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PALEOCHAR: Insights into the Neanderthals and their demise from the study of microscopic and molecular charred matter in Middle Palaeolithic sediments

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - PALEOCHAR (PALEOCHAR: Insights into the Neanderthals and their demise from the study of microscopic and molecular charred matter in Middle Palaeolithic sediments)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

Who were the Neanderthals and what caused their demise? To answer these questions, the classic approach in archaeology relies on the analysis of the Neanderthals' stone-tool assemblages and the mineralized bone remains of their dietary intake. Although this approach has yielded a great deal of important information about the Neanderthals’ fate, it is also limited in the sense that the only evidence that is considered is in-organic in nature. The PALEOCHAR Project attempts to answer these questions by considering microscopic and molecular evidence that is organic in nature. By studying the organic sedimentary record at such fine scales, we are able to extract information about, for example, the fat contents of the Neanderthal food, the way they made fire, the arrangements of their living spaces, their surrounding vegetation and the climatic conditions where they lived. By combining these different sources of information we aimed to provide a more complete picture of the Neanderthals and the reason of their disappearance.

Specifically, the PALEOCHAR project examines how Neanderthal diet, fire technology, settlement patterns, and surrounding vegetation were affected by changing climatic conditions. To do so, the project integrates methodologies from micromorphology and organic geochemistry. A key and innovative aspect of the proposal is the consideration of microscopic and molecular evidence that is both organic and charred in nature. Climatic changes and behavioural responses were examined at two Iberian sites which represent two key points along the Neanderthal timeline, finding significant climatic fluctuation and revealing a diversity of adaptations in fire technology.

The results of this project made important contributions to the development of new methods for archaeological research, trained a new generation of skilled geoarchaeologists knowledgeable in microstratigraphy and applied chemistry, and yielded new insights into the Neanderthals and their demise. Regarding the Neanderthals, we achieved a millennial-scale paleoclimatic reconstruction of the regional conditions at El Salt and Abric del Pastor sites that bring us closer to understanding the palaeoenvironmental context for the disappearance of Neanderthals in Eastern Iberia. We also discovered and characterized previously undocumented pit-fire Neanderthal technology and investigated Neanderthal settlement patterns at very narrow time frames. On the methodological side, we developed a method to carry out in-situ, high-resolution identification of archaeological lipid biomarkers on resin-impregnated sediment slabs, and a method to characterize charred organic matter in micromorphological thin sections by means of Raman spectroscopy. We discovered anatomical part differences in plant wax lipids and their different transformations at different burning temperatures, identified animal fat pyromarkers (lipid compounds that form during burning) and their isotopic signatures for the distinction between different species, characterized the effects of burning in the lipid content of animal dung, moss and Hydrogen isotope ratios in alkanes, and established a QuEChERS-based method combined with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry for the analysis of alkanes in sediments.

At present, the AMBILAB (Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarkers Research Lab) has a prestigious reputation within the international scientific community as an important international hub for training and research in microcontextual geoarchaeology focusing on the organic record.
The PALEOCHAR Project started with the construction and set up of the AMBILAB (Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarkers Research Lab), which is now the only place in the world combining the necessary facilities to carry out coupled organic chemistry and microscopy of sediments. The PALEOCHAR team consists of the PI, 3 postdocs, 2 PhD students and 2 technicians. The main achievements of the project include: the coupled micromorphological and lipid profiling of different unburnt and burnt plant and animals (and their distinct anatomical parts), generation of data on Neanderthal paleoclimate and behavior at very high temporal and spatial resolution, development of new analytical methods in the domain of Geoarchaeology and Organic Geochemistry, and interdisciplinary training of young researchers.

The new lab and project has been presented at different international academic institutions, renowned researchers have visited the facilities and have given us specialized seminars for the project, and three international workshops have been held within the project’s framework. The PALEOCHAR webpage contains basic information on the project (http://paleochar.webs.ull.es/) and the AMBILAB webpage encapsulates all the research activity that has stemmed from the PALEOCHAR project (https://wp.ull.es/ambilab/). We produced two open-access videos to disseminate our approach among the general public (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djO11po0vso; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWW4QMO9puo&t=7s). Our results have been presented in the main international conferences within the field and others and published 14 articles in high-impact peer-reviewed journals with open access (see the PALEOCHAR website for links to the specific publications). There are 4 additional papers ready for submission.
The main achievement of the PALEOCHAR project has been the consolidation of a new line of research: the microcontextual analysis of archaeological lipids with emphasis on plant and animal combustion biomarkers. We have now established a new, fully ERC-funded state-of-the-art, multi-technique approach, with the AMBILAB (Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarkers Research Lab) as its main engine. So far, this new approach has contributed valuable experimental data on plant and animal lipid biomarkers (including pyromarkers) and their isotopic signatures, archaeological data to advance the debates on Neanderthal adaptations and demise, and more recently, further experimental and archaeological data related to animal and plant combustion relevant to more recent contexts from different regions (Africa, America, Europe and Asia).
Visit ITER
Fieldwork in Montenegro
PALEOCHAR microscope work
Experimental fires
Visit of the ACIISI director
PALEOCHAR Fieldwork
Las Estacas Fieldwork
Campus America
PALEOCHAR chemistry lab work
CEI ERC grants session
PALEOCHAR lab work
Spaniard Science ministry visit
Lab work
Thin section lab manager's work
Cristiano Nicosia in AMBI Lab