Isotope analysis documents transition to agriculture in the Balkans

Mesolithic foragers were gradually assimilated into farming communities.

The Iron Gates are a series of gorges situated on the Danube between the Carpathian Mountains and the Dinaric Alps. In the early millennia after the last Ice Age, the region supported a number of sedentary or near-sedentary Mesolithic communities. At the sites of Lepenski Vir, Padina and Vlasac, fishers exploited migratory sturgeon, catfish, carp and other species (Borić, 2002).

There is no evidence for long-distance interactions during the early Mesolithic period from 9500 to 7400 BC, but these increased during the period from 7400 to 6200 BC. Archaeological evidence is based on the presence of the marine gastropods Columbella rustica and Cyclope neritea, which must have come from coastal regions more than 400 km (250 miles) away. This period was characterised by long-lasting and evidently successful communities. A large number of burials have been excavated, with bodies typically in the extended supine position characteristic of Mesolithic inhumations (Borić & Price, 2013).

The period between 6200 and 6000 BC saw a Mesolithic to Neolithic transition in the region, and was characterised by cultural hybridity (Borić & Price, 2013). At Lepenski Vir, remarkable trapezoidal, semi-subterranean, flat-roofed dwellings were constructed on the banks of the Danube (Borić, 2002). They varied in size from 5 to 30 sq. m. (54 to 320 sq. ft.), with the wider ends facing the river. The floors were dug 0.5 to 1.5 m (1 ft. 8 in. to 3 ft. 3 in.) into the terraced slopes of the river bank, and were surfaced with reddish limestone plaster. Inside, elongated pits lined with limestone blocks served as hearths (Mithen, 1994; Borić, 2002). Many houses contained burials, although burials were also placed outside houses (Radovanovic, 2000). Human/fish anthropomorphic sculptures carved from boulders were also found in many of the houses. These have been interpreted as evidence of a belief system characterised by a totemic relationship between humans and the fish that were so vital to their subsistence economy (Borić, 2005). In addition to these indigenous elements, Neolithic elements including pottery and polished stone axes appeared at Lepenski Vir (Borić & Price, 2013).

At this stage, the lack of domesticated animals at suggests that subsistence patterns remained unchanged. Mortuary practices were still characterised by typical Mesolithic extended supine burials during this period. However, the Early Neolithic site of Ajmana, in the downstream area of the gorges, was contemporary with these indigenous forager communities. By 6000 BC, further changes were evident in the region with the first appearance of crouched/flexed burials characteristic of the Neolithic period. The trapezoidal buildings of Lepenski Vir were replaced by more typical Neolithic constructions, and there was an increase in the number of settlements across the region as a whole (Borić & Price, 2013).

In total, over 500 graves have been excavated from the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods in the Danubian Iron Gates, and stable isotope analysis of the remains has provided considerable insight into the transition to agriculture in the region. Dietary data inferred from carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of bone collagen suggests that after around 6200 BC, there was a shift from the Mesolithic reliance on the locally-abundant fish to a cereal-based diet. Strontium isotope data from dental enamel indicate that at the same time, burials of non-local first-generation migrants increased significantly. These burials are predominantly of the crouched/flexed type. Notably, 87Sr/86Sr ratios of these migrants fall both above and below local values, suggesting that they originated from at least two geologically-distinct regions. The dating of remains suggests that they might have arrived in several waves (Borić & Price, 2013).

Paradoxically, it appears that during the earliest stages of the Neolithic in southeastern Europe, Neolithic farmers were more mobile than the indigenous foragers, who remained tied to their Danubian fishing niche. The data from Lepenski Vir shows that during the transitional period, more nonlocal women than men were buried at the site. The suggestion is that women came to the site from Neolithic communities as part of an ongoing social exchange. At the same time, the numbers of Neolithic-type artefacts at the site testify to an increasing Neolithic presence in the region, and the Mesolithic way of life came under growing pressure. The period of co-existence lasted for two centuries between 6200 and 6000 BC, but in the centuries thereafter the foragers were completely absorbed into the farming communities and their way of life finally vanished (Borić & Price, 2013).


1. Borić, D., The Lepenski Vir conundrum: reinterpretation of the Mesolithic and Neolithic sequences in the Danube Gorges. Antiquity 76 (294), 1026–1039 (2002).

2. Borić, D. & Price, D., Strontium isotopes document greater human mobility at the start of the Balkan Neolithic. PNAS 110 (9), 3298–3303 (2013).

3. Mithen, S., in Prehistoric Europe, edited by Cunliffe, B. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994), pp. 79-135.

4. Radovanovic, I., Houses and burials at Lepenski Vir. European Journal of Archaeology 3 (3), 330-349 (2000).

5. Borić, D., Body Metamorphosis and Animality: Volatile Bodies and Boulder Artworks from Lepenski Vir. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15 (1), 35–69 (2005).


Did Neanderthals die out before modern humans reached southern Europe?

Study casts doubt on late Neanderthal survival in Iberian Peninsula.

Until fairly recently, it was believed that Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted in Europe for up to 10,000 years, but recent improved radiocarbon dates suggest that this period was far shorter – possibly no more than 1,000 or 2,000 years (Mellars, 2006). Many supposedly-late Neanderthals have now been shown to be much older than first believed. For example, two specimens from Vindija Cave in Croatia were originally thought to be from 32,000 to 33,000 years old (28,000 to 29,000 radiocarbon years BP) (Smith, et al., 1999), but these dates are now thought to be nearer 36,000 to 37,000 years old (32,000 to 33,000 radiocarbon years BP) (Higham, et al., 2006). Similarly, an infant from Mezmaiskaya Cave in the northern Caucasus, once believed to be a late survivor from 29,000 years ago, is now believed to be have lived more like 40,000 years ago (Pinhasi, et al., 2011).

Another factor is that calendar dates from this period might have been systematically underestimated. Radiocarbon dates do not coincide exactly with calendar dates, and the latter must be estimated using calibration data. A recent re-evaluation suggests that the estimated calendar dates for this period should be older than was previously believed. The revised dates suggest that overall, the period of coexistence between Neanderthal and modern human populations within the individual regions of Europe such as western France was fairly brief, possibly no more than 1,000 or 2,000 years (Mellars, 2006).

At the peripheries of Europe, Neanderthals might have persisted for rather longer than elsewhere. Possible late survival is documented from two very different settings: Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, and Byzovaya, in the western foothills of the northernmost Urals. Gorham’s Cave seems to have been a favoured location that was visited repeatedly over many thousands of years. Natural light penetrates deep into the cave, and a high ceiling permits ventilation of smoke from the hearths that were repeatedly made there. Neanderthal occupation of the cave continued until 33,000 years ago (28,000 radiocarbon years BP), and possibly until as recently as 29,000 years ago (24,000 radiocarbon years BP), and the site was later used by modern humans right up until Phoenician and Carthaginian times. However, there was a 5,000 years hiatus after the last Neanderthal occupation before the first modern humans took up residence (Finlayson, et al., 2006; Finlayson, et al., 2008). At Byzovaya, a total of 313 stone artefacts have been collected over the years, all reflecting typical Middle Palaeolithic tool production techniques characteristic of Neanderthal Mousterian industries, and ranging from 31,000 to 34,000 years old (Slimak, et al., 2011).

However, a newly-published study has cast doubt on the late Neanderthal survival in the Iberian Peninsula. Researchers used a technique known as ultra-filtration to remove traces of modern contaminants (for example preservatives and glues) from fossil bone collagens (proteins making up the bone matrix) prior to radiocarbon dating. Without this process, it is claimed that the contaminants make samples appear younger than they actually are. For example, a carbon contamination of just one percent will make a 50,000-year-old sample appear to be just 37,000 years old. A total of 215 Neanderthal bones from 11 supposedly-late Neanderthal sites were screened for collagen. Unfortunately, only 27 bones were found to contain enough collagen for radiocarbon dating using the ultra-filtration technique. These were recovered from just two sites: Jarama VI and Cueva del Boquet Zafarraya. The results suggested that the Neanderthal remains from the two sites were at least 10,000 years older than previously believed (Wood, et al., 2013). Should other dates for the Iberian Neanderthals turn out to have been similarly understated, then it would suggest that they died out before modern humans arrived. However, it should be noted that the authors of the Gorham’s Cave report had previously considered and ruled out the possibility of contamination affecting their results (Finlayson, et al., 2008).


1. Mellars, P., A new radiocarbon revolution and the dispersal of modern humans in Eurasia. Nature 493, 931-935 (2006).

2. Smith, F., Trinkaus, E., Pettitt, P., Karavanic, I. & Paunovic, M., Direct radiocarbon dates for Vindija G1 and Velika Pecina Late Pleistocene hominid remains. PNAS 96 (22), 12281–12286 (1999).

3. Higham, T., Ramsey, C., Karavanic, I., Smith, F. & Trinkaus, E., Revised direct radiocarbon dating of the Vindija G1 Upper Paleolithic Neandertals. PNAS 103 (3), 553–557 (2006).

4. Pinhasi, R., Higham, T., Golovanova, L. & Doronichev, V., Revised age of late Neanderthal occupation and the end of the Middle Paleolithic in the northern Caucasus. PNAS 108 (21), 8611-8616 (2011).

5. Finlayson, C. et al., Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe. Nature 443, 850-853 (2006).

6. Finlayson, C. et al., Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar – The persistence of a Neanderthal population. Quaternary International 181, 74-71 (2008).

7. Slimak, L. et al., Late Mousterian Persistence near the Arctic Circle. Science 332, 841-845 (2011).

8. Wood, R. et al., Radiocarbon dating casts doubt on the late chronology of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition in southern Iberia. PNAS 110 (8), 2781-2786 (2013).

BH-1 hominin mandible from Serbia suggests Neanderthals evolved in isolation in Western Europe

BH-1 is a left fragment of a human mandible (lower jawbone), complete with all three molar teeth. It was recovered in 2005 at Mala Balanica cave, Serbia, along with a number of quartz artefacts. Originally estimated to be around 115,000 years old (Roksandic, et al., 2011), it is now believed to be at least 400,000 years old. Newly obtained ages, based on electron spin resonance combined with uranium series isotopic analysis, and infrared/post-infrared luminescence dating, yielded a minimum age of between 397,000 to 525,000 years old. This date makes BH-1 one of the oldest hominins in Europe, and the most easterly European hominin of the Middle Pleistocene (Rink, Mercier, Mihailovic, Morley, Thompson, & Roksandic, 2013).

Middle Pleistocene hominins from the period 600,000 to around 200,000 years ago are conventionally lumped together as Homo heidelbergensis (or Archaic Homo sapiens). By the end of this period, the Neanderthals had emerged from the European populations and modern Homo sapiens from the African populations. In fact, the reality of the situation is far from understood and was almost certainly far more complicated.

The problem with Homo heidelbergensis is as Archaic Homo sapiens it came to be used as a kind of ‘wastebasket category’ for anything that wasn’t Homo erectus, a Neanderthal, or a modern human (Cameron & Groves, 2004). Consequently, it tends to be defined in terms of features intermediate between Homo erectus and later humans rather than unique traits, which are a prerequisite for properly defining a species (Harvati, 2007). The situation has been referred to by anthropologist Phillip Rightmire (1998) as the ‘muddle in the middle’ and there is much debate as to whether Homo heidelbergensis is indeed a single species.

BH-1 is a potentially important piece in the jigsaw. It differs significantly from European hominins generally classified as Homo heidelbergensis. It shows a complete lack of the incipient Neanderthal traits that are present for most Western European hominins of the Middle Pleistocene. Instead, it shows primitive Homo erectus-like traits (Roksandic, et al., 2011).

This data suggests that the Neanderthals may have arisen solely in Western Europe, only later spreading to Southeast Europe and Southwest Asia. During glacial periods, Western Europe was cut off from the rest of Eurasia, and the distinctive morphology of the Neanderthals may have evolved in isolation. The process may have been driven by genetic drift impacting on small isolated proto-Neanderthal populations, rather than the effects of Darwinian natural selection (Weaver, 2009). Genetic drift refers to random changes in the relative frequency in which an allele occurs in a population. In small populations, over a number of generations, the effect can result in some alleles becoming fixed and others disappearing altogether, even if the prevailing alleles confer no particular selective advantage on their possessors. An analogy for genetic drift is seen in small isolated villages where everybody ends up with the same surname. If for example Mr and Mrs Smith are the only Smiths in the village and they have only daughters, then the surname Smith will disappear from the next generation. Over enough generations, the villagers will ‘drift’ to just one surname.

In contrast to Western Europe, the Balkan Peninsula was never isolated, and early humans there remained biologically similar to those from Southwest Asia. Accordingly, the population inhabiting the Balkan Peninsula could have retained a number of primitive non-Neanderthal traits, without precluding morphological changes associated with increased brain size and tooth reduction observed in Middle Pleistocene populations throughout Eurasia and Africa (Rink, Mercier, Mihailovic, Morley, Thompson, & Roksandic, 2013).

Rink et al (2013) New Radiometric Ages for the BH-1 Hominin from Balanica (Serbia): Implications for Understanding the Role of the Balkans in Middle Pleistocene Human Evolution may be downloaded from the open-access PLoS One website.

Cameron, D., & Groves, C. (2004). Bones, Stones and Molecules: “Out of Africa” and Human Origins. Elsevier Academic Press.

Harvati, K. (2007). 100 years of Homo heidelbergensis – life and times of a controversial taxon. Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte, 16, 85-94.

Rightmire, P. (1998). Human Evolution in the Middle Pleistocene: The Role of Homo heidelbergensis. Evolutionary Anthropology, 6(6), 218-227.

Rink, W., Mercier, N., Mihailovic, D., Morley, M., Thompson, J., & Roksandic, M. (2013). New Radiometric Ages for the BH-1 Hominin from Balanica (Serbia): Implications for Understanding the Role of the Balkans in Middle Pleistocene Human Evolution. PLoS One, 8(2).

Roksandic, M., Mihailovic, D., Mercier, N., Dimitrijevic, V., Morley, M., Rakocevic, Z., et al. (2011). A human mandible (BH-1) from the Pleistocene deposits of Mala Balanica cave (Sicevo Gorge, Nis, Serbia). Journal of Human Evolution, 61(2), 186-196.

Weaver, T. (2009). The meaning of Neandertal skeletal morphology. PNAS, 106(38), 16028–16033.

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind

Astonishingly lifelike, the 21,000 year old mammoth-ivory bison sculpture (below) is unquestionably the work of a talented artist. Excavated at Zaraysk in Russia in 2002, it is one of 130 portable art objects from the European Upper Palaeolithic featured in Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind, which opens at the British Museum on 7 February. These have been set alongside a small selection of works by Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and other 20th Century artists. Exhibition curator Dr Jill Cook was unfortunately unable to include Genesis by Sir Jacob Epstein and works from the currently-closed Musée Picasso in Paris.

However, the modern art is not included for comparison but to emphasise that this exhibition is first and foremost about art rather than archaeology. Art is not merely a product of what we glibly term ‘civilisation’, it is a fundamental part of the modern human condition. We see the earliest evidence for its expression in South Africa over 70,000 years ago, but the earliest-known figurative art appears around 40,000 years ago in Europe. Modern humans entered Europe 46,000 years ago, and over the next 5000 years they dispersed across the continent. Although the last Ice Age had yet to reach its full extent, conditions were very different to those in the African homeland they had left tens of millennia earlier. Nevertheless, the richness of the art they produced over the next 35,000 years clearly demonstrates that there was far more to their lives than a grim battle for survival.
One of the earliest-known examples of what is unequivocally figurative art, the Löwenmensch (Lion-man) of Hohlenstein-Stadel (below) is a therianthropic (part human, part animal) figurine of a human figure with a lion’s head. It is 30 cm (11.8in) high and is carved from mammoth ivory. Hohlenstein-Stadel is an Aurignacian cave site in the Lone Valley of the Swabian Jura Mountains of south-western Germany. The Löwenmensch was discovered by archaeologists Otto Völzing and Robert Weitzel in 1939 in numerous fragments, but with the outbreak of World War II, it was forgotten for thirty years. Reconstruction of the figurine was begun in 1969 by Joachim Hahn, but was not completed until 1988. The Löwenmensch is over 36,000 years old. It may represent a shaman partially transformed into a lion, or a mythical being or a supernatural spirit. In 2003, a similar but much smaller figurine was discovered at Hohle Fels Cave in the Ach Valley, only a short distance from Lone Valley. The implication is that the people of the Ach and Lone Valleys were members of the same cultural group, and shared beliefs and practices connected with therianthropic images of felines and humans.
Among the most iconic objects of Ice Age Europe are the so-called ‘Venus’ figurines that have found at many Upper Palaeolithic sites. Most date to the Gravettian period from 28,000 to 22,000 years ago, though some are from the preceding Aurignacian. Typically lozenge-shaped, these figurines are characterised by exaggerated sexual characteristics, with very large breasts, accentuated hips, thighs and buttocks, and large, explicit vulvas. Other anatomical details tend to be neglected; especially arms and feet, and the heads generally lack facial detail. The contrast with the classical portrayal of Venus could not be greater. The figurines are carved from materials including mammoth ivory, serpentine, steatite or limestone and are often coloured with ochre. The Black Venus of Dolni Věstonice (below) was made from fired clay, and is among the earliest known ceramics.
The ‘Venus’ figurines are often interpreted as fertility figures, mother goddesses etc, but their real function is unknown. One novel suggestion, by anthropologists Leroy McDermott and Catherine Hodge McCoid, is that they may be self-portrayals of pregnant women. They note likenesses between a photograph of a “Venus” figurine viewed from above and one of a pregnant woman standing with her feet together, viewed from her own perspective looking down on her breasts and abdomen.
After visiting the newly-discovered Lascaux Caves in 1940, Pablo Picasso is said to have remarked “We have invented nothing” in reference to the cave’s 17,000 year old polychrome rock art. The story may be apocryphal, but the British Museum has offered the public a unique opportunity to judge for themselves.
Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind is at the British Museum from 7 Feb until 26 May, 2013