Who made the Aurignacian?

Until recently, it was largely assumed that the Aurignacian was contemporaneous with the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe sometime around 40,000 years ago. This industrial complex is named after the site of Aurignac in southern France and is found throughout Europe and southwest Asia. The evidence for an association between modern humans the Aurignacian has been less than clear cut.

For most of the last century, the prevalent view among archaeologists was that Neandertals only made Mousterian tools. However, the discovery of the St Césaire 1 Neandertal skeleton and the Neandertal remains from Arcy-sur-Cure with Châtelperronian industry put paid to this idea. Châtelperronian tools show a mix of features otherwise found in the Mousterian and Aurignacian industries. What was particularly surprising about the Châtelperronian culture was not only the lithics but also the manufacture of bone tools and personal ornaments. At the site of Arcy-sur-Cure archaeologists found pierced teeth, ivory, shell, and bone in the Châtelperronian layers. The Szeletian industry of central Europe and the Uluzzian industry of Italy may also be related to the Châtelperronian.

The Châtelperronian has shown that Neandertals were more skilful than previously thought and has opened up the possibility that they may have been the authors of the Aurignacian. At Vindija Cave in Croatia Neandertal remains were speculated to be associated with an Aurignacian-like assemblage (Smith et al. 1999). The skeletal fragments from this site show clear Neandertal affinities. However, problems with stratigraphic control during excavations, as well as evidence of cryoturbation and bioturbation mean that the Neandertal-Aurignacian association is questionable.

However, many of the best associations of the Aurignacian with modern humans are equally problematic. At Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria a "proto-Aurignacian" culture has been associated with some fragmentary human remains (Kozłowski 1982). However, dates from the "proto-Aurignacian" layer span over thousands of years suggesting (1) a very long accumulation of sediment, (2) contamination or (3) incorrect context. Moreover, the fragmentary nature of the remains has meant that a taxonomic diagnosis is difficult.

Human remains were found at the Aurignacian levels of the Spanish site of El Castillo. Unfortunately, the remains were later lost before a detailed anatomical description could be published. A subsequent assessment by Garralda of available descriptions (1989) suggests that the remains were robust, a trait common to both Neandertals and early modern humans. Other sites such as Hahnöfersand and Vogelherd (Street et al. 2006), once thought to date to the Aurignacian have since been dramatically redated to more recent periods.

Evidence of a modern human-Aurignacian association are somewhat better at the sites of Zlatý kůň in the Czech Republic and Kent's Cavern in England. Perhaps, the best evidence we have comes from the site of Mladeç in the Czech Republic. Bone points, perforated animal teeth and a few lithics have been found there. The assemblage appears to be Aurignacian and is associated with skeletal remains that have been well dated to around 31,000 radiocarbon years.

A recent study by Bailey et al. (2009) attempts to shed further light on the makers of the Aurignacian. Many Aurignacian sites have dental remains but they largely have not been used in taxonomic identification. The authors of this paper use Bayesian statistics to classify individual based on the teeth. They used teeth samples for which taxonomy was known to test the accuracy of their technique. In cross validation of known samples, 89% of both Neandertals and modern humans were correctly classified. In the subsequent analysis of the 34 unknown samples associated with Upper Palaeolithic industries, 29 were assigned to modern humans. This is perhaps the strongest evidence to date that modern humans made the Aurignacian. However, this study cannot completely rule out the possibility that Neandertals could have been responsible, albeit for in small part, for the Aurignacian.

Bailey SE, Weaver TD, Hublin J-J. 2009. Who made the Aurignacian and other Upper Paleolithic industries? Journal of Human Evolution.

Garralda MD. 1989. Upper Paleolithic human remains from El Castillo Cave (Santander, Spain). In: Giacobini G, editor. Hominidae: Proceedings of the 2nd International Congress of Human Paleontology. Turin: Jaca Book. pp. 479-482.

Kozłowski JK. 1982. Excavation in the Bacho Kiro Cave (Bulgaria): final report. Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe.

Smith FH, Trinkaus E, Pettitt PB, Karavanić I, Paunović M. 1999. Direct radiocarbon dates for Vindija G1 and Velika Pećina late Pleistocene hominid remains. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 96.

Street M, Terberger T, Orschiedt J. 2006. A critical review of the German Paleolithic hominin record. Journal of Human Evolution 51(6).

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Above photo by Wessex Archaeology under creative commons license.
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