May 26, 2012

43,000-year old Aurignacian in Swabian Jura

A new paper continues the re-assessment of the radiocarbon dating record in Europe. It pushes the Aurignacian of Central Europe back in time, but not as far back as the appearance of modern humans in Europe. The implication is that the advanced music and art of the Aurignacian did not accompany modern humans as they made their first steps into Europe, but rather developed there.

The authors distinguish between a "strong" version of their model (which would posit a monocentric origin of music/art around the Geissenkoesterle site), and a "weak" one in which these innovations were contributed in parallel by different regions. A better understanding of the origin of different innovations and their assignment to specific groups of modern humans may help us better understand what was the "common core" of behavioral and technological modernity that facilitated the success of our species.

From the paper:

The majority of scholars conclude that the Aurignacian is the earliest signature of the first modern humans in Europe. Recent research suggests that this is not likely to be the case. Benazzi et al. (2011) have shown that the Uluzzian of Italy and Greece is likely to be a modern human industry based on the reanalysis of infant teeth in the archaeological site of Cavallo, and also demonstrated that it dates to 45,000-43,000 cal BP. Other dated examples from other Uluzzian sites (e.g., Higham et al., 2009) fall into the same period, and the Uluzzian is always stratigraphically below the Proto- Aurignacian in Italian sites where both co-occur. This adds an additional level of complexity to the emerging picture of early human dispersals and suggests that the Aurignacian does not represent the earliest evidence of our species in Europe. 
Taken together, these results suggest that modern humans arrived in Europe as early as ~45,000 cal BP and spread rapidly across Europe to as far as southern England between 43,000 and41,000 cal BP. The dates for the lower Aurignacian at Geissenklosterle fall in the same period and appear to pre-date the ages for the Proto- Aurignacian and Early Aurignacian in other regions (Fig. 6). The new results suggest that the caves of the Swabian Jura document the earliest phase of the Aurignacian, and the region can be viewed as one of the key areas in which a variety of cultural innovations, including figurative art, mythical images, and musical instruments, are first documented. These dates are consistent with the Danube Valley serving as an important corridor for the movement of people and ideas (Conard, 2002; Conard and Bolus, 2003). 
The new radiocarbon dates from Geissenklosterle document the presence of the Aurignacian in the Swabian Jura prior to the Heinrich 4 cold phase, with the Early Aurignacian beginning around 42,500 cal BP. In the coming years, excavations in the Swabian Jura will continue and new radiometric dates should contribute to an improved understanding of the spatial-temporal development of the Aurignacian and its innovative material culture.
From the press release:
Researchers from Oxford and Tübingen have published new radiocarbon dates from the from Geißenklösterle Cave in Swabian Jura of Southwestern Germany in the Journal of Human Evolution. The new dates use improved methods to remove contamination and produced ages between began between 42,000 – 43,000 years ago for start of the Aurignacian, the first culture to produce a wide range of figurative art, music and other key innovations as postulated in the Kulturpumpe Hypothesis. The full spectrum of these innovations were established in the region no later than 40 000 years ago.
Journal of Human Evolution doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2012.03.003

Τesting models for the beginnings of the Aurignacian and the advent of figurative art and music: The radiocarbon chronology of Geißenklösterle

Thomas Higham et al.

The German site of Geißenklösterle is crucial to debates concerning the European Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition and the origins of the Aurignacian in Europe. Previous dates from the site are central to an important hypothesis, the Kulturpumpe model, which posits that the Swabian Jura was an area where crucial behavioural developments took place and then spread to other parts of Europe. The previous chronology (critical to the model), is based mainly on radiocarbon dating, but remains poorly constrained due to the dating resolution and the variability of dates. The cause of these problems is disputed, but two principal explanations have been proposed: a) larger than expected variations in the production of atmospheric radiocarbon, and b) taphonomic influences in the site mixing the bones that were dated into different parts of the site. We reinvestigate the chronology using a new series of radiocarbon determinations obtained from the Mousterian, Aurignacian and Gravettian levels. The results strongly imply that the previous dates were affected by insufficient decontamination of the bone collagen prior to dating. Using an ultrafiltration protocol the chronometric picture becomes much clearer. Comparison of the results against other recently dated sites in other parts of Europe suggests the Early Aurignacian levels are earlier than other sites in the south of France and Italy, but not as early as recently dated sites which suggest a pre-Aurignacian dispersal of modern humans to Italy by ∼45000 cal BP. They are consistent with the importance of the Danube Corridor as a key route for the movement of people and ideas. The new dates fail to refute the Kulturpumpe model and suggest that Swabian Jura is a region that contributed significantly to the evolution of symbolic behaviour as indicated by early evidence for figurative art, music and mythical imagery.



Ezr said...

The peculiar geography of Europe (narrow from east to west with lots of inner bodies of water) has always contributed to rapid cultural exchange. That's something that has always helped whatever group happened to have settled there. At any rate, we can't even be sure that the populations associated with the Aurignacian left any living descendants in the region, of course. Any hope for ancient DNA here?

matt said...

Pictures of the flutes found are in the BBC article.

eurologist said...

I have always thought of the Uluzzian and other pre-early Aurignacian sites as being created by bands of pioneers. Such sites (similar to some in northern Russia) also have a less complete tool set, as may be expected if they were used in a generally less sophisticated way. One reason could be that the hunting methods of modern humans were sufficiently different from Neanderthals, such that some of the prey initially was an easy target, and these first bands "picked the low-hanging fruit." Once the prey adapted their instincts, humans had to resort to more sophisticated methods.

At any rate, it is good to see more consistent dates for the early Aurignacian throughout Europe. On the other hand, I think these people clearly brought the cultural package with them from wherever they came from - even if some of it is better expressed in central Europe. What is known about the early Levantine sites, in this context?

apostateimpressions said...

Interesting that the emergence of human symbolism, art and technology has been traced back to Germany 40,000 years ago as Germany remains a core artistic and technological area. We cant a priori exclude that Germans have some descent from Geißenklösterle; indeed they must have some Geißenklösterle ancestry if the genes that dispose us to human behaviour originated there. It may even be that the descendents of the Geißenklösterle area preserved knowledge of their geographical origins and found their way back to Germany after the last glacial maximum. Germanic mythology talks about the advance of the "ice giants" from the north and about how Odin drove them back; and about how the "magic cow" suddenly appeared, which would seem to allude to the introduction of cattle during the neolythic. So it may be that the descendents of Geißenklösterle preserved an ethnic knowledge of geography and of climatic and cultural transitions over many thousands of years. Perhaps they had a aesthetic disposition that disposed them to contentment in the Swabian region where human aesthetic genes developed. They were better disposed to survive back in the old region. It raises the question of how genes have disposed us to aesthetic contentment in different regions: have desert tribes acquired variations of the genes that dispose them to aesthetic contentment in the desert through natural selection and adaptation? Do I find aesthetic contentment in the English countryside because it resembles the Bavarian region where aesthetic genes emerged? How adaptable are aesthetic dispositions? Do desert tribes find more contentment in bland concrete cities than the descendents of Geißenklösterle? I dont know how much we really understand about these questions but they would seem to be related to questions of human happiness and adaptation.

terryt said...

"One reason could be that the hunting methods of modern humans were sufficiently different from Neanderthals, such that some of the prey initially was an easy target, and these first bands 'picked the low-hanging fruit.' Once the prey adapted their instincts, humans had to resort to more sophisticated methods".

An interesting idea, and I like the expression, 'picked the low-hanging fruit'. It certainly seems to be the case with the Polynesian expansion through the Pacific, including New Zealand where seal colonies and the flightless moa rapidly became extinct.

DocG said...

"The implication is that the advanced music and art of the Aurignacian did not accompany modern humans as they made their first steps into Europe, but rather developed there."

First of all, what the hell do archaeologists know about the music of the Aurignacian or any other period of deep history? Because they found an old flute? Please!

Second of all, why do anthropologists in general tend to ignore the work of people who might actually know something about music because they have actually studied it?

My own research points very clearly to a musical tradition very advanced indeed, that in all likelihood was practiced by our MRCA in Africa possibly as early as 100,000 years ago or more. I don't need a fossil flute to make such inferences, they are based on a thoroughgoing study of age-old musical distribution patterns worldwide.

But what do I know? I'm merely an ethnomusicologist.

For more on my research, I'll refer you to the following sources: