A comprehensive dating research expands the Neanderthal occupation period in Cova del Gegant

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Image from the inside of Cova del Gegant. Image: Joan Daura and Montse Sanz.
Image from the inside of Cova del Gegant. Image: Joan Daura and Montse Sanz.

The most comprehensive and exact dating to date of the Cova del Gegant (Sitges, Garraf) has been published. This is the site with most Neanderthal remains in Catalonia and a unique place to study the Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic transition, when the first populations of anatomically modern humans appeared and the Neanderthals disappeared. The new study states that the Neanderthals occupied the Cova del Gegant, and the Catalan littoral, during a period of time which goes beyond what was though so far: researchers believed Neanderthals had lived there 50,000 years ago, but now the period goes up from 94,000 to 59,000 years ago. The study, published in Quaternary Science Reviews, explains the role of the cave within the route of the Mediterranean littoral, which during the coldest periods of the Palaeolithic became a natural corridor for animals and human beings to avoid the mountains of the Pyrenees.

Researchers have found, in the site of Cova del Gegant, five Neanderthal remains of four different individuals. The latest findings took place in 2015. "With this new dating study, we have determined that the cave was occupied by the Neanderthals during a longer period of time than what we thought. Moreover, we know that the Neanderthal remains were deposited at two specific moments and different spaces of the cave: between 72,000 and 67,000 years ago the remains of a kid were deposited at the bottom of the cave and then, between 60,000 and 52,000 years ago, the remains of two more individuals were placed in the gallery close to the sea", note the archaeologists that lead the research study, Joan Daura and Montserrat Sanz, researchers at the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the UB, led by Josep Maria Fullola.

Another landmark of the study is that it shows that modern humans had also occupied the Cova del Gegant, while researchers had only found evidence corresponding to Neanderthal groups. Although the bone remains of these modern humans have not been found, their activities, such as fires, have been documented.

The now published dating established three periods for this site: Neanderthals’ occupation, from about 94,000 to 59,000 years ago; from 43,000 to 39,000 some evidence from modern human activity would be found, and it would correspond to the periods of the Châtelperronian and the Aurignacian; the last period would go from 34,000 to 32,000, it would correspond to an occupation of the cave by modern humans and specifically from the late Aurigancian to the Gravettan.

To get this chronology, researchers have worked on a comprehensive dating program. They used dating methods such as Urani Thori and luminescence dating (OSL), which they had already used in the site, but now with new techniques that allow a better precision and reliability.

A strategic place, endangered due to the rise of the sea level

"The new dating show that the cave had been repeatedly occupied by Neanderthals and modern humans", note the researchers. The site was placed in a strategic area to move from southern France towards the Iberian Peninsula. "It may have served as a natural corridor for humans and animals during the coldest times in the Mediterranean littoral. During the cold periods, a coastal platform emerged, it was used for these movements and the Cova del Gegant was a spot in this route", note Joan Daura and Montserrat Sanz. Today the cave is partially flooded as a consequence of the oscillations in the sea level. By contrast, during the coldest phases of the Paleolithic, the level of the Mediterranean was between 80 and 120 metres below the current one, so that it exposed a large coastal platform at the foot of where the cave was. "Now, the site is threatened by global warming and specially the rise of the sea level", say the researchers.

The site of Cova del Gegant is where researchers have found the most remains in Catalonia, where seven Neanderthal fossils have been found to date. Five have been found in Cova del Gegant and the other two correspond to a jaw in Banyoles and a tooth in Cova de Mollet (Serinyà), both in Pla de l’Estany.

Reference article: Joan Daura, Montserrat Sanz, Martina Demuro, Lee J. Arnold, Ana Maria Costa, João Moreno, Maria da Conceição Freitas, Vera Lopes, Natalia Égüez, Dirk L. Hoffmann, Alexa Benson, Dan Cabanes, Joan García-Targa, Josep Maria Fullola; "A new chronological framework and site formation history for Cova del Gegant (Barcelona): Implications for Neanderthal and Anatomically Modern Human occupation of NE Iberian Peninsula" , Quaternary Science Reviews, September 2021.DOI:org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2021.107141