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  • Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PALEOCHAR (PALEOCHAR: Insights into the Neanderthals and their demise from the study of microscopic and molecular charred matter in Middle Palaeolithic sediments)

PALEOCHAR Report Summary

Project ID: 648871
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PALEOCHAR (PALEOCHAR: Insights into the Neanderthals and their demise from the study of microscopic and molecular charred matter in Middle Palaeolithic sediments)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-02-28

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

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.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

So far, the PALEOCHAR Project has achieved to set up the AMBI Lab (Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarkers Research Lab), which is ready and currently the only place in the world combining the necessary facilities to carry out coupled organic chemistry and microscopy of sediments. The PALEOCHAR team is now complete and fully functional and consists of the PI, 3 postdocs, 2 PhD students and 2 technicians. A Project website is on the way. Preliminary investigations have been implemented 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) and Marjolein Bosch (Max Plank Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig) on April 2017.

(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).

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

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.

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