Modern human colonisation of Europe: chrono-cultural comparison of east and west

The period 45-35,000 years ago witnessed the most significant event in the prehistory of Europe. It was during this time that our own species, Homo sapiens, first appeared on the European continent, previously occupied by indigenous Neanderthals. By the end of this period Neanderthals were extinct, and H. sapiens hunter-gatherers could be found from Russia and Ukraine in the east to Britain, France and Iberia in the west.

More than a century of excavations has yielded abundant archaeological material from this period. The majority of archaeological artefacts are stone tools, which vary through time and between regions. Decades of study mean that we understand the basics of how H. sapiens came to be the sole occupants of Europe, but the details of these events are incompletely understood, for two main reasons.

First, establishing precisely when events took place is no easy task. Radiocarbon dating allows us to directly date archaeological deposits, and therefore compare the ages of sites. However, the late Middle Palaeolithic lies right at the workable limit of radiocarbon dating, and obtaining precise and reliable dates is difficult. It is currently unclear whether radiocarbon dates for different parts of Europe are comparable in their reliability, and thus which archaeological cultures and events across Europe are contemporary.

Secondly, the way that researchers study and describe archaeological material in eastern and western Europe has traditionally been quite different. Archaeologists have often approached stone tool assemblages with different research questions in mind. Any attempt to draw together published studies, in order to understand cultural processes on a continental scale, meets great difficulty.

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The excavated section at the site of Kostenki XIV, Russia. The excavator of the site, and collaborator on our grant, Dr Andrey Sinitsyn, is second from right. The site contains several key archaeological horizons and evidence for the huge Campanian Ignimbrite eruption which took place 40,000 years ago and covered the site in ash. The oldest directly-dated human burial in Eurasia was found at the site in 1955.

This project aims to take a major step towards addressing these issues. The main focus is the Kostenki complex of archaeological sites in European Russia, described recently as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for this period in eastern Europe. New techniques of radiocarbon dating will be used to establish a reliable chronology for the sites. In addition, a collaborative study of stone tools from Kostenki will document and explain the similarities and differences in archaeology between eastern and western Europe. The result will be a scientifically valid comparison between these two key regions, and a significant step forwards in our understanding of precisely when and how H. sapiens came to be the only human species in Europe.

Professor Thomas Higham
University of Oxford

Thomas was awarded a Research Project Grant in December 2012.