Pleistocene

Monrepos – research in progress

Finally, I want to write a bit about our archaeological research which has to continue while the museum is prepared for the re-opening.
Of course, an apparent question is: Why don’t the other researchers write their own posts about their work? Well, the answer is simple and, presumably, very common in science:
It’s a matter of time!

Work schedules of cooperative projects and deadlines of submitting articles have to be kept. Since most institute members also try to help with the museum, time is getting short and even shorter… So we practice one of the amazing achievements of human behavioural evolution: division of labour! So while I’m blogging, others continue with their work.

For example, Dr. Martin Street just finishes writing an article about dogs… in space… and, more importantly, in the Upper Palaeolithic. This paper is his contribution for an exhibition catalogue of another institute. You see, we help where we can!
The previously mentioned Dr. Radu Ioviță has several research projects including field projects in Romania and Kazakhstan. Besides answering questions of actors, today he worked on one of his lab projects and made figures for an article he co-authors about bifacial symmetry.
A Master student he is working with, Nina Schlösser, made spear throwing and thrusting experiments the other week to understand microscopic breakage patterns of lithic tips. Some of us helped her back then throwing and thrusting spears, measuring the depth of the shaft in the animal, or simply switching cameras on and off. Today she was one of the many helpers in and outside the museum and for some unknown reason she was using a shaft again.

Radu’s and Nina’s work contributes to our previously mentioned research theme “Diet and Nutrition”. Understanding hunting equipments and, thus, hunting strategies in the past contributes to the very old problem how to get to the food.
This important motivator helps to fill the larger picture of our research concept which is “Becoming Human: the Evolution of Hominin Behaviour”. In our institute, we focus on ice age (Pleistocene) material as the longest part of human history to portray this process.

Many people instantly think of big glaciers, massive ice sheets, snow, and cold temperatures when they hear “Ice Age”. However, these phases of glacial growth were repetitively intersected by several millenia of warm phases so called interglacials such as the Eemian and, probably, the Holocene. Another of our research themes, “Human behavioural strategies in interglacial environments”, focuses on these warm periods. Important projects in this theme are, for example, the 300,000 years old site at Schöningen or the Eemian site of Neumark-Nord 2. Both sites represent specific lake shore environments which allowed a good preservation of organic material. The bone material needs detailed recording to distinguish natural processes from carnivore and human activity. Therefore, the pieces are not just determined to body part and animal species but they are also examined for breakages and potential cutmarks. Our Basque colleague, Dr. Aritza Villaluenga Martinez, spend some of his working day with this detailed recording.

He is one of the researchers having his desk in our comparative collection on the top floor.

Such collections are needed for more reliable determinations but in some difficult cases, direct exchange with other experts is the best way to come to a reliable conclusion. Therefore, most of our archaeozoologist have desks on the top floor.


Likewise others, Aritza used the Friday afternoon to additionally work on corrections of two reviewed papers. Moreover, earlier today he helped together with our colleague Geoff Smith cleaning up outside the museum.

Another one working late on a Friday afternoon is Wolfgang Heuschen M.A. For his dissertation, he examines schist plates from the Magdalenian site Gönnersdorf. These plates were regularly engraved with Pleistocene mammals such as woolly rhino or mammoths as well as stylised female silhouettes. Continuous use and post-depositional damages make finding and documenting these engravings a difficult task, in particular, requiring a moveable light.


Wolfgang focuses on signs and symbols which are occasionally difficult to distinguish from unintentional scratches. Therefore, he systematically records the plates and establishes regulations in the composition of engravings. Thus, regulations of early societies, our third research theme, can be filtered from the archaeological material.

In a comparable manner, we all contribute to the three research themes that support the research concept – if we are back to our usual working mode. Then we fill large parts of the process of becoming human as a team and explain more and more bits and pieces of the evolution of hominin behaviour – from Tuesday on, we also present what we already learned to the general public in our newly re-opened museum.

So if you are interested: Please, come and visit us!

Tracking Ice Age Mammoths

In my last post, I talked about the main project I’m currently working on, which is studying the stone tools made by the last Neanderthals at the site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. This collapsed cave site is well-known not only for the richness of its deposits, but also for the famous ‘bone heaps’ of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains found in the 1960s-70s excavations. These have been interpreted as the remains of a mass-kill by early Neanderthals driving herds off the cliffs into the ravine.

Standing below the site of La Cotte de St Brelade. The rock arch in shadow opens out into the ravine.

Another project I am working on today is aimed at testing this theory, as well as providing rare information about the migratory behaviour of ice age megafauna. These are the large, often formidable beasts that lived alongside the last Neanderthals: mammoth and woolly rhino, giant deer, horse, bison and the extinct ancestors of  today’s domesticated cows.

In 2010 I set up a project with Geoff Smith and Sarah Viner that uses isotopic analysis of ancient teeth to determine mobility of Pleistocene megafauna.  The Pleistocene covers roughly the million years before the end of the last ice age, but at the moment we are focusing on investigating sites during the time of the Neanderthals, which is mid-late Pleistocene. Our first site is La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, which we are working on with the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project. We can use the Strontium isotopes present in an individuals’ teeth to determine their movements over different periods. Simply put, we can find out if an animal whose remains ended up at La Cotte had spent time in other regions of the landscape. Isotopic analysis works based on how different geology affects the levels of Strontium isotopes present in drinking water, which gets laid down in animals’ and peoples’ teeth.

This kind of direct measure of animal (and human) mobility is still quite rare for this period, although one Neanderthal from Lakonis in Greece has been published. We want to understand how animals that Neanderthals were hunting were moving around: for example, were mammoths great travellers as African elephants today can be? And were Pleistocene reindeer going on vast annual migrations as we can see in herds from Alaska in modern times? This information will help build models about how Neanderthals may have been following or intercepting megafauna at various points in the landscape. As Neanderthal fossils themselves are so precious, it’s unlikely we will be able to directly measure the mobility of many more individuals for some time. Until then, we can use animal movements to provide a framework alongside other measures for Neanderthal mobility such as transport of stone tools. At La Cotte, we may also be able to test whether the bone heaps are really mass-kills by determining if the bones represent  herds that had moved around together, and then were killed in one event.

With some of the La Cotte de St Brelade collections, Jersey Museum.

We received funding this year from the Societe Jersiaise, the island of Jersey’s learned society, to do pilot analysis on six samples of mammoth and horse teeth, which Sarah will be undertaking very soon. Today I am working on finding more funding to allow us to increase the number of samples from the site. This involves trawling various websites of funding bodies to see whether we are eligible or not for different grants. We’re in a difficult situation, as only one of us (Sarah) currently has a Postdoc, and is therefore affiliated to an Institution, which rules us out of a lot of grants. At the same time, current Postdocs are ineligible to apply for other kinds of funding, meaning that early career researchers in our position really struggle to get projects off the ground independently.

We are hopeful however that the pilot study will provide positive results which will allow us to apply for more extended funding from particular sources, and keep building up the project profile while I apply for Postdoc funding separately.

My last post for today will be a round-up of the other things I’ve been working on, including writing a funding application to work on a French project on Neanderthal landscape use.