Prehistoric Socioecology and Cultural Changes

Molí del Salt

Group of Analyses on Socio-ecological Processes, Cultural Changes and Population dynamics during Prehistory (GAPS)

Principal investigator: Dr Manuel Vaquero
Researchers: Dr Ethel Allué, Dr Florent Rivals, Dr Jordi Rosell, Dr Francesc Burjachs, Dr Javier Fernández, Dr Sergi Lozano, Dr Ignasi Pastó, Dr Ruth Blasco, Dr Juan Manuel López, and Dr Marina Lozano.
PhD students: Aitor Burguet.
Technical staff: Marta Fontanals and Isabel Expósito.

The scientific activity of the group is focused on the study of ecology, population dynamics and cultural changes that characterize human societies throughout prehistory, from the earliest evidence of Neanderthal behaviour to the emergence of the first agricultural societies and livestock practices (Neolithic). This research is conducted from a multidisciplinary approach, integrating data from different disciplines: palaeoanthropology, lithic technology, zooarchaeology, taphonomy, palaeontology, archaeobotany, spatial analysis, symbolic expression and computational models.

The GAPS research group comprises a total of 13 doctors, six of them IPHES staff, (Manuel Vaquero, Jordi Rosell, Ethel Allué, Marina Lozano, Ignasi Pastó and Ramón Viñas). The seven remaining members were appointed to IPHES by different national and international competitive programs: two ICREA Professors (Francesc Burjachs and Florent Rivals), two “Ramón y Cajal” fellows (Javier Fernandez and Sergi Lozano), two postdoctoral Beatriu de Pinos – Marie Curie fellows (Ruth Blasco and Juan Manuel Lopez), and finally another Marie Slodowska-Curie IEF 2014 postdoctoral researcher (Samantha Jones).

Additionally, the team includes three pre-doctoral students (Anna Rufà Bonache; Juan Ignacio Morales Hidalgo; Edgard Camarós Pérez) from different grants schemes (primarily MEC - FPU, FI AGAUR)

Therefore, this team is devoted to the study of the cultural changes and population dynamics of the Neanderthal and modern human groups using a Socioecological approach. During this period, the end of the Middle Pleistocene to the Early Holocene, three highly significant prehistoric processes took place:

  1. The origins of Neanderthal behaviour.
  2. The Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic transition.
  3. The end of the Paleolithic and the emergence of the first farming and herding societies.

These broad topics present certain characteristics that conditioning their study. Firstly, they are framed in long-term trends marked by temporal discontinuities. Second, they show common features that are subsumed as parts of diachronic socio-ecological questions. Taking this into account, we address these questions using a multi-disciplinary approach. Each of the fields of study represented within the group has its own specific objectives:

  1. Paleoanthropology. The episodes of change under study are related to major anthropological changes triggered by the arrival of a new species and different populations. The study of human remains found at archaeological sites is a key area of research. Two main objectives have been defined:
    1. Microwear tooth studies of hunter-gatherers and early food producers to learn about the diet of these people as well as non-masticatory uses of anterior teeth as a tool or third hand.
    2. The characterization of the oral pathologies of hunter-gatherer groups and early food producers to determine new pathologies related to changes in diet.
  2. Technology and material culture. Changes in material culture were extensive throughout the Pleistocene, including the emergence of new technologies. A technological perspective is essential to explain the variability of archaeological sites, particularly in terms of lithic assemblages. Our principal research lines are the following:
    1. Variability in Middle Palaeolithic technologies, focusing on the alternation between expedient and planned technologies and its correlation with other aspects of technical behaviour.
    2. The importance of expedient technologies in Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic assemblages in order to assess whether these technologies can be considered culturally diagnostic.
    3. Formation processes of lithic assemblages at Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites, through the analysis of different aspects of behaviour: lithic provisioning strategies, spatial distribution of technical activities, intrasite artefact transport and recycling.
    4. Typological and technological changes during the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary in order to assess the degree of continuity or rupture between the late Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic.
    5. A variety of different methodologies are employed to achieve these objectives: morphotechnical analyses of lithic artefacts, refitting, 3D digitization of artefacts and analytical characterization of raw materials (X-Ray diffraction, Raman spectroscopy and geochemical characterization).
  3. Subsistence strategies. Our approach to this topic is based mainly on the zoo archaeological and taphonomic analysis of faunal remains recovered from archaeological sites. However, it also incorporates archaeobotanical studies exploring the uses of plants as human and animal food. The questions we specifically address are prioritized as follows:
    1. The evolution of survival strategies of prehistoric groups through a meat-based diet.
    2. Population dynamics as understood through patterns observed in butchering processes.
    3. Hominid-carnivore interactions and the derived co-evolutionary processes concerning two issues: a) linking monitored observations of current large carnivores (experimentation) with the archaeological and paleontological record in order to understand processes of equifinality, and b) the role of large carnivores in archaeological sites.
    4. The definition of occupation patterns through the study of zooarchaeological remains.
    5. Exploration of the uses of plants in various human activities; the technological aspects of the uses of plants for wooden tool making and the structuring of living floors, fuel (dung, bones, etc.) and the uses of plants as human and animal food.
    6. The study of hearth features as a technology related to subsistence and social organization.
  4. Prehistoric graphism.Changes in the forms of symbolic expression have important implications from the perspective of cognitive and social media strategies. This area includes the study of graphic evidence, in both parietal and portable art, dated to the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic, as well as other evidence of symbolic behaviour, such as personal adornment. The objectives of this line of research are:
    1. The distinction between formal expressions and execution techniques of hunter-gatherers and farmer-herders to determine the transmission of each group’s graphic and symbolic heritage.
    2. RAMAN spectrometry and X-ray diffraction analyses of pigments and the surfaces on which parietal paintings were created.
    3. The study of the micro-stratigraphy of the surfaces on which parietal paintings were created and the coatings to fix the position of calcium oxalate in relation to the paintings for the purpose of obtaining consistent indirect 14C dating.
    4. The use of a graphic information system (digital photography and image processing system to implement digital reproductions of rock paintings studied).
  5. Spatial analysis. Changes in settlement patterns and intrasite spatial organization are an important part of the broader area of study. In addition to the study of archaeological remains, this field of inquiry is based on the analysis of the spatial distribution of remains and refitting. The principal lines of research are:
    1. The characterization of activity areas and household spaces from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic, assessing changes that occurred throughout this period.
    2. The identification of high temporal resolution units in archaeological sites, in both highly and  little developed palimpsests.
    3. The variability of occupation types between the Middle Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic, paying special attention to the comparison between residential sites and specialized contexts.
    4. The seasonality of human occupations at archaeological sites, using data from microwear and cementum tooth analyses.
  6. Paleoenvironment. Climate change had a significant impact on plant and animal populations and, consequently, on the adaptive patterns of humans. Here, we integrate archaeobotanical (charcoal, palynology, phytoliths) and palaeontological (macro and micro fauna) studies with the following objectives:
    1. The study of changes in vegetation, analysing high-resolution climatic fluctuations through the quantification of the impacts of human activity: landscape change and cultural change.
    2. Socio-ecological resilience and environmental changes from the late glacial period to the Neolithic in the Mediterranean area of the Iberian Peninsula; palaeoecological reconstructions of Pleistocene-Holocene transition records through the analysis of natural deposits (drills in ancient pools).
    3. A taphonomic approach to the formation of deposits through the study of non-pollen palynomorphs (NPP), plant elements in fossil dung, etc.
    4. Analysis of the palaeoecological context of human occupations at different temporal and spatial scales: local scale/short timescale compared to regional scale/longer timescale.
  7. Modeling. This consists of the meta-analysis of archaeological data by means of mathematical and computational modelling techniques to reconstruct demographic patterns and better understand long-term cultural dynamics. Concrete examples include:
    1. The use of mathematical modelling to better understand the co-evolution of gene-culture-ecosystem as proposed by the theory of niche construction.
    2. The application of dispersal modelling and demographic proxies to study cultural drifts and regional population dynamics.
    3. Computational experiments (based on the combination of social network analysis and agent-based modelling) to study processes of regionalization and cultural fragmentation.
  8. Dating database. For the temporal period covered by the GAPS, dating methods are available that have proven to provide a precise and reliable chronological framing for the changes that took place during the period. One of the team’s goals is to compile new data on the radiometric dating of the sites under study.

All the scientific objectives of this team are achieved through work on a series of archaeological sites spanning the entire chronological frame on the Iberian Peninsula and abroad. The members of the GAPS are directly involved in the excavation of these sites, either as principal researchers or as participants in the fieldwork and/or study of materials. The sites we work at and use as primary data sources are:

  • Middle Palaeolithic: Abric Romaní, Cova de les Teixoneres, Cova del Toll, Vanguard Cave, Gorham’s Cave, Cau del Roure, Cova Foradà, Cova de les Llenes, Beef Steak Cave, Cova del Bolomor.
  • Upper Palaeolithic: Molí del Salt, Costa de Can Manel, Abric de la Consagració, Cova de Valdavara, La Cativera, Cova d’en Pau, Cova de la Guineu, Balma de la Vall, Cova de les Borres, Cova Foradada, Balma de la Griera.
  • Mesolithic: Abric Agut, Casa Corona.
  • Neolithic: Cueva del Mirador, Cova de la Font Major, El Cavet, Cova Colomera.
  • Rock Art: Fuente del Trucho; Cova Eirós; Cova Remigia; Cova del Civil; Cova Centelles and Abric de les Canyes; Cova dels Rosegadors; Abric del Mas dels Ous; Rock Art sites of Ermites d’Ulldecona; Muntanyes de Prades and Les Garrigues.
  • Palaeoenvironment of Last Glacial-Holocene Transition: Drills at the endorheic pool at Ulldecona (Montsià, Tarragona), and in the Cova dels Xaragalls.

Moreover, the members of the group also participate in international excavations by both conducting fieldwork and studying materials. These projects are a cornerstone of the international profile of this research group:

  1. Europe: Research projects in the Grotta Rio Secco (Italy), collaboration studies in the prehistoric Balkans (Serbia and Montenegro), the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh) and Sicily (Vallone Inferno depodit).
  2. Africa: research projects in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
  3. Middle East: research projects in Qesem Cave (Israel), collaboration with research projects in Iran (Khorramabad Valley).
  4. Far East. Study fuels plant sites in China.
  5. America. surveys at Cueva Pintada, Rio Sarakachi, El Arenoso and La Calera (Mexico), Holocene archaeological sites in the basin of Lake Cardiel in southern Patagonia (Argentina) and tooth wear analyses of human remains recovered at the site of Cuchipuy (Xili).