Project The Western Mediterranean - Bridge or Barrier?


Initial investigation areas:   Morocco, Spain,
Portugal, France
  Speaker: Prof. Dr. G.-C. Weniger


In addition to the eastern route, there is a western route from Africa to Europe crossing the 14 km wide strait of Gibraltar. Due to a low sea level in the Late Pleistocene, the distance between the continents was reduced to approximately 5 km at that time. Between the North African coastline and the foothill zone north of the Pyrenees, a variety of biogeographical zones are crossed, ranging from the humid climates of Southwest Europe to the arid environments of North Africa. This area of environmental diversity is an ideal framework for the study of cultural change in relation to climatic or environmental forcing. Especially the semiarid landscapes and desert margins react very sensitively to changing conditions.

Research goals are to work out the archaeological pattern of land use, in terms of mobility, subsistence and interregional contacts, applying both archaeological as well as geoscientific methods. In particular, the group will focus on correlations of cultural history and population shifts with environmental change. In the first phase, the C cluster will focus
on two time periods, both of which were major events in the early history of Europe:

  1. the colonisation of Europe by anatomically modern humans and the extinction of the Neanderthals (transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic, 45-25 ka).
  2. the Mesolithic Neolithic transition, and notably the introduction of food production.

The Iberian Peninsula (C1) is one of the most interesting areas in Europe for studying the question of Neanderthal extinction and replacement by modern humans between 45 and 25 ka. A variety of partly contradicting models of settlement patterns and population dynamics are discussed. However, there is increasing evidence that climate changes had an important impact on this process. Rapid climatic changes have been detected in terrestrial geoarchives in Iberia, even in cave sites, the main source of archaeological data. Reanalysis of long stratigraphic sequences from cave sites using micromorphology, radiometric dating and archaeological data on land use will generate a dense new body of data.

Concerning our second case study (C2), the Mesolithic Neolithic Transition (9-5 ka BC), cultural contacts between Africa and Western Europe are proven. We will generate new archaeological and environmental data in order to study climatic or environmental impacts on these contacts. For this particular question the research area is perfectly qualified, mainly because the process took place simultaneously on both sides of the Mediterranean and both regions are characterised by strong contrasts between sub-humid and semiarid climates. On the North African side, terrestrial archives are well exposed and investigated, whereas on the Iberian side, the early to mid-Holocene period is poorly documented. Terrestrial archives such as lagoons, fluvial and aeolian deposits and poljes, will be investigated in order to close the current research gaps.

As a possible third case study, the potential land bridge between Tunesia and Sicily appears as an interesting option for extension of our research area during the second phase of the CRC.

Archives to be investigated are archaeological sites (new excavations and reexaminations) covering the entire cultural inventory: pottery, lithics, faunal and botanical remains, and lithostratigraphic cave sediment sequences. Furthermore, environmental archives will be analysed by modern sedimentological, geochemical and geophysical methods using multi-proxy approaches. Chronostratigraphic frameworks will be established and backed up by radiocarbon and luminescence methods. The palaeoenvironmental and chronological data will be combined to yield more reliable reconstructions of environmental history in the area of interest. In addition to the broad geoscientific analytical approach, we include the analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA), in order to deal with the spread of domesticated animals in the Early Neolithic and with the mobility of large herbivores in the Late Pleistocene.


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RWTH Aachen University

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