Project

ARQEVO - Archeology and Evolution of Early Humans in the Western Façade of Iberia

Goal: The study of the Almonda karst system, begun in 1987, led to significant progress in our knowledge of the ancient Prehistory of Portugal: the excavation of Gruta da Oliveira revealed a 13 m-thick Mousterian sequence that is already a reference for the study of the Middle Paleolithic of Iberia; and the excavation of the Gruta da Aroeira / Galerias Pesadas revealed a geologically in situ, cave-dwelling context of Acheulian age, one of the rare such contexts known worldwide. Both sites also yielded human fossils. In the case of Oliveira, the remains are of Neandertals and consist of fragmentary postcranial material and loose teeth. In the case of Aroeira, besides loose teeth there is also the exceptional discovery in 2014 of a partial cranium that places Almonda among the very few sites that yielded paleontologically relevant material securely dated to the period (~400,000 years ago) during which Neandertals and anatomically modern humans emerged out of the earlier Homo erectus stock.

Methods: Anthropology, Biology, Geochemistry, Zooarchaeology, Archaeological Excavation, Lithic Analysis, Speleology, Lithic Technology

Date: 1 January 1987

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Project log

Filipa Rodrigues
added a research item
This paper presents the votive artefacts from the surficial burial context identified at Sala do Ricardo, Lapa da Bugalheira, mostly composed of polished stone tools, a «Montbolo» vessel, knapped stone tools, and Glycymeris sp. bracelets. Coupled with the radiocarbon ages obtained on the associated human bone remains, this composition is consistent with funerary useage of the space during the 4037-3528 cal BC interval. Comparable, coeval burial contexts exist in the caves of the Central Limestone Massif of Estremadura.
Filipa Rodrigues
added a research item
We present the results of the first year of the field work carried out at Lapa da Bugalheira (Almonda, Torres Novas) by the ARQEVO research project. We have identified an Early Neolithic occupation featuring a characteristic artefact assemblage with impressed wares (both cardial and “boquique”), geometric microliths and ornaments. The age of the assemblage has been corroborated by the radiocarbon dating of sheep and human bone samples. Comparable, coeval occupation contexts exist in the Central Limestone Massif of Estremadura, paramount among which is the Galeria da Cisterna’s (Almonda karst system).
João Zilhão
added a research item
The site of Gruta da Aroeira (Torres Novas, Portugal), with evidence of human occupancy dating to ca. 400 ka (Marine Isotope Stage 11), is one of the very few Middle Pleistocene localities to have provided a fossil hominin cranium associated with Acheulean bifaces in a cave context. The multianalytic study reported here of the by-products of burning recorded in layer X suggests the presence of anthropogenic fires at the site, among the oldest such evidence in south-western Europe. The burnt material consists of bone, charcoal and, possibly, quartzite cobbles. These finds were made in a small area of the cave and in two separate occupation horizons. Our results add to our still-limited knowledge about the controlled use of fire in the Lower Palaeolithic and contribute to ongoing debates on the behavioural complexity of the Acheulean of Europe.
Mariana Nabais
added a research item
Marine food–reliant subsistence systems such as those in the African Middle Stone Age (MSA) were not thought to exist in Europe until the much later Mesolithic. Whether this apparent lag reflects taphonomic biases or behavioral distinctions between archaic and modern humans remains much debated. Figueira Brava cave, in the Arrábida range (Portugal), provides an exceptionally well preserved record of Neandertal coastal resource exploitation on a comparable scale to the MSA and dated to ~86 to 106 thousand years ago. The breadth of the subsistence base—pine nuts, marine invertebrates, fish, marine birds and mammals, tortoises, waterfowl, and hoofed game—exceeds that of regional early Holocene sites. Fisher-hunter-gatherer economies are not the preserve of anatomically modern people; by the Last Interglacial, they were in place across the Old World in the appropriate settings.
Mariana Nabais
added a research item
Optimal foraging theory and diet breadth models often place large mammals in top-ranking positions due to their high-energy return. However, mass collection of small prey can result in comparable return rates, and dietary diversity is nutritionally beneficial on its own right. A growing body of evidence recovered from several sites in the Mediterranean Basin confirms Neanderthal use of small size prey. Slow-moving, tortoises are an easy catch, and human collection and consumption is demonstrated by taphonomic analysis. In Portugal, two key Middle Palaeolithic cave sites, Gruta da Oliveira and Gruta da Figueira Brava, provide pertinent evidence. Based on an improved osteometric method, in which long bone measurements are standardised and analysed together using the Logarithmic Size Index (LSI), it is possible to better gauge the contribution of tortoises to the diet and the human impact on the species’ populations. At inland Gruta da Oliveira, a tendency towards the massive collection of tortoises, affecting the local population more severely, is apparent. At coastal Gruta da Figueira Brava, the data suggest opportunistic collection upon encounter, possibly due to the availability of a more diverse range of resources.
Mariana Nabais
added a research item
A total of 270 Middle Palaeolithic sites are recorded in the Portuguese Archaeology Archive. Of these, only a few have been systematically excavated and shown to present valuable archaeological information or reliable absolute dating evidence. Just 13 sites yielded animal remains. Most of these assemblages, however, are of indeterminate origin or are the result of natural or carnivore accumulations. Only three sites yielded faunal assemblages produced by hominin activity: Gruta Nova da Columbeira, Gruta da Figueira Brava and Gruta da Oliveira. The following research update summarises and contextualises findings from the last two of these caves, which are presently being investigated as part of a funded doctoral research project based at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. As discussed below, the project has already yielded substantial information on Neanderthal subsistence and palaeoenvironment in Portugal.
Henrique Matias
added a research item
Bifaces dominate the Acheulean stone tools recovered during the archaeological excavation of layer X of Gruta da Aroeira, dated to 389–436 ka. Faunal remains and a human cranium were found in association with this lithic assemblage. The raw materials used are mostly quartz and quartzite cobbles available in the vicinity of the site. Technological and systematic analysis shows that there are no Levallois elements and suggests that on-site knapping consisted of the reduction of centripetal cores. Flake cleavers are absent. Use-wear analysis indicates the processing of hard materials, mainly wood. Gruta da Aroeira represents one of the few Middle Pleistocene sites that provide securely dated diagnostic human remains and associated Acheulean lithics, thus representing a major step forward in our understanding of the variability of westernmost Europe's Acheulean and of the human populations that made it.
Marianne Deschamps
added a research item
We use stone tool refitting to assess palimpsest formation and stratigraphic integrity in the basal units of the Gruta da Oliveira archeo-stratigraphic sequence, layers 15–27, which TL and U-series dating places in late Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5 or early MIS 4. As in most karst contexts, the formation of this succession involved multiple and complex phenomena, including subsidence, bioturbation, carnivore activity and runoff as agents of potential post-depositional disturbance. During phases of stabilization, such as represented by layers 15, 21 and 22, the excavated area was inhabited and refits corroborate that post-depositional displacement is negligible. Layers 23–25 and 16–19 correspond to subdivisions that slice thick geological units primarily formed of material derived from the cave’s entrance via slope dynamics. Refit links are consistent with rapid fill-up of the interstitial spaces found in the Karren-like bedrock (for layers 23–25), or left between large boulders after major roof-collapse events (for layers 16–19). Layers 26 (the “Mousterian Cone”) and 27 are a “bottom-of-hourglass” deposit underlying the main sedimentary body; the refits show that this deposit consists of material derived from layers 15–25 that gravitated through fissures open in the sedimentary column above. Layer 20, at the interface between two major stratigraphic ensembles, requires additional analysis. Throughout, we found significant vertical dispersion along the contact between sedimentary fill and cave wall. Given these findings, a preliminary analysis of technological change across the studied sequence organized the lithic assemblages into five ensembles: layer 15; layers 16–19; layer 20; layers 21–22; layers 23–25. The lower ensembles show higher percentages of flint and of the Levallois method. Uniquely at the site, the two upper ensembles feature bifaces and cleavers.
Henrique Matias
added a research item
The cave site of Gruta da Oliveira is located in the Almonda karst system, at the interface between the Central Limestone Massif of Portuguese Estremadura (CLM) and the adjacent Sedimentary Basin of the River Tagus (TSB). The cave presents a stratification dated to ~37-107 ka containing hearth features, Neanderthal skeletal remains, as well as fauna, microfauna and wood charcoal remains. The lithic assemblages are large and feature a diverse range of raw materials. Knappable lithic raw materials in primary, sub-primary and secondary position in the CLM and the TSB were systematically surveyed and sampled. The characterization of the geological samples was carried out at both the macro- and the microscopic scales and data were systematized under the petroarcheological and “evolutionary chain of silica” approaches. The study of the lithic assemblage from layer 14 (dated to the ~61-93 ka 95.4% probability interval by TL) indicates that the Gruta da Oliveira Neanderthals used quartzite, quartz and flint from sources located less than 30 km away in both the CLM and the TSB.
Henrique Matias
added a project reference
Henrique Matias
added a project goal
The study of the Almonda karst system, begun in 1987, led to significant progress in our knowledge of the ancient Prehistory of Portugal: the excavation of Gruta da Oliveira revealed a 13 m-thick Mousterian sequence that is already a reference for the study of the Middle Paleolithic of Iberia; and the excavation of the Gruta da Aroeira / Galerias Pesadas revealed a geologically in situ, cave-dwelling context of Acheulian age, one of the rare such contexts known worldwide. Both sites also yielded human fossils. In the case of Oliveira, the remains are of Neandertals and consist of fragmentary postcranial material and loose teeth. In the case of Aroeira, besides loose teeth there is also the exceptional discovery in 2014 of a partial cranium that places Almonda among the very few sites that yielded paleontologically relevant material securely dated to the period (~400,000 years ago) during which Neandertals and anatomically modern humans emerged out of the earlier Homo erectus stock.