Three University of New Mexico archaeologists from the Department of Anthropology made significant contributions to a recent special issue of The Journal of Quaternary Science (JQS). Recent UNM Ph.D. and current UNM Adjunct Assistant Professor Milena Carvalho, Associate Professor Emily Jones, and Leslie Spier Distinguished Professor Emeritus Lawrence Straus all contributed to the Peninsular southern Europe refugia during the Middle Palaeolithic issue of the JQS, with Carvalho co-editing the volume.

Besides co-editing, Carvalho is a co-author of Peninsular southern Europe refugia during the Middle Palaeolithic: an introductionNeanderthal palaeoecology in the late Middle Palaeolithic of western Iberia: a stable isotope analysis of ungulate teeth from Lapa do Picareiro (Portugal)and Complexity in the Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transition in Peninsular Southern Europe and application of refugium concepts.

Jones wrote What is a refugium? Questions for the Middle–Upper Palaeolithic transition in peninsular southern Europe and Straus contributed Neanderthal last stand? Thoughts on Iberian refugia in late MIS 3.

The special edition examines aspects of refugia, areas where particular species are able to survive, even while climatic conditions make it impossible or more difficult to live elsewhere. It also pulls together patterns in data, along with some theory papers, to create one of the few synthetic approaches to exploring the refugium concept as it applies to Neanderthals, Jones said. The special issue was derived from a symposium Carvalho co-chaired with Professor Nuno Bicho of the Universidade do Algarve (Portugal) at the 2019 Society for American Archaeology meeting in Albuquerque.

“What we wanted to do with this symposium is bring together a corpus of research from the three peninsulas of southern Europe to understand how the last Neanderthals interacted with their environment including how the environment changed through time,” Carvalho explained. “Neanderthals and modern humans faced cycles of glaciations that affected their lifeways radically. We wanted to understand more about human-environment relationships in the context of Neanderthal extinction and modern human dispersal in areas where environmental conditions might have been favorable during cold periods. These areas are known as refugia. We ended up with 17 papers, a handful of which provide theoretical perspectives with the remaining papers presenting new research from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and other countries in the Balkans. In these articles, the adaptations of the last Neanderthals of Europe are discussed, with particular attention paid to Neanderthal resilience in the face of climate change.”

This special issue’s topic is closely aligned to Carvalho’s UNM dissertation research. Her expertise lies in Neanderthal and modern human diet and hunting practices, as well as understanding human-environment relationships. She has published 10 articles (four as lead author) in this line of research.

This volume presents research from various interdisciplinary research teams working on various sites in southern Europe. The articles Carvalho wrote for this special issue involved mostly laboratory work and synthesis of current research, but she has been heavily involved with Lapa do Picareiro, the cave site associated with the Neanderthal paleoecology paper, since 2013, participating in many areas of research at Picareiro, including excavation, analysis of archaeological materials and dissemination of those results.

“My own article is about the ecological concept of refugia – small areas where particular species are able to survive, even while climatic conditions make it impossible to live elsewhere – and how this concept might help us understand why Neanderthals were living where they were at the end of the Middle Paleolithic. It's an ecological theory concept paper rather than a data one, unlike most of the articles in the special issue! While people often talk about site location in the Pleistocene as reflecting ‘refugia’ they frequently don't define what they mean by that term, and my article is an attempt to make the definitions clear, so we can actually test this hypothesis,” Jones said.

The possibility that some Neanderthals had survived longest in the Iberian Peninsula was raised by researchers in 1990, Straus said.

“In particular, the hypothesis of Neanderthal refugia in southern Iberia was one that I put forth in a pair of articles in the early ‘90s… There have been heated debates and a great deal of recent re-dating of both classic and new sites in northern, eastern, and southern Spain (including Gibraltar) and in southern Portugal,” Straus explained. “In several cases, recent ages for late-surviving types of stone tools – presumably made by Neanderthals – have been shown to be wrong, and there is some evidence that Upper Paleolithic artifacts made by anatomically modern Homo sapiens may have appeared not only in Cantabrian Spain and Catalonia in the north by about 43, 000 years ago, but at least spottily in the south by about the same time. However, there continues to be evidence that technology characteristic of Neanderthal culture did survive in the south. A major problem is the lack of actual bones—either of late Neanderthals or of early anatomically modern humans—in Spain and Portugal during the critical transitional period between about 45 to 40,000 years ago. Clearly, the two groups of humans were in contact both in Iberia and elsewhere, long enough to have both cultural and biological intercourse, but the Neanderthals were simply demographically swamped by the newcomers out of Africa – for reasons that remain mysterious.”

“I have been involved in this debate over the decades and have been either formal or informal adviser of many of the main players in the key research…  It is one of the most fascinating and enduring problems in paleoanthropology and goes to the heart of not only why the Neanderthals—so close to us anatomically, genetically, and culturally—ultimately failed, despite having interbred with Homo sapiens sapiens and thus having passed down some of their genes to us today,” he continued.

Carvalho explained why Jones’s, Straus’s and her studies are important in the field of Archaeology. 

“Why Neanderthal populations disappeared and how modern humans dispersed throughout Eurasia are two of the most important anthropological and archaeological research questions of our time. How environmental or climate conditions affected these two human populations is key to resolving such questions. Research in Iberia, Italy and the Balkans has focused on these questions for decades, and this Special Issue was the perfect opportunity to bring together researchers interested in the same topic and highlight their work.”

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