Surviving at the edge of the Palaeolithic world

The movement of hominins out of a particular region into different areas, to which they are not necessarily adapted, is a topic familiar to Palaeolithic research for all regions and periods. In northwest Europe this topic has received a lot of interest, particularly related to both the initial occupation of Britain and subsequent re-occupation during interglacials (MIS 11, 9, 7) and apparent absence of humans during MIS 5e. New research published in PLOS One has sought to approach this issue of both initial colonisation and re-colonisation from the perspective of site distribution and palaeodiet.

The authors have collated a large quantity of data from around the English Channel, mainly focussed on southern Britain, though also incorporating northern France. The first stage of the described research sort to establish whether the pattern of lithic distribution is a true representation of past hominin behaviour or a factor of taphonomic bias. The authors therefore focus on 25 ‘super sites’ containing over 500 handaxes. They demonstrate that whilst some lithic material is intensively rolled most show little fluvial abrasion. So whilst the material may not be truly in-situ, they argue that it hasn’t moved far and thus represents a conscious choice by past hominins to utilise these river-coastal-esturine locales. Whilst the evidence presented is interesting, it would have been good to see some information about the relative size of the river terraces many of these artefacts were recovered from; the larger the terrace surely the greater the potential to recover lithic material? In addition, and particularly for south west Britain, the lithic material is dominated by a single site (Broom, Boxgrove), so it might be interesting to incorporate further find spots besides these 25 super sites.

The second aspect of the paper examines the potential nutritional resources available for hominins at these locations; the age old questions of: what was available? what was exploitable? This research is important in emphasising that, whilst faunal remains are preserved at many of the Palaeolithic localities, past hominin diet necessitated more variety other than meat, including plant resources. The authors have produced a detailed inventory of what nutritional requirements the human body has, to then seek to establish the nutritional niche they could have occupied based on this. It is argued that river-estuary-lake locations would have provided not only abundant resources, including some interesting ones such as eels and beavers, as well as route ways through the landscape allowing hominins to explore and adapt to their new environments.

This paper is good in pointing out the nutiritonal qualities of plant resources and there availability and visibility within the archaeological record from some sites. Also the paper begins to tackle the problem of isotope data and how it skews our perceptions of past hominin diet. The high values, higher even than some carnivore species, have been used to argue for a heavy dependence on meat, particularly within higher latitudes, including Britain. Nevertheless, this research discusses and offers alternatives that could have supplemented this diet and avoided nutritional problems and the ‘protein-ceiling’. However, where this paper is weaker is in regards to this faunal element. Whilst the authors undertake a detailed taphonomic analysis to establish whether lithic patterns represent activity patterns the same is not applied to the faunal data. Whilst species present at a site with evidence for human activity (lithic tools) could have been exploited and absence of direct evidence (cut marks etc) suggest that at least some of these could represent natural background accumulation. In addition, for some of the sites more recent work has highlighted that the faunal material underwent significant post-depositional disturbance, transport and modification (Swanscombe).

Overall, this paper provides important data and a good discussion about the distribution of Palaeolithic sites within Britain and at the edge of the Palaeolithic world. The role of rivers as pathways has been discussed before and suggests their use by hominins and other animals throughout the landscape as a good position for tracking, hunting and acquisition of resources. However, further work is required to contextualise this data within a broader site-formation framework, particularly in relation to the faunal assemblages recovered from some of these sites. Further incorporation of other, smaller, Lower and early Middle Palaeolithic sites from both interglacials and glacials (e.g. MIS-6 sites in Northern France) will also help to further contextualise these Palaeolithic nutriscapes.

Full reference:  Brown AG, Basell LS, Robinson S, Burdge GC (2013) Site Distribution at the Edge of the Palaeolithic World: A Nutritional Niche Approach. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081476

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