Excelencia María de Maeztu

Research Objectives

Our current interdisciplinary approach allows high research quality, making the IPHES an international centre of reference for prehistoric archaeology and human evolution. Our strength is grounded in 4 scientific targets:

  1. Pleistocene and Early Holocene human dispersals across Africa and Eurasia: chronology, migration routes, hominin behaviour and subsistence strategies
  2. Origins of the Neanderthals, evolution, survival and extinction
  3. Palaeobiology and biochronology in relation to human evolution
  4. Natural climatic changes and their impact on human populations

Our Research Plan 2020-2023 aims to achieve holistic knowledge concerning our scientific objectives, by reorganizing our Unit into strategic and scientific approaches (A), to answer a series of specific and concrete top-trend questions (B), by entering into current international issues relating to human evolution.

A. The strategic and scientific approaches are methodological and research disciplines based on scientific questions about human evolution aiming to better understand the lifeways of our hominin ancestors. Integrative research offers a wide range of feedback from diverse methodologies, proxies and results: 1) Transversal multiscale microscope-based approaches; 2) Tapping into sharper palaeoecological studies; 3) Study of subsistence strategies from an evolutionary point of view; 4) Widening insights from lithic analysis; 5) Shifting visions on early cognition.

1.- Transversal multiscale microscope-based approaches

  • Dental palaeoanthropology
  • Dental microwear
  • Multi-proxy analyses of use-wear and residues on lithic artefacts
  • Geoarchaeological characterization of lithic raw materials and archaeological soils
  • Archaeobotany
  • Taphonomy

Rationale: Approach based on transversal research on human evolution grouping high-resolution techniques shared by many disciplines. It involves research and advances in methodology and focuses on the complementary use of: 1) microscopy techniques (reflected and transmitted light, digital 3D, scanning electron, transmission electron, focus variation, interferometry, and laser confocal); and 2) vibrational spectroscopy (Raman and FTIR) and Computerized Tomography (CT) for the study of organic and inorganic residues.

2.- Tapping into sharper palaeoecological studies

  • Palynology and sedimentary charcoal analysis
  • Quantitative Terrestrial Palaeoclimatology (Mutual Ecogeographic Range; Bioclimatic Analysis)
  • Microwear, mesowear, skeleto-chronology, Cemento-chronology
  • Isotopic analyses on plants, macro and micromammals (δ18O, δ13C and δ15N)
  • European neandertalization process and its palaeoecological context

Rationale: Approach based on transversal research about human evolution, combining high-resolution techniques to answer concrete top-trend questions (see B-top-trend questions).

3.- Subsistence strategies from an evolutionary point of view

  • Bone, diet, cooperation and meat-sharing
  • Vegetables and underground storage organs in subsistence
  • Use of AI to study archaeological sites features and assemblages formed by different agents and processes
  • Geometric morphometric analysis applied to identifying taphonomic signals
  • Implementation of spatial taphonomy

Rationale: Approach relying on a single disciplinary Research Unit (RU), but extending the goals of zooarchaeology and taphonomy further than classical studies, and innovating newly developed proxies (see B-top-trend questions).

4.- Widening insights from technology

  • Stone tools, Palaeolithic landscapes and human dispersals
  • Stone and organic tools (bone, antler, wood) as cultural and adaptive markers
  • Behaviour through spatial analysis of human occupations
  • Raw materials: sources, management and differential uses
  • Modelling demographic growth (quantification of items/archaeol. sites/period

Rationale: Approach relying on a single disciplinary RU, but extending the goals of lithic technology further than classical studies, and innovating in new proxies (see B-top-trend questions).

5. Shifting visions on early cognition

  • Cognition and social learning to knap stone tools. Identifying accidents, skills, and prehistoric individuals as a proxy to know social organization
  • Characterizing technological evolution through gestures in knapping
  • Group identity and territories
  • Consciousness of life and death

Rationale: New research approach mainly based on cognitive technology, experimental archaeology, and the archaeology of symbolism (see B-top-trend questions).

Three pivotal areas are necessary to develop research and for the socialization of knowledge. At the base, a) the conservation-restoration service, for all type of evidence. This area will carry out research on cleaning procedures for stone tools, faunal, and human fossil remains, and will widen research on consolidating products to strengthen their reversibility and durability. Also, b) experimental archaeology to develop experimental research protocols for understanding ancient technologies, zooarchaeology, taphonomy, shepherding, etc. Finally, c) the search for open archaeological data lifecycle, including developing data acquisition (Arch-e System 3.0), ‘FAIR’ data for long-term preservation and re-use, and the adaptation of storage and analysis tools for openness and re-use of data.

B. Top-trend questions based on about 30 archaeological and paleontological sites covering more than 2 million years led by the Unit.

The adaptation of Early Pleistocene hominins from around 1.400.000 – 800.000 years ago that settled in Europe in a mosaic of landscapes with conditions different from those of the African Rift Valley.

1- Why did early humans disperse across Europe, reaching into the most westerly regions, when this subcontinent was sparsely peopled? What was the role of technology in the development of this behaviour?

2- What was the effect of landscape and climatic variations on human dispersals during the Pleistocene?

3- When did subsistence patterns attributed to modern human behaviour appear? What position in the trophic chain did the Early Pleistocene hominins occupy, and how did they interact with other large predators?

4- What kinds of percussive activities were being carried out using large-sized stone tools in the Eurasian Oldowan? How can Primate Archaeology provide us with updated insights on the origins of hominin' technological systems?

5- Why did hominins kill and eat other hominins, as in the case of TD6-Gran Dolina (Atapuerca)? Can we establish a relationship between cannibalism of the earliest European hominin groups and resource availability/occupation type ?

6- If Oldowan technologies enabled hominins to succeed demographically and occupy new environments throughout Eurasia, then why did they further evolve?

Territory control, social organization, demography and mobility in the adaptive success of the European Middle Pleistocene hominins (c. 400.000 years ago) and the formation of the Neanderthal clade.

7- Does the increase in the density of the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record reflect demographics and/or does it imply more stable and complex settlement?

8- Was the Oldowan to Acheulean cultural transition in Western Europe a result of acculturation or convergence?

9- Did the concept of territory appear with the Acheulean, meaning that fully nomadic strategies were transformed into territorial movements?

10- Was group identity born out of an Acheulian concept of territory? Markers of Middle Pleistocene cognition: Sima de los Huesos hominin deposit with a single handaxe 450.000 years ago.

11- About 250.000 European sites have revealed evidence for the controlled use of fire. Why do none of the 5 Middle Pleistocene archaeological sites in Atapuerca show evidence for the use of fire?

European Neanderthals were well adapted to climatic change, by means of technological innovations (use of fire, technological change), societal innovations (domestic units and hearts) and symbolic expressions (evidence of aesthetics/art, cave rituals and burials). At 30.000 years ago, Anatomically Modern Humans arrived in Europe.

12- How Neanderthal group’s lifestyles and organizational behaviour were affected by controlled use of fire?

13- Were Neanderthals managing their territorial ranges in a collector or foraging manner? How important were plants and underground storage organs in their diet?

14- Did Anatomically Modern Humans learn from Neanderthals or vice versa? How much Neanderthals cohabited, coexisted and interbred with Modern Humans?

15- Does the archaeological record enable us to obtain detailed palaeo-ethnographic reconstructions of Neanderthal lifestyles? What were the regional networks of the Neanderthals? Did they have complex subsistence strategies? What were the individual and the group relationships? What do we know about Neanderthal symbolic behaviour?

The climatic deterioration at the Late Pleistocene: from hunter-gatherers to farming societies at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition (10.000-8.000).

16- Was pastoralism and farming a resilient strategy to deal with climatic worsening?

17- When and how did humans begin to manage forests and to significantly modify the landscape?

18- What was the role/significance of wild and intentional fires in the Prehistory of the Mediterranean area?