Continuity or Discontinuity? Patterns of Land Use and Climatic Changes in the Late Pleistocene of the Iberian Peninsula

Principal Investigators: K. Reicherter, G.-C. Weniger

The present state of research argues for the earliest immigration of Iberia by modern humans not from Africa via the Strait of Gibraltar, but from central Europe. Thus, Iberia appears as a late refugium for Neanderthals. The project will test cultural patterning of late Neanderthals and modern humans in their environmental setting based on new stratigraphical data. Background for the study is the outstanding archaeological record of this period of the Iberian Peninsula. The Iberian situation will be compared to the evidence from North Africa as well as from the northern foothills of the Pyrenees.

The transition from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic and the replacement of Neanderthals by anatomically modern humans in Europe took place between 45-25 ka. The Iberian Peninsula holds a key role concerning this process. Various authors regard the southern part of Iberia as a refuge for Neanderthals and discuss their prolonged persistence in this area compared to the rest of Europe (e.g. Finlayson et al. 2006). The modelling of the process of transition is hotly debated. Cultural continuity is postulated in the debate as well as total replacement. Different models for different areas of the Iberian Peninsula have been proposed. The impact of climatic changes is gaining increasing importance in the discussion. The diverse geography of Iberia results in climatically very distinct regions. This patterning is most suitable for studying relationships between environment and human adaptation. A dense record of more than 100 archaeological sites from the relevant periods provides an excellent database that is outstanding in Europe.

Based on a multi-proxy approach a cluster of major archaeological sites from the French foothill of the Pyrenees to Gibraltar will be reanalysed. The project will focus on changes between Mousterian and Aurignacian as well as Aurignacian and Gravettian. It is assumed that the transitional process from Middle to Upper Palaeolithic was finished at the latest with the onset of the Gravettian. Similarities and differences of both cultural changes will be compared to understand the underlying process and its possible relationship to environmental changes. These results will be compared to the archaeological evidence in Northern Africa.

Analysis of lithic inventories, new radiometric dating and reanalysis of selected profiles from archaeological key sites will provide new sedimentological information and thus build the backbone of the project. A hiatus of sedimentation during the transition is reported from several sites that display continuity in human occupation. Furthermore, some Middle Palaeolithic sites document a break down of occupation in the late Middle Palaeolithic without reoccupation in the early or even middle Upper Palaeolithic. Other sites start their history of human occupation as late as in the Gravettian although below Gravettian layers substantial cave sedimentation without any archaeological artefacts is documented. The patterning of human occupation will be investigated in detail by on-site analysis, collection work and by compiling environmental data from a rich supply of literature.

Laboratory analysis will focus on the detection of possible climatic changes in the profiles. By means of heavy minerals and heavy metal analysis, aeolian components (drier climate) within the cave layers will be identified. Micromorphological analysis may detect carbonate (re)solution and oxidation processes as consequences of climatic impacts. Additionally, sampling and analysing molluscs and macro remnants are useful tools for gaining further information about palaeoenvironmental changes. On-site data and off-site data of terrestrial archives of the Iberian Peninsula will be compiled and compared to published data from marine archives that are well documented from the adjacent Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean coast.

1st Phase - Research Programme
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2nd Phase
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RWTH Aachen University

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