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Human Origins Leiden

Charred bone

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Charred bone: Physical and chemical changes during laboratory simulated heating under reducing conditions and its relevance for the study of fire use in archaeology


  • Femke H. Reidsma
  • Annelies van Hoesel
  • Bertil J.H. van Os
  • Luc Megens
  • Freek Braadbaart
  • In order to gain insight into the timing and nature of hominin fire use, the effect of heat on the physical and chemical properties of the materials entering the archaeological record needs to be understood. The present study concerns the fire proxy heated bone. Two types of heating can be distinguished: combustion (or burning, with oxygen) and charring (without oxygen), for both of which the formation of char is the first step. We performed a series of controlled laboratory-based heating experiments, in reducing conditions (i.e. charring), covering a broad temperature range (20–900 °C), and applied a variety of different analytical techniques. Results indicate that charred bone shows a distinctly different thermal alteration trajectory than combusted bone, which has implications for the suitability of the different analytical techniques when identifying and determining past heating conditions (charring vs. combustion; temperature) of heated bone from archaeological contexts. Combined, the reference data and techniques presented in this study can be used as a robust toolkit for the characterisation of archaeological charred bone from various ages and contexts.


    Tooth enamel stable isotopes of Holocene and Pleistocene fossil fauna reveal glacial and interglacial paleoenvironments of hominins in Indonesia

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    Authors: Renée Janssen, Josephine C.A. Joordens, Dafne S. Koutamanis, Mika R. Puspaningrum, John de Vos, Jeroen H.J.L. van der Lubbe, John J.G. Reijmer, Oliver Hampe, Hubert B. Vonhof

    Journal: Quaternary Science Reviews


    The carbon (δ13C) and oxygen (δ18O) isotope compositions of fossilized animal tissues have become important proxies of paleodiet and paleoenvironment, but such stable isotope studies have not yet been extensively applied to the fossil assemblages of Sundaland (the biogeographical region comprising most of the Indonesian Archipelago). Here, we use the isotope composition of tooth enamel to investigate the diet and habitat of bovids, cervids, and suids from several Holocene and Pleistocene sites on Java and Sumatra. Our carbon isotope results indicate that individual sites are strongly dominated by either C3-browsers or C4-grazers. Herbivores from the Padang Highlands (Sumatra) and Hoekgrot (Java) cave faunas were mainly C3-browsers, while herbivores from Homo erectus-bearing sites Trinil and Sangiran (Java) utilized an almost exclusive C4 diet. The suids from all sites show a wide range of δ13C values, corroborating their omnivorous diet. For the dataset as a whole, oxygen and carbon isotope values are positively correlated. This suggests that isotopic enrichment of rainwater and vegetation δ18O values coincides with an increase of C4-grasslands. We interpret this pattern to mainly reflect the environmental contrast between glacial (drier, more C4) and interglacial (wetter, more C3) conditions. Intermediate herbivore δ13C values indicating mixed C3/C4 feeding is relatively rare, which we believe to reflect the abruptness of the transition between glacial and interglacial precipitation regimes in Sundaland. For seven Homo erectus bone samples we were not able distinguish between diagenetic overprint and original isotope values, underlining the need to apply this isotopic approach to Homo erectus tooth enamel instead of bone. Importantly, our present results on herbivore and omnivore faunas provide the isotopic framework that will allow interpretation of such Homo erectus enamel isotope data.


    Streams as Entanglement of Nature and Culture: European Upper Paleolithic River Systems and Their Role as Features of Spatial Organization

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    Authors: Shumon T. Hussain & Harald Floss

    Journal: J Archaeol Method Theory


    Large river valleys have long been seen as important factors to shape the mobility, communication, and exchange of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. However, rivers have been debated as either natural entities people adapt and react to or as cultural and meaningful entities people experience and interpret in different ways. Here, we attempt to integrate both perspectives. Building on theoretical work from various disciplines, we discuss the relationship between biophysical river properties and sociocultural river semantics and suggest that understanding a river’s persona is central to evaluating its role in spatial organization. By reviewing the literature and analyzing European Upper Paleolithic site distribution and raw material transfer patterns in relation to river catchments, we show that the role of prominent rivers varies considerably over time. Both ecological and cultural factors are crucial to explaining these patterns. Whereas the Earlier Upper Paleolithic record displays a general tendency toward conceiving rivers as mobility guidelines, the spatial consolidation process after the colonization of the European mainland is paralleled by a trend of conceptualizing river regimes as frontiers, separating archaeological entities, regional groups, or local networks. The Late Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian, however, is characterized again by a role of rivers as mobility and communication vectors. Tracing changing patterns in the role of certain river regimes through time thus contributes to our growing knowledge of human spatial behavior and helps to improve our understanding of dynamic and mutually informed human-environment interactions in the Paleolithic.

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