Dating of the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition in western Europe using ultrafiltration AMS radiocarbon
We recently obtained funding to extend work that we have been
undertaking in Oxford over the last 5 years into the Palaeolithic
chronology of Britain. We have been using ultrafiltration methods to
date and, in some cases, redate, samples of bone from a number of sites
dating to the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. The results have modified
our understanding of the presence of humans and their disappearance
from the British Isles during periods of climatic deterioration.
This project extends the work to continental Europe. Funding has
been obtained from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for
three years from October 2006. The project is led by Tom Higham and
includes a team of archaeologists, dating specialists and two doctoral
students (see below).
The displacement of Neanderthal populations by anatomically modern
humans (AMH) in Europe between c. 45 and 30 ka BP is one of the most
studied and debated transformations in human prehistory. Changes in
human behaviour, cognition and innovation become evident across Europe
in the archaeological record, based upon the increasing prevalence of
symbolic art and portable artefacts of advanced technical skill,
compared with what had been present previously. There is sharp debate
over whether this technological and behavioural revolution represents
the arrival and spread across Europe of AMH, derived ultimately from
African or Asian origins, or whether it is partially an in situ
or local development, representing a burgeoning level of complexity
amongst Neanderthal populations already based in Europe. One thing is
clear, the European record is the clearest evidence of the replacement
of one species by another, but major problems remain in effectively
elucidating how and where this process occurred and over what time
There are five major objectives:
For more information on the project and for publications stemming from it, contact Tom Higham (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- To establish a reliable chronology for a selection of key
Mid-Upper Palaeolithic sites in western Europe (including France,
Germany, Spain and Britain) which contain identifiable remains of
AMH/Neanderthals and/or organic artefacts of diagnostic Aurignacian
type, such as osseous bone points and ornaments. We will radiocarbon
date these samples using ultrafiltration AMS in Oxford.
- To investigate the question of the co-existence of
Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans in western Europe, again
using refined chronometric methods. A selection of key sites in western
and central Europe that assume importance in this debate will be dated
(or redated), notably the Chatelperronian levels of the Grotte du Renne
at Arcy-sur-Cure, France.
- To utilise spatio-temporal statistical methodologies in tandem
with developing calibration datasets to examine the dispersal of
Aurignacian/AMH populations and test the various models proposed to
account for the process of dispersal and the spread of key diagnostic
artefacts across Europe.
- To contribute to the ongoing efforts to develop databases of
reliable and unreliable radiocarbon measurements relating to the Middle
and Upper Palaeolithic of Europe. This will also enable the
dissemination of results and allow the data produced to be widely used
by the research community.
- To apply and extend the methods of assessing bone gelatin
quality and the procedures currently used in the extraction of
undegraded gelatin from archaeological bones for AMS radiocarbon dating.
Looking down on the human maxilla from Kent's Cavern,
Torquay. The site is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in
Britain. This is the oldest human fossil from southwestern England, and
was excavated in March, 1927. In 1988, it was radiocarbon dated to
30,900 ± 900 BP. The specimen is so fragmentary that it is
uncertain whether the human represented possessed an anatomically
modern morphology, or was a Neanderthal. (This problem may be resolved
by an analysis of the DNA signature of the specimen which we are
currently working on). Questions also arise regarding the reliability
of the AMS date because the maxilla had been treated with thin
water-soluble glue. Further AMS dates obtained within the last two
years from material found above and below the maxilla show that its
real age is between 35-37 ka BP.
- Dr Tom Higham (Principal Investigator) : Deputy Director, Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.
- Dr Roger Jacobi (Archaeologist) : The British Museum, London.
- Professor Christopher Ramsey (Co-investigator) : Director, Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.
- Dr Laura Basell (Post doctoral researcher) : Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.
- Dr William Davies (Collaborating Research investigator/Archaeologist) : University of Southampton.
- Dr Marta Camps (Palaeolithic archaeologist) : The George Washington University, US.
- Dr Fiona Brock (Chemist) : Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.
Tom Higham and Roger Jacobi resampling the ivory pendant from the
site of Goat's Hole, Paviland, in 2006. The material associated with
the famous "Red Lady of Paviland" skeleton is housed in the Oxford
Museum of Natural History and has been redated as part of this
NERC-funded programme, along with samples of bone from the skeleton
itself. Sadly, the pendant yielded no dateable collagen. The skeletal
remains did, and the results are to be published shortly in the Journal of Human Evolution.
- Mr Phil Leach (AMS technician)
- Mr Martin Humm (AMS Infrastructure Manager)
- Mrs Christine Tompkins (Research technician)
- Ms Angela Bowles (Research technician)
- Ms Rachel Wood (RLAHA) : D. Phil student (Keble college).
Topic: AMS dating the Mid-Upper Palaeolithic Transition in the Iberian
- Ms Katerina Douka (RLAHA) : D. Phil student (Keble college).
Topic: Developing new methods for dating shell carbonates and the
dispersal of AMH along the Mediterranean rim.