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Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Research in the Central Balkans

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  • University of Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy
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... Despite the region's research potential, the population and culture history of the Central Balkans in the Late Pleistocene is poorly understood. This is partially due to low levels of research during the early 20th century , but over the past few decades interest in the Paleolithic of Serbia has risen and led to numerous projects (Marín-Arroyo and Mihailović, 2017;Mihailović, 2014a). Recent surveys and excavations have shown that most MP-UP sites in the Central Balkans are shallow palimpsest deposits with low artifact yields and evidence for abundant carnivore activity during the period of this study (Dogandžić et al., 2014;Mihailović et al., 2014b). ...
... Recent surveys and excavations have shown that most MP-UP sites in the Central Balkans are shallow palimpsest deposits with low artifact yields and evidence for abundant carnivore activity during the period of this study (Dogandžić et al., 2014;Mihailović et al., 2014b). Recovered artifact assemblages have been characteristic of Neanderthal MP industries before~40 ka and modern human industries after~35 ka, including the Aurignacian and Gravettian (Mihailović, 2014a). However, there is little to no evidence for transitional or Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP) industries, found elsewhere in Europe between 50 and 40 ka (Hublin, 2015). ...
... Considering the archaeological record, before~40 ka the Central Balkans was characterized by MP industries, including Charentian, Typical Mousterian, Denticulate, and Micro-Mousterian (Dogandžić and Đuričić, 2017;Mihailović, 2014a;Mihailović et al., 2011). However, Serbian MP assemblages are difficult to characterize because the artifact yields are low and comprise mostly ad hoc quartzite pieces and a small number of non-local flint tools or Levallois flakes. ...
Article
The Central Balkans, in present-day Serbia, was a potentially dynamic zone during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic (MP-UP), as it is situated between hypothesized dispersal routes of modern humans and refuges of late Neanderthals. However, the population history of the region remains poorly understood because there are little chronometric data from Late Pleistocene sites in Serbia. Here, we review the existing paleoanthropological record for the MP-UP in the Central Balkans and surrounding areas. Then, we add to it by reporting radiocarbon dates from two Serbian cave sites, Pešturina and Hadži Prodanova, which contain Middle Paleolithic and Gravettian assemblages. The results provide reliable human occurrence-dates older than 39 ka calibrated radiocarbon years before present (cal BP) and between 34 and 28 ka cal BP. As shallow palimpsest deposits with low artifact yields, the sites are not ideal contexts for establishing chrono-cultural stratigraphy. However, it is proposed that the occupants before 39 ka cal BP were Neanderthals producing MP artifacts, while those after 34 ka cal BP were modern humans with Gravettian traditions.
... Two decades after Darlas' (1995) review of the Balkan Lower Paleolithic, the evidence for an Early and Middle Pleistocene human presence is still sparse and inconclusive in this area (Darlas and Mihailović 2008;Mihailović 2014). Isolated finds and lithic assemblages that were collected at the beginning of the twentieth-century and up until the 1970s suffer from poor documentation, are commonly restricted to a typological description of the specimens, a few drawings, and are often attributed to now-obsolete "cultural periods" (e.g., "Abbevillian," "Clactonian"). ...
... comm. 2013;Mihailović 2014). The redating of the hominin mandible from the cave of Mala Balanica (Serbia) by combined application of ESR/U-series and infrared/post-infrared luminescence dating provided a minimum age between 397 and 525 ka (Rink et al. 2013), which makes the BH-1 mandible (Roksandic et al. 2011;Roksandic 2016) the first human fossil in the Central Balkans recovered from controlled excavations and the easternmost hominin specimen securely dated to the Middle Pleistocene. ...
Chapter
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Lower Paleolithic evidence from the Mediterranean region holds a prominent position in discussions about the earliest peopling of Europe. Most studies examining patterns of human occupation focus on purported behavioral capacity, habitat preference, and environmental tolerance of different hominins. This chapter employs a geoarchaeological perspective through the examination of landscape dynamics as a complementary approach. In this context, Lower Paleolithic records of the Mediterranean and the Balkans are reviewed with an emphasis on the geomorphological settings of the best-studied sites. Since most of the oldest, well dated and primary-context material occurs in open-air sites situated in basins, the last part of the chapter explores how basin dynamics could have conditioned the preservation and accessibility of artifact-bearing strata. Spain, Italy, and Greece are used as case-studies and a conceptual model is proposed as a means to assess possible patterned relationships of site locations. A “basin model” offers a working hypothesis for evaluating site distributions and outlines first steps towards a geosciences-based methodology, which can be used to locate new sites.
... Finally, the new evidence, combined with the geographic position of the Balkans along several potential routes of dispersal, and the increasing number of UP rock art discoveries outside of southwest Europe, has aroused the interest of specialists in UP symbolism. This has attracted more international interest to the area (see for instance Mihailović 2014), leading to the creation of collaborative projects involving specialists from different countries. ...
Article
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Paleolithic art offers unique perspectives on prehistoric societies and cultures. It is also considered a key component of modern human behavior. Until recently, Paleolithic artworks were thought to be geographically restricted to a very few areas, especially southwestern Europe. Discoveries of art in other parts of Europe and other parts of the globe have challenged this vision, expanding the documented distribution of this important cultural phenomenon. As a consequence, there has been renewed interest in less well-known areas, with the goal of determining whether the current lack of art is a reflection of a past reality, the product of limited research, or a matter of preservation. One of these regions is the Balkan Peninsula, a key area for understanding Upper Paleolithic societies given its location at the crossroads of several migration routes into Europe. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the Paleolithic symbolic products, including both rock art and portable art from the Balkans. Recent research has led to new discoveries and insights into the symbolism of this long-neglected area. The present review, combining existing literature and new fieldwork, sheds new light on social and cultural interactions in this part of the continent and leads to a better understanding of its role within the European Upper Paleolithic cultural sphere.
... However, the sample is small, and the context and the provenance of the stone tools do not have secure stratigraphic markers. Surface material has been also reported from several find-spots in the Western Morava valley possibly dated to the LP, but no secure dates are available (Mihailović 2014). ...
Thesis
This thesis explores possibilities for hominin movement and occupation over the exposed dry land landscapes of the Aegean region during the Early and Middle Pleistocene (focusing more on the Middle Pleistocene ca. 0.8- 0.2 Mya). The point of departure and inspiration is the recent palaeogeographical reconstructions from the study area. Geological evidence reveals the existence of extended terrestrial landscapes, with attractive environments, connecting western Anatolia to Europe via the Greek mainland, during the glacial lowstands of the Middle Pleistocene, and possibly during certain interglacials. These lands are now lost, lying underwater, but, in spatial terms, a completely new spectrum of possibilities opens up for hominins moving across or settling over this part of Eurasia, affecting the wider narrative regarding the early settlements out of Africa. Yet, the research potential of the submerged landscapes of the Aegean has not been fully integrated in the way(s) we study and interpret the Lower Palaeolithic evidence from this region. The discussion about the early colonisation of Europe has been long focused on the western part of the continent due to the abundance of available evidence. The wider Aegean region was excluded, until recently, as a ‘cul de sac’ that blocked movement and dispersal towards the west, representing a gap in the European Lower Palaeolithic archive, with very little to contribute in terms of material culture or hominin fossil evidence. Advances in palaeogeography and geoarchaeology and exciting new finds urging now for a reconsideration. Could the Aegean exposed lands provide land bridges for movement and favourable niches for occupation, offering perhaps an eastern gateway to Europe during the Early and Middle Pleistocene? In order to answer these questions I drew information from archaeology and palaeoanthropology, palaeozoology and palaeoenvironments, and geology and palaeogeography. These multiple lines of evidence have been synthesised within an affordance-based GIS framework, which centres on the relationship between the hominins and their ‘affording’ world. The new methodological scheme developed here led to new hypotheses and scenarios of movement and occupation, predicting areas in the Aegean, onshore and offshore, with increased research potential for the Lower Palaeolithic, based on the level of suitability for the hominin survival, subsistence and dispersal. The findings of my study suggest that despite the serious methodological challenges imposed by landscape dynamics, temporal limitations and extensive discontinuities in the archaeological record, a cross - and inter - disciplinary approach can help us gain valuable insights into the nature of the past landscapes and land use by hominins. In this respect, the complex topography concept and the concept of affordances constitute the backbone of my approach. The first, by setting out the background against which suitability was built, and the second, by attributing a lived and experienced element into the past landscape. The contribution of this study is twofold: (a) offers a framing heuristic, to the newly founded discipline of the continental shelf prehistoric research, for testing further ideas on hominin movement and occupation in dynamic environments; and (b) proposes trans-Aegean corridors of opportunity for dispersal and occupation areas, complementing the current Lower Palaeolithic narrative with a potential eastern gateway to Europe.
Article
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During the Late Pleistocene, the Balkans came to be an important region with many isolated areas, enabling fauna, alongside Neanderthals, to thrive in the area. This work is focused on paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic changes that occurred in the northern Balkan Peninsula with a special focus on fossil record from Smolućka cave aging from MIS 5 to MIS 3. Based on available data, an attempt has been made to establish a synthetic chronological context for the faunal assemblages recovered from Smolućka cave. Tentative attribution of layer 5 to MIS 5 relies on the interstadial pattern of our reconstructions, with favorable climate conditions for a large diversity of species and with mean annual temperature (MAT) reaching up to 3 °C higher than present values and abundant rainfall in the area. Cold conditions for MIS 4 are not present in Smolućka, although layer 4 (late MIS 5 or early MIS 4) shows somewhat dryer and cooler climate when compared with other layers. Layers 3z and 3 (MIS 3) are characterized by temperate and humid conditions together with a complex system of mosaic habitats with high environmental heterogeny but generally favorable conditions for a large diversity of life. Although still not fully chronologically constrained, Smolućka cave presents an interesting opportunity for future research, in the time period when only Neanderthals occupied the Balkans and thrived in local conditions. The transition between the Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans has not yet been established but can be expected in future research.
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During the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in the Balkan, Italian and Iberian peninsulas of southern Europe, late Neanderthal and early Anatomically Modern Human (AMH) populations may have overlapped in some capacity. Many of the hypotheses and models for the transition interval suggest that Neanderthal populations remained in, or migrated to, refugial zones while AMHs colonized areas not suitable for, or abandoned by, Neanderthals. However, many hypotheses and models have not been conclusively tested due to general issues impeding a clear understanding of the relevant archeological record and because of a lack of specificity in defining and applying the term ‘refugium’. This paper briefly summarizes what is known about the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in southern European Peninsulas and discusses some new directions in the use of refugium concepts in the study of Neanderthal extinction and AMH dispersal. We highlight the complexity of the archeological record in each region and in the studies of refugia more generally. Finally, we make an appeal for generating local, multi‐proxy paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic records to address these complexities so that hypotheses and models integrating refugial concepts in explanations of the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition can be properly formulated and tested.
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The word ‘refugium’ is often used to describe patterns of human settlement during various parts of the Palaeolithic. While, classically, a refugium is a location which supports an isolated population of a once more widespread species, some have argued that discrepancies in how this term is used have led to methodological confusion and a weakening of its meaning. Differences in the spatial and temporal scales of how refugia are defined, as well as in the specifics of how they operate, mean that many so‐called refugia serve different biological functions and have different implications for long‐term species survival (Ashcroft, 2010). In this article, I review four questions that may shape individual refugia. I then use the late Middle Palaeolithic record of peninsular southern Europe to explore how attention to these questions may help to advance Middle–Upper Palaeolithic research.
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