LA LAGUNA, Spain – A European team of archaeologists said on Monday it was conducting a detailed study of charred remains found at ancient campfire sites that could shed light on the lifestyles of our extinct Neanderthal relatives.
The Paleochar project, which received a grant of two million euros ($2.1 million) from the European Research Council, focuses on microscopic and molecular analyses of carbonized material.
“Fire is a window into the past,” the head of the research team, Spanish geoarchaeologist Carolina Mallol, told EFE.
Mallol works at the Ambi Lab (Archeological Micromorphology and Biomarkers Laboratory) in a small city in Tenerife, one of the islands in the Atlantic Ocean that make up the Canary archipelago.
She said that the classical approach to archaeology was based on analyzing stone tools and bone fragments; while this methodology could provide important information about Neanderthal societies, it was also limited as it only studied inorganic material.
“Although we’ve used techniques such as paleogenetics to make the most of this register, there is still a lot left to explore in archaeological sediments,” Mallol added.
She first became aware of this fact when she started her Ph.D. in Prehistory at Harvard University and took part in excavations at Paleolithic sites in Israel, where she realized that most of what was being dug up was soil, which could be a useful source of information.
This led her to pursue geoarchaeology, a multi-disciplinary field that applies geographical and geological techniques to the archaeological study of sediments.
Mallol used microscopes to analyze residues of human activity hidden in the soil.
“It’s like being a Sherlock Holmes of the past,” she told EFE. “Although it’s on a microscopic scale.”
This technique allows to gain insight into, among other things, the kinds of food Neanderthals ate, the ways in which they would make a fire, the organization of their makeshift camps, the vegetation surrounding them and the climate conditions of their time.
But the key and innovative aspect of this project is the study of Paleolithic fires, with the black layers of ancient soot providing crucial context thanks to the preserved organic matter they contain.
“Fire leaves behind many hidden clues,” Mallol explained, adding that a round, charred structure was always evidence of human behavior, and as important a find as a skull.
Mallol has exhaustively studied campfire remains at the Neanderthal sites in El Salt and Abric del Pastor, near the town of Alcoy (southeastern Spain), as well as Middle Paleolithic remains in France, Georgia, Armenia and Uzbekistan.
Homo neanderthalensis became extinct – for reasons as-yet-unknown – about 40,000 years ago, after evolving in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years separately from modern humans in Africa.
The Neanderthal genome project published results in 2010 showing that we share 99.7 percent of nucleotide sequences with our extinct cousins.
This seemed to indicate that, at some point, there was a mixture of genes – that is, interbreeding – between Ne
anderthals and modern humans outside of Africa.