NSF Grant BCS 0551927:
Palaeolithic Pyrotechnology, High Resolution Behavioral Events, and the Neanderthal/Modern Human Question

Paul Goldberg



Project Data | Photos from Grant Sites

Project Summary

Hayonim, Israel           The archaeological record, particularly artifacts and ecofacts, generally embodies a synoptic view of past human activities. Although it is possible to discern differences among ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ behaviors, this is normally done at a general level, since short-term, high resolution temporal events are typically not scrutinized by excavators or by research specialists. Such short-time views should provide more accurate and realistic images of past individual events, activities, and associated aspects of prehistoric behavior. This project investigates undisturbed combustion features from Middle Palaeolithic and some Upper Palaeolithic deposits from caves in Israel (Kebara, Hayonim) and France (Pech de l’Azé IV) as a means to obtain high resolution temporal behavioral data through the analysis of individual burning events. Such combustion events have been shown to represent discrete (almost instantaneous) human activities. Since fire is an expression of the basic facets of human activity, behavior, and culture (e.g., heating, cooking, protection against predators, the spatial distribution of hearths in relation to social organization), detailed understanding of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic burning features and pyrotechnology should provide fundamental keys to understanding behavioral differences between Neanderthals and modern humans.

          The intellectual merit of this study is revealed by the detailed examination of combustion features with a high degree of temporal and spatial resolution. It will employ intact samples of undisturbed combustion features collected from recently well excavated Palaeolithic sites. Indurated blocks and thin sections from these features will be studied by all members of the team who have widespread multidisciplinary experience in the fields of archaeology, soils, mineralogy, geology, petrology, and botany, and include the techniques of soil micromorphology and electron microscopy (SEM), organic petrology, infrared microspectroscopy (Micro-FTIR), and phytolith analysis. Such a multifaceted approach performed on the same samples has not been undertaken previously and will provide new and more accurate views of Palaeolithic behavior, specifically, high-resolution windows into pyrotechnology and greater insight on how Neanderthals and modern humans constructed and used fireplaces. It differs from previous, more traditional studies of combustion features and pyrotechnology that have emphasized the ability to distinguish human from natural fires or the spatial placement of fireplaces within a living space. In the past, analytical studies have made use of bulk samples that have provided modal values for the sediment as a whole. In contrast, the use of intact blocks of impregnated sediments in this study will maintain the contextual integrity of combusted and non-combusted materials, while providing detailed, in situ analytical data on organization of the combustion feature, fuel used (e.g., grass, wood), state/condition (e.g., dry/wet; fresh/decayed), season (winter/summer/spring), combustion conditions, and temperature; all can be related to aspects of human activity.

          The broad impacts of this study are several fold. The advent and use of fire is an important, and sometimes controversial, aspect of human behavior. This type of detailed analysis has the potential to reveal differences in activities and behavior between H. sapiens and Neandertals, providing a more complete picture of human evolution, adaptations, and lifestyles. The results and protocols developed here can be expanded to combustion features from other Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites and to those from Lower Palaeolithic sites. The strategy will enable detailed comparisons of individual events and short-term activities among throughout the Palaeolithic where evidence of fires is preserved, thus permitting the monitoring of hominid behavior over significant portions of human history.

Project Members

Paul Goldberg (PI)
Department of Archaeology – Boston University
675 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, MA 02215
E-Mail: paulberg@bu.edu

Francesco Berna
Department of Archaeology – Boston University
675 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, MA 02215
E-Mail: fberna@bu.edu

Rosa Maria Albert
ICREA Research Professor
Grup d'Estudis Paleoecològics i Geoarqueològics
Research Group for Paleoecological and Geoarchaeological Studies
Dept. de Prehistòria, História Antiga i Arqueologia
Torre B, pis 11
Universitat de Barcelona (UB)
c/ Baldiri Reixac, s/n
08028 BARCELONA
E-Mail: rosamaria.albert@icrea.es

Solveig Schiegl
Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Archäologie des Mittelalters
Abteilung Ältere Urgeschichte und Quartärökologie
Schloß Hohentübingen
Burgsteige 11
D-72070 Tübingen
E-Mail: solveig.schiegl@uni-tuebingen.de

Bertrand Ligouis
Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Archäologie des Mittelalters
Abteilung Ältere Urgeschichte und Quartärökologie
Schloß Hohentübingen
Burgsteige 11
D-72070 Tübingen
E-Mail: bertrand.ligouis@uni-tuebingen.de



Gallery of Grant Site Photos

Hayonim, Israel

     


Kebara, Israel

          


Pech de l’Azé IV, France

          



Boston University - 8 December 2008