This doctoral dissertation project will investigate the use of fire, an important adaptation in human prehistory, and its relationship to fluctuating environmental conditions. Burned stone artifacts will be quantified (frequencies) as measures of fire use in several stone artifact assemblages from Paleolithic archaeological sites selected from a wide range of temporal, geographic, and climatic conditions. Other evidence of fire use, such as hearths, is often qualitative (presence/absence) and therefore of limited utility in documenting the intensity or extent of fire use at these sites. The project will advance knowledge about human behavioral plasticity with respect to changing environments. It will also leverage available, but often neglected, data from museum collections, and will make these data accessible to a range of scholars through publications and databases. Public presentations about the findings will be made in museum settings to engage wider audiences, and background information and results of the project also will be shared through public archaeology podcasts and social media. Outreach activities will promote the participation of women and adult learners in scientific inquiry, and foster interest in archaeological and paleoanthropological research.

The frequency of burned stone artifacts will be compared across strata using three different sampling strategies (two types of counting methods, as well as weight) based on a size-grade distribution. Integrating the resulting data with other direct and geoarchaeological evidence of fire use will help to document the extent to which fire was used during the period of occupation associated with each cold and warm interval during the Paleolithic period. In addition, a controlled experiment using an ultra-low freezer will be conducted to assess the impact of the natural process of frost weathering on stone artifacts, to increase the level of accuracy and reliability in the identification of burned flints by distinguishing surface alterations that are caused by frosting exposures from those of burning. Petrographic and scanning electron microscopy, as well as Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, will be used to detect macro- and microscopic alterations on the surface of experimentally frost-weathered artifacts. The results of this project will contribute to the field of Paleolithic archaeology by advancing sampling methods and experimental designs for the analysis of burned stone artifacts, as well as documenting burned artifacts from an extensive geographic range.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Rebecca Ferrell
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University of Pennsylvania
United States
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