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

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-02-29

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 aim 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 will integrate
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 will be examined at two Iberian sites
which represent two key points along the Neanderthal time-line. The
results of this project will make important contributions to the
development of new methods for archaeological research, train a new
generation of skilled geoarchaeologists knowledgeable in microstratigraphy
and applied chemistry, and yield new insights into the Neanderthals and
their demise.
The PALEOCHAR Project started with construction and set up of the AMBI Lab (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 project’s website is Investigations are fully on their way and the main achievements include gathering and multi-technique testing of key reference charred plant and animal species, archaeological fieldwork yielding key sediment samples for microscopic and lipid analysis and micromorphological and lipid analysis of key samples from Neanderthal combustion structures. The new lab and project has been presented at different international academic institutions, renowned researchers have visited the facilities (1) and have given us specialized seminars (2) for the project and two international workshops (3) have been held within the project’s framework.

(1) Visit and working meeting in AMBI Lab with Dr David Anderson (University of Aberdeen, UK) and part of his team on February 13th. Visit and several working meetings with Dr Aurèade Henry (CNRS-UMR 7264 CEPAM, France), from February 6th to February 14th. Different working meetings with the guest speakers of ‘Ethnoarchaeology of fire’ International Workshop from February 9-12th. Dr Sven Haakanson (University of Washington), David Friesem (University of Cambridge), Dr Brian Wood (Yale University), Dr Jacob A. Harris (University of Arizona) and Dr Cheryl Makarewicz (Kiel University, Germany).

(2) James Collins (Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany), Dominique Todisco (Rouen University, France), Margarita Jambrina (Universidad de Salamanca) and Glenn Lambrecht (University of Bern) during the first reporting period. Boris Jansen (University of Amsterdam), Dirk Sachse (Helmholtz-Zentrum Postdam, Germany) and Cristiano Nicosia (Université Libre de Bruxelles) on March 2017. Philip Nigst (Cambridge University), Marjolein Bosch (Max Plank Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig) and Vera Aldeias (Algarve University) on April 2017. Javier Fernández López de Pablo (IPHES, Tarragona) on June 2017. Tammy Buonasera (Universidad de La Laguna) on October 2017. Mario Gutiérrez (Universidad de Granada) on November 2017. Ryan Smith-Cooper (Rutgers University) on January 2018. Paul Goldberg (Boston University) on April 2018. Ildefonso Armenteros (Universidad de Salamanca) on June 2018.

(3) Workshop on Paleoenvironmentary and Paleodietary Reconstructions of Early Hominin Sites (La Laguna, 3-4 February 2016). Co-organized with MIT and Ethnoarchaeology of fire international workshop (La Laguna, 9-12 February 2017).
So far, the project has achieved a unique lab setup that will allow contextualized analysis of microscopic and biomolecular residues from archaeological sediments. Results so far suggest high potential of sediment blocks and thin sections to yield spectroscopic biomolecular information and high potential to identify pyrogenic biomarkers in archeological combustion contexts. In its current state, the lab facilities can provide analytical service to the scientific community at large and the kind of contextualized data that can be obtained is invaluable to complete the fragmentary archaeological record from sites of any kind and time period.
Visit ITER
Fieldwork in Montenegro
PALEOCHAR microscope work
Experimental fires
Visit of the ACIISI director
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