Modern humans, and no more Neanderthals, present in Italy and Greece 45,000 years ago?

The Uluzzian is a stone tool industry found stratigraphically between the late Mousterian and the early Upper Palaeolithic at sites in Italy and Greece. It’s a flake-based industry with lunates, crescent-shaped backed pieces, as type fossil. Alongside these lithic types bone points, perforated shell beads and mineral pigments are found. Only at one site, Cavallo Cave, the Uluzzian is associated with human remains; two deciduous teeth which were recently reassigned to modern humans. The Uluzzian is therefore a crucial entity to better understand ‘transitional’ technocomplexes and the early arrival of modern humans in Europe. A recent study, published in Journal of Human Evolution, aimed to shed new light on the actual chronology of this industry.

18 new radiocarbon dates were obtained from 4 Uluzzian cave sites: Cavallo (10), Castelcivita (1), Fumane (5) and Klissoura 1 (2). Dated materials include shell, charcoal and bone. Several other samples that were taken did not preserve enough collagen and hence could not be dated. A Bayesian model was built to compare the sites and obtain a chronological model for the Uluzzian as a whole. In this model the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption deposits are incorporated as a stratigraphic marker placed at 39,280 ± 110 years ago. Overall, the modelling of the results indicates that the start of the Uluzzian can be pushed back to around 45,000 calBP and the entity ended around 39,000 calBP.

The authors go on to discuss the potential origin of the Uluzzian, and its relationship to an early wave of modern human dispersal along the coast, potentially from sub-saharan Africa. The internal chronology of the Uluzzian and the question where in Europe it appeared first cannot be answered based on the restricted number of layers dated in this study. However, what can be said is that both in southern and northern Italy the Uluzzian is already present around 46,000-43,000 calBP. Climatologically, the Uluzzian, and hence the first arrival of modern humans, falls at the end of Greenland Interstadial 12, which followed the cold period of Heinrich Event 5.

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 Also the chronological relationship with the later Aurignacian and the older Mousterian is discussed. The number of Aurignacian sites, and especially dated ones, are limited. It seems like Proto-Aurignacian assemblages arrived in Italy between 42,000 and 39,000 calBP, and are therefore contemporaneous with the Uluzzian. Similarly, few late Mousterian contexts in Greece and Italy are dated. At many sites the Mousterian is separated from the Uluzzian by a sedimentary break and together with the few dates that exist, this seems to indicate that there was no significant overlap between late Neanderthals and early modern humans in this region. It therefore seems that the Uluzzian developed far from, and independently of, Neanderthal influences.

While this paper provides a good overview of our current knowledge of the Ulluzzian, the vast majority of the Uluzzian sites still remain undated, and also many other aspects of the entity still remain unknown. This includes questions related to the link between the 1 or 2 Greek find spots and the Italian sites, the origin of the Uluzzian in sub-saharan Africa, and its contemporaneity with proto-Aurignacian assemblages. Also its links with other, potentially contemporaneous, transitional technocomplexes in Europe remain unknown, and overall the period between 45,000 and 40,000 calBP remains ambiguous. Future studies, including, but not exclusively based on, new dates, will hopefully help unravel this crucial period in our deep past.

Full reference: Douka, K., et al. 2014. On the chronology of the Uluzzian, Journal of Human Evolution, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.12.007

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