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The earliest migration of Homo sapiens in Southern Europe: understanding the biocultural processes that define our uniqueness

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - SUCCESS (The earliest migration of Homo sapiens in Southern Europe: understanding the biocultural processes that define our uniqueness)

Reporting period: 2020-05-01 to 2021-10-31

This project aims to understand when modern humans first arrived in Europe, the origins of modern behaviour and the associated fate of our closest human relatives, the Neandertals. Indeed, modern humans radiated out of Africa into the rest of the world around 60,000-50,000 years ago, and new evidence suggests arrivals of modern humans in Southeast Asia and Australia at least 50,000 years ago. In Europe, however, the timing and the pattern of the biological and cultural shifts that occurred around 50,000 to 35,000 years ago, which resulted in the demise of the Neandertals and their replacement by modern humans, are hotly debated and are considered to be among the most important questions in paleoanthropology.
The results of this project will be of pivotal importance to understanding a key period in European prehistory and, more generally, the biocultural, adaptive and ecological characteristics that make our species successful and unique, ultimately giving rise to the first major global replacement of populations and the establishment of humankind today.

This project has the following interrelated primary objectives:
1) To track the migratory routes and to reconstruct the climatic and environmental conditions linked to the earliest modern human migrations in order to establish when they reached Southern Europe, and in particular Italy.
2) To understand the biocultural adaptations of modern human in Italy, namely the cultural/technological behaviours, subsistence strategies and mobility patterns employed by modern humans that led them to successfully adapt to different eco-geographic contexts, and how these strategies differ from those used by Neandertals. Ultimately, to assess the socio-cultural impact of the first European modern humans with respect to Neandertals, and the potential interaction between the two groups.
3) To trace the last evidence of Neandertals and to disentangle the roles played by the climate, the eco-system and the physical geography in the process that ultimately led to the demise of Neandertals.
Since the beginning of the project all work packages (WP) have been correctly addressed. Two excavation seasons have been undertaken in six archaeological sites, ultimately collecting new data on the late Mousterian and Uluzzian culture. The research team is deepening our understanding on paleoenvironmental changes during the time period between 50,000-35,000 years ago in Italy using pollen from Fimon lacustrine core, while an archaeozoologist is working on the fauna exploitation during this time period. Lithics studies undertaken so far point out to the peculiarity of the Uluzzian culture with respect to the late Mousterian, thus suggesting a net separation between the two cultures, ultimately supporting the arrival of new human groups in southern Europe. Similarly, our studies on shell beads from Grotta del Cavallo show the earliest evidence of a well-established ornament making tradition as a hallmark of ethnic identity at the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe.
The Uluzzian techno-complex is commonly considered to be a “transitional industry” and following its discovery it was attributed to Neandertals. Study issued in 2011 suggested the attribution of the Uluzzian to modern humans, fostering renewed interests to this culture, which real nature is almost unknown to the international scientific community. Therefore, our preliminary results provide new information on the Uluzzian culture, which novelty with respect to the preceding Mousterian might support an earliest migration of modern humans in southern Europe around 45,000 years ago. Following this preliminary achievements, next works will contribute to confirm the nature of the Uluzzian techno-complex, the unique biocultural features that make modern humans successful in adapting to new eco-geographic contexts, and potentially the causes that led the extinction of Neandertal.