A 23,000 years built wall found at the prehistoric Theopetra Cave in Thessaly, Greece. The oldest Anatomically Modern Human footprint in Europe?

The Theopetra Cave is one of the recently studied ‘prehistoric heavens’ in Greece. It can be rightfully claimed as such because its study has already provided us with plethora of  information, including climate changes in the long past and evolution of human life in the area during the Paleolithic era. This article provides the reader with a summary on the various finds.

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The unassuming remains of a stone wall that once partly closed off the entrance to the prehistoric Theopetra Cave near Kalambaka, Thessaly, have recently been dated by specialists to about 23,000 BP, making it the oldest known man-made construction in Greece.

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The date 23,000 BP was determined by a pair of scientists, Nicholaos Zacharias and Ioannis Basiakos*, at the Archaeometry Laboratory of the National Center for Scientific Research Demokritos, using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL).

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The cave, in a setting overlooking the Lithaios River, a tributary of the Pineios River, just 3 kilometers from the rock pillars and monasteries of Meteora, consists of a 500m² rectangular chamber of which the entrance is 17 meters long by 3 meters high.

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The reported wall, constructed of dry masonry, extends across the cave’s mouth reducing the large opening by about two-thirds. The wall’s suggested date coincides with the last glacial period (circa 110,000-10,000 years ago) and indicates that the structure may have been built by Paleolithic inhabitants of the cave to protect themselves against the bitter cold.

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The Theopetra Cave has been the subject of systematic multidisciplinary archaeological excavations conducted since 1987 by Dr. Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika, director of the Ephorate of Paleoanthropology and Speleology of Southern Greece. Inside was found a 6-meter-deep stratified sequence of archaeological deposits that indicate the cave was continuously inhabited from circa 50000 BC to 3000 BC; that is, from the later Middle Paleolithic (circa 300,000-40,000 years ago) through the Upper Paleolithic (40,000-12,000 years ago), the Mesolithic (12,000 years ago to start of Neolithic) and the Neolithic (6000-3000 BC in Thessaly) periods.

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Evidence of temporary use during the Bronze Age was also discovered, while in modern times shepherds and other transient visitors occasionally occupied the cave right up to the time excavations began in 1987. The chronology of its prehistoric inhabitation has been established through more than 50 radiocarbon dates derived mostly from charcoal samples collected from the remains of hearths.

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Apart from its extraordinary length of inhabitation the Theopetra Cave is also unique in Greece because its archaeological record spans two great moments in human history: the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans (circa 30,000 years ago) and the shift in human subsistence from nomadic hunting and gathering to sedentary farming that marks the start of the Neolithic era.

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The Theopetra Cave also provides the earliest evidence for Paleolithic cave dwelling in Thessaly and an important record of climatic change during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene eras.

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Long before the cave was inhabited, it seems that Neanderthals** were already aware of its existence. In March 2009, Kyparissi-Apostolika’s team found a trail of at least three human footprints left in the cave’s soft earthen floor, apparently by several Neanderthal children about 2-4 years old, judging by the prints’ sizes, during the Middle Paleolithic period about 135,000 years ago.

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The ongoing investigation of the Theopetra Cave involves many different specialists, including archaeologists, geologists, paleobotanists and zooarchaeologists. The rich array of materials thus far recovered by these scientists consists of charcoal; stone tools; pottery; bone, stone and shell objects, including bracelets and beads; ceramic figurines and human remains in various burials dated to circa 15000 BC, 9000 BC and 8000 BC.

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Analysis of carbonized plants and seeds has also begun to shed light on the inhabitants’ dietary practices. Deposits of unbaked clay detected within the cave point to Upper Paleolithic exploitation or experimentation with the malleable material long before actual fired pottery began to appear in the early Neolithic era.

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*Ζαχαριάς Ν., Κυπαρίσση-Αποστολίκα Ν. και Μπασιάκος Ι., 2012. «Χρονολογήσεις με οπτική φωταύγεια ιζημάτων της εισόδου του σπηλαίου της Θεόπετρας», Πρακτικά 5ου Συμποσίου Ελληνικής Αρχαιομετρικής Εταιρείας, Αθήνα 8-10 Οκτωβρίου 2008 (Paper unfortunately available only in Greek)

**It is not explained in the article, neither we have found a published paper that proves this ‘Neanderthal’ reference. It is just a hypothesis, unless a 100% proof is found. Why not Homo Sapiens?

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(Source: http://www.ekathimerini.com/144782/article/ekathimerini/life/wall-discovered-in-central-greece-could-be-worlds-oldest)

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Abstract This paper presents the results of wood charcoal analysis carried out on material from Theopetra cave in central Greece. The sequence dates from prior to 130–8 ka bp and is made up of layers of both anthropogenic and geogenic origins. The study of the wood charcoal samples from these layers sets out to distinguish changes in the local vegetation through time, to correlate these with broader environmental conditions and to discuss how they may relate to differences in the frequency and intensity of human occupation of the cave from shortly before the last interglacial to the Holocene. Changes in the presence and frequency of Prunus sp., Juniperus sp. as well as taxa needing temperate, thermophilous or riverine conditions in successive layers reflect a pattern of vegetation succession that can be correlated with the pollen and marine isotope stage (MIS) records. The earliest human occupation took place in an open park-woodland environment dominated by Prunus during the late MIS 6–6/5 transition. This was followed by a succession of temperate woodlands with deciduous Quercus, Carpinus and Fraxinus, reflecting the optimal conditions of the last interglacial (MIS 5e), followed by more open vegetation during subsequent cooling events. Middle Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers visited the cave repeatedly during the last interglacial, in contrast to more sporadic human presence during the following climatic deterioration. This was characterized by Juniperus dominated steppe and open vegetation and/or riparian woods, reflecting the harsh and unstable climatic conditions of the pleniglacial. Finally, the expansion of Pistacia and re-establishment of temperate woodland points to climatic amelioration during the Holocene from which there is evidence of regular use of the cave by Mesolithic and Neolithic people. The dominant role of Prunus observed in several periods provides important complementary information to the pollen evidence from the late Pleistocene.

(Source: “Local vegetation dynamics and human habitation from the last interglacial to the early Holocene at Theopetra cave, central Greece: the evidence from wood charcoal analysis”, by Maria Ntinou, Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika)

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Abstract The site of Theopetra Cave is exceptional, having yielded human remains from the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. It offers a unique opportunity to apply ancient DNA analysis to skeletal material from well controlled archaeological contexts. Following promising preliminary results from the Palaeolithic skeleton a detailed analysis of the highly variable HLA DR, DQ region was pursued, yielding the same DNA type in duplicate analyses derived from independent bone extracts. Limited contamination with intrusive DNA was experienced in the study, suggesting that the results from the Palaeolithic skeleton are genuine. The DNA types detected are typical of both the postulated “Mesolithic hunter-gatherers” and “Near Eastern farmers” in the wave of advance model of Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza. The implications of these findings from the Palaeolithic skeleton from Theopetra Cave are discussed.

(Source: “An ancient HLA type from a Palaeolithic skeleton from Theopetra Cave, Greece”, by Martin P. Evison, Nina Kyparissi-Apolstolika, Eleni Stravopodi, Nicholas R. J. Fieller and David M. Smillie)

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Abstract The cave of Theopetra is located on the northeast side of a limestone rock formation, 3 km south of Kalambaka (21°40′46′′E, 39°40′51′′N), in Thessaly, central Greece. It is a unique prehistoric site for Greece, as the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods are present here, bridging the Pleistocene with the Holocene. Several alternations of the climate during the Pleistocene are recognized in its stratigraphy. Among the most striking finds, two human skeletons, one from the Upper Paleolithic period after the Last Glacial Maximum and one from the Mesolithic period, should be emphasized, while in a deep Middle Paleolithic layer, the oldest human footprints, with remains of fire, were uncovered. During the 13 years of excavation, evidence of human activity suitable for radiocarbon dating was collected, such as charcoal samples from hearths and bones from the two human skeletons. The use of proportional counters for the measurement of 14 C in combination with the recent improvement of the calibration curve has enabled the production of high-precision reliable ages. Sixty 14 C-dated samples, originating from 19 pits and from depths ranging from 0.10 m to 4.20 m, have already provided an absolute time framework for the use of the cave. The earliest limit of human presence probably exceeds 48,000 BP and the latest reaches World War II. Within these limits the 14 C dating of samples from consecutive layers, in combination with the archaeological data, permits the resolution of successive anthropogenic and environmental events

(Source: “The Cave of Theopetra, Kalambaka: Radiocarbon Evidence for 50,000 Years of Human Presence”, by Yorgos Facorellis, Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika and Yannis Maniatis)

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Abstract Prehistoric cave sediments are often subjected to severe mechanical and chemical alteration, making it difficult to interpret aspects of their archaeology. Theopetra cave offers unique opportunities to resolve aspects of this problem, particularly in relation to chemical changes, because it has a relatively well defined stratigraphy and its older deposits have been subjected to unusually severe diagenesis. A study of the mineralogy and micromorphology of the sediments, and in particular the phosphatic minerals that formed in the sediments after deposition, shows that each stratigraphic unit has its own pattern of authigenic mineral distribution. In some units these patterns vary sequentially in both lateral and vertical directions. These variations reflect changing degrees of diagenesis and the observed patterns imply that every unit obtained its diagenetic fingerprint fairly soon after burial. The prominent ash layers in the older sediments were subjected to unusually severe diagenetic alteration, such that most of the relatively stable siliceous components of ash decomposed into amorphous silica. An intimate association between ash minerals and the K, Fe-phosphate mineral leucophosphite was also observed. The sequential changes in authigenic mineral assemblages in Theopetra are basically similar to those observed in several caves in Israel, raising the possibility that common processes are involved and that information obtained from these detailed studies can be applied to other caves in diverse geographic regions.

(Source: “Mineral Assemblages in Theopetra, Greece: A Framework for Understanding Diagenesis in a Prehistoric Cave”, by Panagiotis I. Karkanas, Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika, O Bar-Yosef, Steve Weiner)

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Abstract This paper presents the results of phytolith analysis carried out on sediments from Theopetra Cave in Thessaly, Central Greece. Theopetra is one of the most important late Pleistocene sites in the region, with occupation spanning the Middle Palaeolithic to the end of the Neolithic.The aim of this study is to contribute to our understanding of the nature of human occupation in the cave during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. Palaeoenvironmental issues are also addressed in order to understand the climate and vegetation around the cave during that time.Twelve layers of anthropogenic and geogenic origin which mark distinct occupation episodes have been sampled. The anthropogenic layers consist of combustion features and are valuable indicators of human activity within the cave, providing information on the types of vegetation collected for everyday activities and consumption. The geogenic sediments are mostly of natural origin and mark intervals during which the site was mostly unoccupied. They provide evidence for the climate and plant communities growing around the cave. The results point to intensive occupation of the cave during the transition from the penultimate glacial to the last interglacial, a period of mild climate, high precipitation and rich vegetation in the catchment area. Sporadic use of the cave is implied during the last glacial, followed by more frequent visits towards the end of the Pleistocene. A range of plants were used for fuel, food and other day-to-day activities. Theopetra is discussed in comparison with Klissoura, a key Palaeolithic cave site in southern Greece. A number of conclusions are drawn concerning life at the two sites and their surroundings, based on similarities and differences in phytoliths and other key environmental and dietary indicators.

(Source: “Palaeoenvironmental reconstruction and flora exploitationat the Palaeolithic cave of Theopetra, central Greece:the evidence from phytolith analysis”, by Georgia Tsartsidou, Panagiotis Karkanas, Gilbert Marshall, Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika)

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Abstract Three cryptotephra layers associated with important periods of climatic change were identified in the Middle Palaeolithic sequence of Theopetra Cave, Greece. The lower cryptotephra layer, THP-TII5, is correlated with the P-11 Pantellerian eruption dated to ~128-131 ka. This cryptotephra postdates a thick sequence of combustion layers that show a complex vegetation succession quite similar to that of the last deglaciation succession in the cave. Two other cryptotephras, THP-TII10 and THP-TII12, are correlated with the Nisyros Upper Pumice and the Pantellerian Y6/Green Tuff, dated to >50 ka and 45.7 ka, respectively. This sequence confirms the position of the Nisyros Upper tephra, below the Pantellerian Green Tuff, in the volcanic event stratigraphy of the Mediterranean. Moreover, these two upper cryptotephras bracket an extended combustion layer with interstadial vegetation characteristics that may be coincident with the complex Greenland Interstadial 13-14. On the basis of this new chronology it can be deduced that the intensity of occupation and presence or absence of humans in the cave were closely related to climatic changes. In addition, a remarkable similarity in the pattern of occupational intensity during the last two deglaciations can be suggested.

(Source: “Tephra correlations and climatic events between the MIS6/5 transition and the beginning of MIS3 in Theopetra Cave, central Greece”, by Panagiotis Karkanas, Dustin White, Christine S. Lane, Chris Stringer, William Davies, Victoria L. Cullen, Victoria C. Smith, Maria Ntinou, Georgia Tsartsidou, Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika)

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Abstract Theopetra Cave is a unique prehistoric site for Greece, as the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods are present here, bridging the Pleistocene with the Holocene. During the more than 20 yr of excavation campaigns, charcoal samples from hearths suitable for 14C dating were collected from all anthropogenic layers, including the Paleolithic ones. Most of the samples were initially dated using the ABA chemical pretreatment protocol in the Laboratory of Archaeometry of NCSR Demokritos, Greece, and the Radiocarbon Dating and Cosmogenic Isotopes Laboratory of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. The 14C results, which were not always consistent versus depth, showed that the earliest limit of human presence is ~50,000 yr BP, thus reaching the age limits of the 14C dating method. However, 10 TL-dated burnt flint specimens unearthed from the lower part of the Middle Paleolithic sequence of the cave gave ages ranging between ~110and 135 kyr ago. These results are in disagreement with the 14C dates, as they support a much later date for these layers. In order to clarify the situation further, charcoal samples originating from hearths were conventionally dated in the Laboratory of Archaeometry of NCSR Demokritos using the ABA pretreatment. Additionally, hand-picked charcoal fragments also underwent 14C dating by AMS in the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit using the acid-base wet oxidation (ABOX-SC) pretreatment protocol. The 14C dates from the cave’s Paleolithic layers obtained by both pretreatment protocols suggest a probable charcoal diagenesis affecting the 14C results of these very old samples. However, the dates obtained with ABOX-SC pretreatment are considered more reliable and in the younger stratigraphic part produced consistent results with the TL dating.

(Source: “Interpeting radiocarbon dates from the Palaeolithic layers of Theopetra Cave in Thessaly, Greece”, by Facorellis, Y., Karkanas, P., Highan, T., Brock F., Ntinou, M, Kyparissi-Apostolika)

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Abstract Theopetra Cave preserves a 6.4-m-thick sedimentary sequence characterized by alternating, mostly water-lain sediments, and multisequence burnt layers. Eighteen principal radiocarbonages provide temporal control for this sequence. The sediments of the cave were examined using micromorphological techniques, which involves the study of petrographic thin sections produced from resin-impregnated, undisturbed blocks of sediment. Several distinct cold periods are recorded in the sediments. The earliest of these represents a major cooling, and it is tentatively assigned to Oxygen Isotope Stage 4 on the basis of the sedimentation rate and the associated sequence of events. A brief cold event affected the uppermost part of a burnt layer dated to ca. 46 kyr B.P., but its effect ended well before 40 kyr B.P. The second major cold phase spans the period between around 33 kyr B.P. and the end of Last Glacial Maximum(16 kyr B.P.). However, there is ample evidence for a milder interval around 25 kyr B.P. It is argued that a distinctive, albeit weaker and brief cold peak, at about 11 kyr B.P., provides the strongest evidence so far obtained in Greece for the Younger Dryas event. Both major cold phases are characterized by a sequence of events that started with alternating freeze–thaw activity and phosphate cementation and ended with erosion. The return to milder conditions is accompanied by natural aggradation inside the cave. The aggradation accelerated throughout much of the glacial phase and ended soon after the Last Glacial Maximum. In addition, two other major erosional events are recorded in the cave. The first may be correlated with an early Holocene arid interval at around 7.5 kyr B.P. The second is tentatively assigned to the end of Neolithic, although it is not clear if it was triggered by a climatic change or by human disturbance of the landscape. The general sedimentation pattern at Theopetra is comparable with the trend of the alluviation history in the Plain of Thessaly. Moreover, the observed correlation with major climatic variations, such as the Heinrich events in the Northern Atlantic, could represent the influence of northern latitude climatic forcing on the late Pleistocene climate in central Greece.

(Source: “Site Formation Processes in Theopetra Cave: A Record of Climatic Change during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene in Thessaly, Greece”, by Panagiotis Karkanas)

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Last but not least, we suggest a read of the following papers:

1. “The Middle Palaeolithic Footprints from Theopetra Cave”, by Manolis, S, Aiello, L, Henessy, R, Kyparissi-Apostolika, N. This one is particularly interesting as it leaves the door open to the possibility that the Middle Palaeolithic footprints could belong to Anatomically Modern Humans. If this is ever proved, it will become the most ancient sample of A.M.H. in Europe.

2. “The bioarcheological profile of the anthropological finds of Theopetra Cave: a pilot study in Greek peninsula”, by Stravopodi E., S. Manolis.

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Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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