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Did Neanderthal hunters drive mammoth herds over cliffs in mass kills? Excavations at La Cotte de St Brelade in the 1960s and 1970s uncovered heaps of mammoth bones, interpreted as evidence of intentional hunting drives. New study of this Middle Palaeolithic coastal site, however, indicates a very different landscape to the featureless coastal plain that was previously envisaged. Reconsideration of the bone heaps themselves further undermines the ‘mass kill’ hypothesis, suggesting that these were simply the final accumulations of bone at the site, undisturbed and preserved in situ when the return to a cold climate blanketed them in wind-blown loess.
The prehistoric shell middens of Atlantic Europe consist of marine molluscs, but the eastern Baltic did not have exploitable marine species. Here the sole recorded shell midden, at Riņņukalns in Latvia, is on an inland lake and is formed of massive dumps of freshwater shells. Recent excavations indicate that they are the product of a small number of seasonal events during the later fourth millennium BC. The thickness of the shell deposits suggests that this was a special multi-purpose residential site visited for seasonal aggregations by pottery-using hunter-gatherer communities on the northern margin of Neolithic Europe.
The intensification of agriculture as farming communities grew in size did not always produce a successful and sustainable economic base. At Ras an-Numayra on the Dead Sea Plain, a small farming community of the late fourth millennium BC developed a specialised plant economy dependent on cereals, grapes and flax. Irrigation in this arid environment led to increased soil salinity while recurrent cultivation of flax may have introduced the fungal pathogen responsible for flax wilt. Faced with declining yields, the farmers may have further intensified their irrigation and cultivation schedules, only to exacerbate the underlying problems. Thus specialised crop production increased both agricultural risk and vulnerability to catastrophe, and Ras an-Numayra, unlike other sites in the region, was abandoned after a relatively short occupation.
Traditional views of Neanderthal hunting strategies envisage them preying on herd species such as bison and deer, rather than the sophisticated tracking of solitary animals. Analysis of faunal remains from El Esquilleu Cave in northern Spain, however, demonstrates that during certain periods of the Middle Palaeolithic occupation, Neanderthals focused on the hunting of ibex and chamois, small solitary species that inhabited the mountainous terrain around the site. These results indicate that Neanderthal hunting practices may have had more similarity to those of their Upper Palaeolithic relatives than is usually assumed.
The origin and development of wheeled vehicles continues to fascinate today no less than when Stuart Piggott (1974) first wrote about the subject in Antiquity 40 years ago. A growing number of examples from the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine are providing new insights into the design and construction of these complex artefacts. A recent example from the Ulan IV burial mound illustrates the techniques employed and the mastery of materials, with careful selection of the kinds of wood used for the wheels, axles and other elements. Stable isotope analysis of the individual interred in this grave showed that he had travelled widely, emphasising the mobility of steppe populations.
Despite being one of the most intensively explored prehistoric monuments in western Europe, Stonehenge continues to hold surprises. The principal elements of the complex are well known: the outer bank and ditch, the sarsen circle capped by lintels, the smaller bluestone settings and the massive central trilithons. They represent the final phase of Stonehenge, the end product of a complicated sequence that is steadily being refined (most recently in Darvill et al. ‘Stonehenge remodelled’, Antiquity 86 (2012): 1021–40). Yet Stonehenge in its present form is incomplete—some of the expected stones are missing—and it has sometimes been suggested that it was never complete; that the sarsen circle, for example, was only ever finished on the north-eastern side, facing the main approach along the Avenue. A chance appearance of parchmarks, however, provides more evidence.
The rock art of Southeast Asia has been less thoroughly studied than that of Europe or Australia, and it has generally been considered to be more recent in origin. New dating evidence from Mainland and Island Southeast Asia, however, demonstrates that the earliest motifs (hand stencils and naturalistic animals) are of late Pleistocene age and as early as those of Europe. The similar form of the earliest painted motifs in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia suggests that they are the product of a shared underlying behaviour, but the difference in context (rockshelters) indicates that experiences in deep caves cannot have been their inspiration.
Personal ornaments are a notable feature of the Early Upper Palaeolithic in Europe and an important expression of modern human identity. The tubular bone rod from Pod Hradem Cave in the Czech Republic is the first example of its kind from Central Europe. Laboratory examination reveals the techniques used in its manufacture and underlines the skill of its maker. AMS dates and Bayesian modelling suggest a cultural association with the Early Aurignacian period. It illustrates the cultural links across large areas of Europe at this time, although it is unique in its specific combination of size, raw material and decorative features.
Archaeologists have long sought appropriate ways to describe the duration and floruit of archaeological cultures in statistical terms. Thus far, chronological reasoning has been largely reliant on typological sequences. Using summed probability distributions, the authors here compare radiocarbon dates for a series of European Neolithic cultures with their generally accepted ‘standard’ date ranges and with the greater precision afforded by dendrochronology, where that is available. The resulting analysis gives a new and more accurate description of the duration and intensity of European Neolithic cultures.
Hand stencils are an intriguing feature of prehistoric imagery in caves and rockshelters in several parts of the world, and the recent demonstration that the oldest of those in Western Europe date back to 37 000 years or earlier further enhances their significance. Their positioning within the painted caves of France and Spain is far from random, but responds to the shapes and fissures in the cave walls. Made under conditions of low and flickering light, the authors suggest that touch—‘palpation’—as much as vision, would have driven and directed the locations chosen for these stencils. Detailed study of the images in two Cantabrian caves also allows different individuals to be distinguished, most of whom appear to have been female. Finally, the project reveals deliberate associations between the stencils and features on the cave walls.
Excavations at three open-air sites in the Karama valley of West Sulawesi have revealed similar suites of ceramics and overlapping chronologies. The pottery from the basal layers at Minanga Sipakko and Kamassi resembles that of the Philippines and Taiwan, and suggests the settlement of migrants from those areas, consistent with the theory of Austronesian expansion. The absence of the flaked lithic technology typical of earlier Sulawesi populations indicates that these two sites do not represent the indigenous adoption of Neolithic features. The Karama valley evidence underlines the importance, in the quest for the earliest farmers, of research at open-air sites close to agriculturally suitable land, while indigenous populations may have continued for some time to occupy remote caves and rockshelters.
Recent excavations at La Bastida in south-eastern Spain have revealed an impressive stone-built fortification system dating to 2200–2100 cal BC that protected one of the main economic and political centres of Argaric Early Bronze Age society. It consists of parallel walls with projecting towers flanking a narrow entrance passage. The defensive character of these structures appears beyond question and their design suggests they were a response to significant changes in warfare and weaponry in this period. This sophisticated fortification system raises once again the question of possible Mediterranean contacts, along with social change and the role of physical violence in the rise of Argaric society.
Recent survey work in western Azerbaijan has revealed that hilltop fortresses of the Bronze Age and Iron Age may have been parts of larger walled complexes and could have functioned as the urban centres of small independent polities. On the Şərur Plain long lengths of stone wall link the major fortress Oğlanqala it to its smaller neighbour Qızqala 1, with evidence of a substantial settlement on the lower ground between the two. The southern Caucasus lies beyond the core area of Near Eastern states but these new discoveries suggest that major centres of power arose here, controlling both the fertile plains and strategic trade routes through mountainous terrain.
The polished stone objects known as ‘wrist-guards’ found in Early Bronze Age graves in Britain and Continental Europe have proved difficult to interpret. Are they connected with archery, as has long been supposed, or were they instead associated with falconry? Using trained birds of prey for hunting is an elite practice in many historical and ethnographic contexts, and would be consistent with the appearance of exotic materials in these graves. Detailed consideration of the wrist-guards and associated objects from a falconer's perspective, however, demonstrates that the argument is unconvincing.
The fragmentary ‘Processional’ wall painting from Teleilat Ghassul in Jordan is here shown to depict a religious procession involving eight individuals rather than the three identified in the original 1970s reconstruction. All of the figures wear masks and carry objects, but elaborately robed leaders, members perhaps of a dedicated priestly class, are clearly distinguished from their naked attendants. The scene belongs to the Late Chalcolithic period when Levantine society was becoming increasingly hierarchical, and the wall painting as a whole illustrates the prominent role of elites in ritual practices at this critical period of social transformation.
The motifs, techniques and stylistic features of Upper Palaeolithic art offer enormous potential for the investigation of social and cultural interactions in south-western France and northern Spain during the later stages of the last ice age. The key regions of Aquitaine, Cantabria and the Pyrenees clearly share an overall family resemblance, but detailed analysis of horse heads on portable objects of bone, antler and stone from Magdalenian contexts reveal that particular features can be attributed to different regions at different periods. Furthermore, the patterns of interconnection are structured very differently in the Upper Magdalenian than in the Middle Magdalenian, perhaps as rising temperatures in the latter period led to territorial expansion and social realignment.