With support from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Jonathan Haws (University of Louisville) and Dr. Michael Benedetti (University of North Carolina Wilmington) will lead a three-year geoarchaeological study along the coast of central Portugal. The project brings together an international team of archaeologists, geologists, paleoecologists, and physical geographers to study Neanderthal and early modern human responses to environmental change during the Paleolithic. Portugal is recognized as a key location in archaeological, paleobotanical, and oceanographic studies, and coastal landscapes are increasingly recognized as a key setting for understanding Neanderthal extinction and establishment of modern human populations in Western Europe. This study will establish new evidence of Paleolithic settlement in coastal wetlands, beaches, and dune fields to test hypotheses about this important transition in human history. Haws and Benedetti are focusing efforts on the Estremadura coast north of Lisbon, where a unique geologic history has preserved sedimentary evidence of the Paleolithic coastline including several Neanderthal sites. In particular, extensive Pleistocene sand deposits in the region record landscape response to abrupt cold and arid phases of the last glacial stage.

This interdisciplinary project will foster a deeper understanding of coupled anthropogenic and geomorphic system responses, and will shed light on human decision-making in the face of dramatic environmental change. Thus, on an overarching level the results stand to inform environmental policy and planning decisions.

This geoarchaeological project is built around two main objectives: (1) conducting detailed excavations at newly-discovered coastal Neanderthal sites (Praia Rei Cortiço and Mira Nascente) and a cave site near the coastal margin (Gruta das Pulgas); and (2) establishing a chronology of coastal geomorphic response to climate and sea level change in the study area. The methods employed will include analysis of stone tools, animal bones, paleosols and sediments, palynology, and geochemical fingerprinting of ancient depositional environments. Age control will be established by radiocarbon dating of organic matter and optically-stimulated luminescence of quartz sand grains.

The archaeological and geoscience objectives of this project are complementary; both test emerging models of response to climate change in physical and human landscapes. The archaeological component addresses models of technological efficiency, subsistence strategies, and use of coastal resources in the Paleolithic. Geodynamic models involve the relative importance of climate change versus sea level fluctuations as controls on hillslope erosion, fluvial aggradation, and aeolian dune building.

The broader impacts of this project include collaborative partnerships between the American research team and colleagues at the University of Algarve in Faro, Portugal. The project offers a combination of scientific engagement and cultural enrichment for student participants, including first-generation college students from working poor and rural backgrounds in Kentucky and North Carolina. With the support of the participating universities, these students will develop independent research projects and co-author papers and presentations of results. The project also raises the profile of American research teams in international Quaternary science, and contributes to the long-term goal of connecting paleoenvironmental research efforts across the North Atlantic basin.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of North Carolina at Wilmington
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