A 40,000-year-old tooth has provided scientists with the first direct evidence that Neanderthals moved from place to place during their lifetimes. In a collaborative project involving researchers from the Germany, the United Kingdom, and Greece, Professor Michael Richards of the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and Durham University, UK, and his team used laser technology to collect microscopic particles of enamel from the tooth. By analysing strontium isotope ratios in the enamel – strontium is a naturally occurring metal ingested into the body through food and water – the scientists were able to uncover geological information showing where the Neanderthal had been living when the tooth was formed.
The tooth, a third molar, was formed when the Neanderthal was aged between seven and nine. It was recovered in a coastal limestone cave in Lakonis, in Southern Greece, during an excavation directed by Dr Eleni Panagopoulou of the Ephoreia of Paleoanthropology and Speleology (Greek Ministry of Culture). The strontium isotope readings, however, indicated that the enamel formed while the Neanderthal lived in a region made up of older volcanic bedrock. The findings could help answer a long-standing debate about the mobility of the now extinct Neanderthal species.
Some researchers argue that Neanderthals stayed in one small area for most of their lives; others claim their movements were more substantial and they moved over long distances; and others say they only moved within a limited area, perhaps on a seasonal basis to access different food sources.
Professor Richards said: “Strontium from ingested food and water is absorbed as if it was calcium in mammals during tooth formation. Our tests show that this individual must have lived in a different location when the crown of the tooth was formed than where the tooth was found. The evidence indicates that this Neanderthal moved over a relatively wide range of at least 20 kilometres or even further in their lifetime. Therefore we can say that Neanderthals did move over their lifetimes and were not confined to limited geographical areas.”
“Previous evidence for Neanderthal mobility comes from indirect sources such as stone tools or the presence of non-local artefacts such as sea shells at sites far away from the coast. None of these provide a direct measure of Neanderthal mobility.” said Dr Katerina Harvati of the Max Planck Institute, in Germany, who initiated the study.
The researchers believe the laser ablation technique used to collect the minute particles of enamel will allow the measurement of other rare Neanderthal remains to see how the result compares in other regions and at other time periods.
We report here direct evidence for Neanderthal mobility through the measurement of strontium isotope ratios in tooth enamel using laserablation, which allows us to use much smaller samples than traditional methods. There has been a long-standing debate over the extent of Neanderthal mobility, with some arguing for Neanderthals having a very limited geographic range and others for more substantial, and even seasonal, lifetime movements. We sampled across the enamel of a Neanderthal third molar from the site of Lakonis, Greece, dating to ca. 40,000 years ago. The tooth was found in a coastal limestone cave, yet the strontium isotope values indicate the enamel was formed while the individual resided in a region with bedrock consisting of older (more radiogenic) volcanic bedrock. Therefore, this individual must have lived in a different (more radiogenic) location during this period of third molar crown formation (likely to be between the ages of 7 and 9 years) than where the tooth was found. This strontium isotope evidence therefore indicates that this Neanderthal moved over a relatively wide (i.e. at least 20 km) geographical range in their lifetime.
(Source: “Strontium isotope evidence of Neanderthal mobility at the site of Lakonis, Greece using laser-ablation PIMMS”, by Michael Richards, Katerina Harvati, Vaughan Grimes, Colin Smith, Tanya Smith, Jean-Jacques Hublin, Panagiotis Karkanas, Eleni Panagopoulou)
Lakonis I (ca. 100,000-40,000 BP) is a collapsed Middle Palaeolithic cave on the coast of the Mani Peninsula of southern Greece. The site contains three distinctive components: a hearth context, upper bone breccia, and lower bone breccia. The bone breccias contain concreted deposits and large numbers of lithic and faunal materials, though the upper bone breccia preserves more evidence of dumping from hearth features. The hearth context is comprised of hearth lenses interspersed with mixed ashy sediments, which we interpret as the remnants of raked out and trampled combustion features. Bones and lithics in the hearth context have higher rates of burning, and the lithics are smaller and more broken. The large numbers of burned bones are probably not the result of accidental burning or the use of bone as a fuel source, rather they seem to relate to site maintenance. The incorporation of multiple lines of evidence points to two different site maintenance strategies at Lakonis: (1) the intentional burning of food refuse and (2) the cleaning of hearths, and dumping remnant deposits elsewhere at the site. We therefore consider Lakonis I to be amongst the growing list of sites that contain evidence for Neanderthal behavioral complexity.
(Source: “Site Use and Maintenance in the Middle Palaeolithicat Lakonis I (Peloponnese, Greece”, by Britt M. Starkovich, Paraskevi Elefanti, Panagiotis Karkanas, Eleni Panagopoulou)
Lakonis is an east facing collapsed cave with an estimated area of about 250 m², with a floor which is currently just above sea level. Early occupation of the cave began soon after sea level had begun to fall after the high stand of the Last Interglacial at around 130 ka. The cave was located on the edge of a broad and expanding coastal plain, which extended out into what is today the northern edge of the Lakonic Gulf. Fauna found at the site points to the presence of medium sized ungulates, mainly cervids and wild pig, while Bos primigenius highlights the diverse ecological setting of the cave (Panagopoulou
et al. 2002–4). There were also nearby sources of fresh water with springs along the base of the low cliffs in which the cave complex is situated. The region also contains abundant relatively good quality raw materials. All of these factors point to the optimal location of the site in what was previously a very different local environment to the one seen today.
Lithic production at Lakonis Cave I
Lithic production was based predominately on the use of greenish andesite, a type of silicified volcanic rock of varying quality, currently found within a radius of up to 10 km from the site in both primary and secondary deposits. They usually occur as relatively large irregular nodules of up to 25 cm in diameter. Despite the occasional presence of interior cleavage planes, they are in most cases suitable for knapping. Quartz is also present as small pebbles in nearby streambeds as well as within fossil beach deposits, and represents the second most frequently used type of raw material. It ranged in colour from white to smoky white and yellowish-red, with rare pieces of translucent crystal. Other types of rocks in use included black-greyish flint and schist, both of which appear to have entered the cave as pre-shaped cores or blanks. Their origin is unknown, although probably from some considerable distance. Finally, there were two instances of rare dark brown chocolate coloured flint, also of unknown origin.
Raw material exploitation remained constant at Lakonis throughout the Middle Palaeolithic. This suggests that the site remained part of the same local catchment area during the entire period and that subsistence and mobility systems, as well as the identity of those who frequented the cave, remained broadly unchanged. Despite the predominance of local raw materials, the presence of exotic black and brown flint, along with marine shells suggest that Lakonis formed part of a much wider social landscape. Isotope evidence from the single Neanderthal tooth recovered at the site suggests that the individual had spent their formative years in an area 20 km away from the cave (Richards et al. 2008). This needs to be considered as a minimum though, and it is likely that groups were covering much of the southern Peloponnese and possibly beyond, visiting other sites such as Klisoura 1 and Kephalari to the north.
During the Palaeolithic, the manufacture and use of chipped stone artefacts was an indispensable part of daily life. Recent anthropological evidence suggests that tool making was part of a cultural process during which the young were taught by older and more experienced members of the community. Being a complicated and multi-levelled process, knowledge transmission takes place through observation, imitation and direct teaching (Hewlett et al. 2011). This is a continual process but gatherings such as around hearths would have provided one context in which group level social interaction and learning would have taken place (Gamble 1999, 71). In the same way as many other Palaeolithic sites in Greece, Klisoura 1 (Karkanas et al. 2004), Theopetra (Karkanas 1999), Klithi and Kastritsa (Galanidou 1997), the organisation of space at Lakonis appears to be focused around large hearth complexes.
The hearths at Lakonis consist of cemented ash within anthropogenic layers, while below are sediments disturbed through repeated raking out of debris to create the shallow depression in which the next fire was set. The hearths were roughly circular with a diameter of about 1 m and extended to a thickness of approximately 1 m. On its eastern edge, the main hearth was bounded by a natural alignment of rocks from an earlier roof collapse. This formed an outer ring, which would have reflected heat back onto those sitting around the fire (Panagopoulou et al. 2002–4). Recent evidence has suggested that hearths were not a prerequisite for everyday life during the Middle Palaeolithic (Sandgath et al. 2011). However, the prominence of this feature at Lakonis suggests that apart from cooking, warmth and light, it served as area focus around which individuals congregated. Through social acts such as food preparation and consumption, tool making, gossiping and information exchange, the Neanderthal occupants of Lakonis would have expressed their embodied personal and social identity.
Further work on the assemblage and inclusion of the material from the 2010 field season will allow us to look in more detail at the technology. In particular we will be carrying out spatial studies in order to determine whether activity areas can be identified on the basis of variable proportions of formal and informal tools, debitage and cores. One area in particular contains an extensive bone breccia which is indicative of butchery and carcass processing and it is our aim to further test the suggested technological dichotomy.
(Source: “Lithics and Identity at the Middle Palaeolithic site of Lakonis Cave I, Southern Peloponnese”, Greece, by Paraskevi Elefanti and Eleni Panagopoulou)
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