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Final Report Summary - GEOPAL (Geoarchaelogu, Paleoenvironments and Luminescence Geochronology in the Eastern Alpine Realm and South Africa during the Last Glacial Cycle (115-11 ka))

Accurate chronologies of past human activities and contemporaneous paleoenvironmental records are key requirements to sustain further progress in geoarchaeology and to improve our knowledge of the history of humankind. The project focused on the hub between the archaeological and the geo-sciences and special attention was directed towards optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of archaeological key-sites in both, the Northern and the Southern Hemisphere.

The project's objectives were the following:

1) acquiring the technical skills and expertise in single-grain OSL dating to carry out independent research into, and applications of, this cutting-edge field of interdisciplinary science;
2) training in the field aspects of geoarchaeology and OSL sampling in sensitive archaeological contexts and familiarisation with basic concepts and ideas in paleoanthropology, archaeology and Palaeolithic research;
3) integrating of the OSL dated clastic sediment records with precisely U-Th-dated speleothem records; and
4) planning, writing and submission of follow-up research projects to:

(i) continue and expand with the geoarchaeological and paleoenvironmental research that has been jump-started via this Marie Curie action; and to
(ii) strengthen the OSL research group and laboratory facilities at the University of Innsbruck.

A total of 49 samples were prepared, measured and analysed and tight OSL chronologies have been established for all sites on the African continent as well as for Vindija Cave. Training in single-grain OSL dating and data processing involved the application of sophisticated statistical age-modelling techniques and non-standard OSL protocols in order to achieve maximum accuracy and precision of the optical ages. Training in geo-archaeological field techniques and OSL sampling in sensitive archaeological contexts was conducted in the course of two ongoing international archaeological excavations at the two African field sites (i.e. South Africa and Morocco). Furthermore, a research proposal has been submitted by the fellow (as principal investigator) with international collaborators to the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) in August 2011 designed to provide critical new insights into the Quaternary climate, landscape and archaeological records of High Asia.

The research and training activities carried out during this three year international outgoing fellowship resulted in a number of scientific findings and conclusions and also have a socio-economic impact. Our archaeological geochronological research in Africa, for example, showed that early modern humans learned the controlled use of fire (i.e. a break-through adaptation in human evolution) much earlier than hitherto believed and allowed us to place tight age constraints on human occupational phases in Morocco that have long been disputed. Given that new human remains with modern anatomical traits have been recovered from the Aterian levels of the Moroccan cave, our OSL chronology will be of particular importance for developing new human migration models ('out of Africa movement') in an African context. The OSL chronology from Vindija cave (one of Europe's most important Neanderthal sites) suggests that Neanderthals occupied this cave much earlier than frequently claimed and that a significant hiatus separates the archaeological layers that contain Neanderthal and modern human artefacts and remains, respectively.

Finally, the expertise generated via this Marie Curie Action has been anchored in a European research institution (i.e. at the University Innsbruck), where the research fellow has taken up a position as a Senior Scientist and is in charge of the OSL laboratory. The single-grain OSL approach will form a key-geochronological technique of that laboratory and will allow investigating new aspects of climate-human-environmental interactions in Europe and beyond.