A critical assessment of the Aurignacian: Insights from Fumane Cave in northern Italy

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URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10900/85563
Dokumentart: Dissertation
Date: 2019-01-11
Language: English
Faculty: 7 Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät
Department: Ur- und Frühgeschichte
Advisor: Conard, Nicholas J. (Prof.)
Day of Oral Examination: 2018-12-19
DDC Classifikation: 930 - History of ancient world to ca. 499
Keywords: Archäologie
Other Keywords: Urgeschichte; Archäologie; Steinzeit
Lithic Technology
Anatomically Modern Humans
Human Evolution
Material Culture Studies
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The Early Upper Paleolithic marks a turning point in the history of human evolution. The cultural modifications that are observable in the European archaeological record are linked to a complex interaction of behavioral, environmental, and biological components that lead to the definitive colonization of Europe by modern humans, and the extinction and/or assimilation of autochthonous Neanderthal populations. Among the techno-complexes that characterize this period, the Aurignacian has received most of the attention because its development marks the consolidation of a set of cultural traits, such as long-distance mobility patterns, production of standardized lithic implements, variate organic artifacts, figurative arts, and personal ornaments made from a wide range of raw materials. However, research conducted in the last few decades has clearly shown that this portrait is more complex than previously thought. The Aurignacian itself, which is frequently described as the first pan-European techno-complex, is characterized by an important synchronic and diachronic variability that has probably been underestimated because of its direct association with the spread of modern humans into Europe. In this framework, regional studies and accurate re-evaluation of pivotal sites are fundamental in deconstructing the notion of the Aurignacian and achieving a better resolution of information for prehistoric times. The study of lithic industries remains the principle method of investigation for this period, although the growing field of archaeological sciences is enlarging the tools available to scientists to better interpret a distant world that will never be uncovered in all of its facets and details. Stone tools are thus the main focus of this thesis, although attention is also placed on other artifacts, such as ornamental objects and bone and antler tools, and in the stratigraphic reliability of the findings. Stone artifact assemblages recovered from five Early Upper Paleolithic cultural units at the site of Fumane Cave (Veneto, Italy) represent the main empirical basis of this doctoral thesis. Furthermore, the results are complemented by the analysis of two additional sites, Isturitz (Basque Country, France) and Les Cottés (Vienne, France), and by a systematic review of all sites containing early evidence of Aurignacian occupation. The study of lithic assemblages follows a holistic approach that aims to integrate and combine methods belonging to different research traditions, such as reduction sequence and attribute analysis. The main research questions of this thesis can be divided into two main topics that have been addressed in separate research projects, and are here combined to test the validity of the available reconstructions for the beginning and development of the Aurignacian. The first goal was to reassess the technological definition of the Protoaurignacian starting from an extensive analysis of the lithic assemblages recovered in units A2–A1 from Fumane Cave and further investigate the variability of the techno-complex across its geographic extent. Once the concept of the Protoaurignacian had been carefully revised, the second research phase aimed to describe the development of the Aurignacian in northern Italy by analyzing the whole Aurignacian sequence of Fumane Cave. The outcomes of this assessment were compared to the so-called “Aquitaine Model”, formulated in southwestern France, to test its applicability to the whole European extent. The first major topic evaluates the reliability of the common definition of Protoaurignacian technology. Results of the empirical investigation and the inter-site comparison confirm that the Protoaurignacian is an industry dominated by bladelet implements, although bladelet production is based on a broad range of reduction strategies that are not related to the dwindling core dimensions as blade production progressed. The dissociation of blade and bladelet productions is thus not only restricted to Early Aurignacian assemblages. Although rather homogeneous from a technological standpoint, the variability of retouched bladelets emphasizes the differences that exist between the Protoaurignacian regional groups. They are expected and, prior to drawing any conclusion, they need to be better evaluated in concert with data obtained from multi-disciplinary studies. The findings of the second research project reject the recurring practice, well-established among Paleolithic archaeologists, to transfer a regional model to geographically distant case studies. At Fumane Cave, the techno-typological features of the Protoaurignacian clearly persists throughout the stratigraphic sequence with some gradual variations that are, however, less distinct if compared to other sequences. Thus, both the “Aquitaine Model” and the idea according to which the Protoaurignacian vanished at the onset of the Heinrich 4 event are invalidated when applied to northern Italy. In conclusion, this thesis represents an important step towards a more dynamic understanding of the Aurignacian. The re-evaluation of pivotal sites and the definition of particular regional signatures are yielding new insights into the beginning and development of the Upper Paleolithic. The huge amount of work that needs to be done rests on the willingness of archaeologists to test the validity of the reconstructions proposed so far, starting from accurate reassessments of the available data and the identification of potential sites to be investigated following a holistic approach that the unstoppable development of the technium (intended as an interconnected system of technology vibrating around us: Kelly 2010) is more than ever demanding.

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