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Stable isotope ecology of hunter-gatherers in Italy in the late Pleistocene and the Early Holocene

Final Report Summary - ITALIAN ISOTOPES (Stable isotope ecology of hunter-gatherers in Italy in the late Pleistocene and the Early Holocene)

In this study isotopes of a wide range of elements (carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, oxygen and strontium) have been measured on prehistoric skeletal remains to gain a more detailed understanding of the diet, territoriality and behaviour of humans in Italy from the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, when they subsisted by hunting and gathering, to the early Neolithic, when they adopted agriculture and pastoralism. Another objective of this isotopic project was to investigate the nature of the environmental changes that took place from the Last Glacial Maximum to the mid-Holocene and how these affected humans living in the Mediterranean Basin. The following sections of this report will summarize the work performed by the researcher (Dr. Marcello A. Mannino), the materials and data collected, the main results and the potential outcomes of the project.

Work performed - The researcher has undergone laboratory training in the preparation of the organic fraction of archaeological bone material for carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotope analyses and archaeological dental tissues for strontium and oxygen isotope analyses. As part of the project, the researcher has performed the sampling required on prehistoric human and animal bones in collaboration with anthropologists and archaeozoologists at museum and universities across Italy. The sampled bones have been subject to the relevant preparation procedures mainly by Dr. Mannino. In addition, the researcher has collaborated with colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the preparation of the bone samples for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating.

Materials and data collected - The sites and materials studied in this project include most of those listed in the original application, as well as numerous earlier Upper Palaeolithic sites, essentially extending the period of interest for the project back to the Last Glacial Maximum. Carbon and nitrogen isotope data have been obtained on 721 bone samples: 140 human (49 Upper Palaeolithic, 25 Mesolithic, 66 Neolithic) and 581animal (298 Upper Palaeolithic, 121 Mesolithic, 162 Neolithic). The main sites which have been investigated include:

* for the Upper Palaeolithic: Barma Grande and Arene Candide in Liguria; Grotta Continenza in Abruzzo; Grotta Paglicci, Grotta di Santa Maria di Agnano and Grotta Romanelli in Apulia; Grotta di San Teodoro and Grotta dell'Addaura in Sicily;
* for the Mesolithic: Grotta Continenza in Abruzzo; Grotta della Madonna in Calabria; Grotta dell'Uzzo, Grotta Molara, Grotta dell'Addaura and Grotta d'Oriente in Sicily;
* for the Neolithic: Arma dell'Aquila and Arene Candide in Liguria; Ripabianca di Monterado in Marche; Grotta Continenza in Abruzzo; Grotta delle Mura in Apulia; Grotta dell'Uzzo, Stretto di Partanna and Balze Soprane in Sicily.
Sulphur isotope analyses have been performed on almost one hundred bone samples mainly from the Upper Palaeolithic sites of Arene Candide and Grotta Continenza, and from the Mesolithic-Neolithic site of Grotta dell'Uzzo. Due to the general lack of variation in carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotope analyses, it was not thought necessary to apply oxygen and strontium isotope analyses on a wide range of remains. For this reason oxygen and strontium isotope analyses have been undertaken only on a few targeted specimens mainly from Grotta dell'Uzzo, in the case of which these analyses have been used to explore the issue of the importation of domestic animals at this site during the early Neolithic. A total of 97 (64 human and 33 animal) bone samples were AMS radiocarbon dated within the remit of the project at the laboratories of Oxford, Mannheim and Kiel. Most of these dates are on human bones from burials and in many cases they represent the first absolute dates for these prehistoric burial contexts of great archaeological significance.
Summary of the main results - Human and faunal collagen has been successfully extracted and analysed from Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic skeletal remains from sites across Italy. The carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotope analyses performed on these samples have allowed us to reconstruct human diet and subsistence in the Italian Peninsula and Sicily over a period of major environmental changes. The database acquired during the project represents the largest body of isotope data on prehistoric remains from any of the Mediterranean countries of Europe and, as far as the Upper Palaeolihic is concerned, one of the largest datasets for any European country. The results attest that human diets were dominated by the consumption of the meat of large terrestrial herbivores during the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic when the food economy was based on hunting and gathering. The dietary focus on protein originating from terrestrial mammals continued right up to the early Neolithic, when agriculture and pastoralism were gradually introduced. The contribution of marine resources to hunter-gatherer and early agro-pastoral diets in prehistoric Italy was always negligible. The isotope analyses, however, indicate that at times when environmental conditions were markedly different from today (i.e. at the Last Glacial Maximum), humans adapted to palaeoecological changes by exploiting a broader range of resources than what had been done previously by hunter-gatherers living in the Mediterranean Basin. For example, at the Ligurian caves of Arene Candide and Barma Grande, Gravettian hunter-gatherers exploited freshwater and/or anadromous fish (such as brown trout), as well as large terrestrial mammalian herbivores, which are by far the most abundant animals represented in the faunal assemblages from these sites. In addition, the results of the isotope analyses, interpreted in conjunction with the faunal changes attested by the archaeozoological studies, provide information on the nature of the modifications which took place in the terrestrial and marine ecosystems of the Mediterranean Basin from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Post-Glacial. Overall, the most significant result arising from the project is the finding that domestic animals (cattle and possibly sheep and goat), as well as the agro-pastoral economy, were introduced at Grotta dell'Uzzo in NW Sicily by seafaring Neolithic populations directly from North Africa or, possibly, even from the Near East. This finding will lead to a re-appraisal of the theories on the spread of the Neolithic in other parts of Italy and of the western Mediterranean.

Outcomes of the project - One of the main achievements of this project has been to build a large isotope database on prehistoric bones from Italy, a European country with a vast archaeological record, which has seldom been the object of detailed multi-isotope studies backed by extensive radiocarbon dating. We are sure that, once the results of the project will be disseminated widely through publications in peer-reviewed journals, they will lead to new interpretations of the prehistory of Italy and of Mediterranean Europe from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Neolithic. The main methodological outcome of the project is that it has demonstrated the need for a wider application of isotope analyses on faunal remains from prehistoric sites throughout northern Mediterranean shores, to improve our understanding of processes such as the spread of the agro-pastoralism in Europe. The present research, however, has also exposed the urgency to undertake archaeological investigations in the Mediterranean regions of North Africa to be able to interpret more fully the prehistory of southern Europe from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition onwards.