Secrets of cave from the Early Upper Palaeolithic, when Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens co-existed

Neanderthal skeleton © Edenpictures
Neanderthal skeleton © Edenpictures

VUB researcher reveals secrets of cave from the Early Upper Palaeolithic, when Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens co-existed

Mughr el-Hamamah, meaning "pigeon cave" in Arabic, is a site in northwestern Jordan, renowned for its prehistoric findings dating between 39,000 and 45,000 years old. Numerous stone tools, hearths, and animal and hominin bones have been excavated there. The cave is of immense importance to paleoanthropologists, as this was the period when Homo neanderthalensis inhabited Europe and parts of Asia, while Homo sapiens migrated from Africa to Europe. In more recent times, the cave was used by shepherds as a shelter and a place for their animals, resulting in partial disturbance of the archaeological deposits. To better understand the preservation state of these archaeological deposits and to reconstruct the cave’s environment during the Early Upper Paleolithic, a team led by VUB postdoc Mónica Alonso-Eguiluz from the Archaeology, Environmental Changes, and Geochemistry (AMGC) research group employed various techniques.

"In particular, we used micro-archaeological techniques, such as micromorphology, FTIR spectroscopy, and phytoliths," says Alonso-Eguiluz. "Micromorphology, combined with FTIR spectroscopy (which provides information about the mineralogy of sediments), helps explain the biography of the deposit: how it formed and what its preservation state is? However, my focus was more on the analysis of phytoliths," says Alonso-Eguiluz. Phytoliths are silica micro-residues formed within the cell structures of certain plant tissues. They are preserved in deposits when organic material disappears, allowing us to gather information about the plants present at a particular location.

"By combining a range of techniques, we were able to better understand the complex events that have occurred here over millennia," says Alonso-Eguiluz. "The greatest challenge was to clarify the extent to which the activities of the shepherds disturbed the deposit. We could determine that the main disruption by shepherds occurred in the middle of the deposit. This is important because it gives us confidence that the archaeological remains from other parts of the cave originate from activities during the Early Upper Paleolithic. We could also detect other processes, such as water seepage in the western part of the cave. This process dissolved bones but not other archaeological remains (e.g., phytoliths or charcoal). It was particularly interesting for me to note that the prehistoric people who used the cave gathered edible plants there. These remains indicate the presence of a Mediterranean forest 39,000 to 45,000 years ago. We also found remnants of moisture-loving plants, related to the presence of the paleo Lake Lisan. This stands in stark contrast to the current desert climate in the area and could be an indication of why the cave was inhabited during the Early Upper Paleolithic. In any case, our research provides the basis for further developing future research at Mughr el-Hamamah."

The findings were accepted on 29 February as:

Mónica Alonso-Eguiluz, Michael B. Toffolo, Chantel E. White, Eleni Asouti, Elisabetta Boaretto, Liv Nilsson Stutz, Aaron Stutz, Rosa María Albert 2024. The Early Upper paleolithic deposit of Mughr el-Hamamah (Jordan): Archaeobotanical taphonomy and site formation processes, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 55, 104471, https://doi.org/10.1016/­j.jasrep.2­024.104471