Optical dating of the Uluzzian

The exact timing and pattern of dispersal of the first anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) into Europe and the subsequent disappearance of the Neanderthals are still unresolved research questions in European prehistory that fuel a continuing scientific debate among palaeoanthropologists and prehistorians. While European archaeological sites older than ca. 45 thousand years (ka) are characterised by stone tool assemblages that are attributable to Homo neanderthalensis, archaeological layers younger than ca. 35 ka usually lack evidence for Neanderthal presence, but yield skeletal remains and/or tool industries clearly ascribable to anatomically modern humans. The millennia between ca. 45 and 35 ka – when modern humans replaced Neandherthals – are often referred to as the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition and also witnessed the emergence of a variety of “transitional” cultures, including the Uluzzian technocomplex on the Italian peninsula or the Chatelperronian or Selezian technocomplexes in Franco-Cantabaria. The makers, the archaeological significance and the age of these transitional cultures are often only poorly constrained.

The type site for the Uluzzian is Grotta del Cavallo, i.e. a series of closely spaced coastal rock shelters and caves in Apulia, southern Italy. The archaeological horizons in these caves  span the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition and also yielded two human teeth (deciduous molars) that have been recently re-analysed and are now attributed to anatomically modern humans and radiocarbon-dated to ca. 45-43 ka. The Cavallo human remains are therefore the oldest known European anatomically modern humans, and suggest a rapid dispersal of modern humans across the continent before the Aurignacian and the disappearance of Neanderthals (Benazzi et al., Science 2011). The chronology of the Cavallo specimens hinges on a series of radiocarbon-dated marine shell samples recovered in stratigraphic association with the human teeth. No further absolute age constrains exist for the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic horizons at Cavallo, although these archaeological sediments attain a thickness of several metres in these caves. In this collaboration we apply luminescence dating techniques to the archaeological sediments of Cavallo-C in order to provide (i) an independent age estimate for the Uluzzian layers from which the human teeth were recovered, and (ii) constrain the duration of the Uluzzian. This latter goal will be achieved by optically dating the top and bottom part of the Uluzzian complex as well as the archaeological horizons and sediment layers that bracket this transitional technocomplex.

Excavation director: Enza Spinapolica, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy
Co-director: Stefano Benazzi, University of Bologna, Italy
Luminescence dating: Michael Meyer, University of Innsbruck

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