam, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Paleolithic, Prehistory


The archaeological record indicates that elephants must have played a significant role in early human diet and culture during Palaeolithic times in the Old World. However, the nature of interactions between early humans and elephants is still under discussion. Elephant remains are found in Palaeolithic sites, both open-air and cave sites, in Europe, Asia, the Levant, and Africa. In some cases elephant and mammoth remains indicate evidence for butchering and marrow extraction performed by humans. Revadim Quarry (Israel) is a Late Acheulian site where elephant remains were found in association with characteristic Lower Palaeolithic flint tools. In this paper we present results regarding the use of Palaeolithic tools in processing animal carcasses and rare identification of fat residue preserved on Lower Palaeolithic tools. Our results shed new light on the use of Palaeolithic stone tools and provide, for the first time, direct evidence (residue) of animal exploitation through the use of an Acheulian biface and a scraper. The association of an elephant rib bearing cut marks with these tools may reinforce the view suggesting the use of Palaeolithic stone tools in the consumption of large game.

Concepts: Human evolution, Paleolithic, Stone Age, Prehistory, Homo ergaster, Stone tool, Lithics, Acheulean


Pottery was a hunter-gatherer innovation that first emerged in East Asia between 20,000 and 12,000 calibrated years before present (cal bp), towards the end of the Late Pleistocene epoch, a period of time when humans were adjusting to changing climates and new environments. Ceramic container technologies were one of a range of late glacial adaptations that were pivotal to structuring subsequent cultural trajectories in different regions of the world, but the reasons for their emergence and widespread uptake are poorly understood. The first ceramic containers must have provided prehistoric hunter-gatherers with attractive new strategies for processing and consuming foodstuffs, but virtually nothing is known of how early pots were used. Here we report the chemical analysis of food residues associated with Late Pleistocene pottery, focusing on one of the best-studied prehistoric ceramic sequences in the world, the Japanese Jōmon. We demonstrate that lipids can be recovered reliably from charred surface deposits adhering to pottery dating from about 15,000 to 11,800 cal bp (the Incipient Jōmon period), the oldest pottery so far investigated, and that in most cases these organic compounds are unequivocally derived from processing freshwater and marine organisms. Stable isotope data support the lipid evidence and suggest that most of the 101 charred deposits analysed, from across the major islands of Japan, were derived from high-trophic-level aquatic food. Productive aquatic ecotones were heavily exploited by late glacial foragers, perhaps providing an initial impetus for investment in ceramic container technology, and paving the way for further intensification of pottery use by hunter-gatherers in the early Holocene epoch. Now that we have shown that it is possible to analyse organic residues from some of the world’s earliest ceramic vessels, the subsequent development of this critical technology can be clarified through further widespread testing of hunter-gatherer pottery from later periods.

Concepts: Human, Pottery, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Holocene, Quaternary, Younger Dryas, Epoch


Stone tools provide some of the most abundant, continuous, and high resolution evidence of behavioral change over human evolution, but their implications for cognitive evolution have remained unclear. We investigated the neurophysiological demands of stone toolmaking by training modern subjects in known Paleolithic methods (“Oldowan”, “Acheulean”) and collecting structural and functional brain imaging data as they made technical judgments (outcome prediction, strategic appropriateness) about planned actions on partially completed tools. Results show that this task affected neural activity and functional connectivity in dorsal prefrontal cortex, that effect magnitude correlated with the frequency of correct strategic judgments, and that the frequency of correct strategic judgments was predictive of success in Acheulean, but not Oldowan, toolmaking. This corroborates hypothesized cognitive control demands of Acheulean toolmaking, specifically including information monitoring and manipulation functions attributed to the “central executive” of working memory. More broadly, it develops empirical methods for assessing the differential cognitive demands of Paleolithic technologies, and expands the scope of evolutionary hypotheses that can be tested using the available archaeological record.

Concepts: Scientific method, Brain, Prediction, Empiricism, Executive functions, Paleolithic, Oldowan, Acheulean


Population dynamics between and within Pleistocene groups are vital to understanding wider behavioural processes like social transmission and cultural variation. The late Middle Palaeolithic (MIS 5d-3, ca. 115,000-35,000 BP [years before present]) permits a novel, data-driven assessment of these concepts through a unique record: bifacial tools made by classic Neanderthals. Previously, studies of late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tools were hampered by a convoluted plethora of competing terms, types and regional entities. This paper presents a large-scale intercomparison of this tool type, and bridges typo-technological and spatio-temporal data from across Western Europe (Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany). Results indicate a high level of variation among individual bifacial tools and assemblages. Each bifacial tool concept is correlated with various methods of production, resulting in large degrees of morphological variation. Despite such variation, a distinct three-fold, macro-regional pattern was identified: the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA) in the southwest dominated by handaxes, the Keilmessergruppen (KMG) in the northeast typified by backed and leaf-shaped bifacial tools, and, finally a new unit, the Mousterian with Bifacial Tools (MBT), geographically situated between these two major entities, and characterised by a wider variety of bifacial tools. Differing local conditions, such as raw material or function, are not sufficient to explain this observed macro-regional tripartite. Instead, the MTA and KMG can be viewed as two distinct cultural traditions, where the production of a specific bifacial tool concept was passed on over generations. Conversely, the MBT is interpreted as a border zone where highly mobile groups of Neanderthals from both the east (KMG) and west (MTA) interacted. Principally, this study presents an archaeological contribution to behavioural concepts such as regionality, culture, social transmission and population dynamics. It illustrates the interpretive potential of large-scale lithic studies, and more specifically the presence of regionalised cultural behaviour amongst late Neanderthal groups in Western Europe.

Concepts: Neanderthal, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Stone Age, Upper Paleolithic, Mousterian, Middle Paleolithic, Stone tool