Course:ARCL140 Summer2020/TermProject Group17

From UBC Wiki



Katy Lau was responsible for site two.

Christopher Ma was responsible for site one.

Baird Menzies was responsible for site three.

Qayla Yusri was responsible for site four.



Human evolution is not limited to physical, tangible developments. As human bodies evolve, so do their lifestyles and cognitive abilities. Tattersall proposes that “One manifestation of symbolic reasoning is the adoption of technological change in response to environmental challenges”[1] The shifting paradigms coupled with the changing nature of human relationships with their environment, including climate, animals, and plants, offering new perspectives on human adaptive behaviour. With these changes come the interactions that frame early developments of human social behaviour, the assignment of symbolic value and building of community settlements, which serve to function as a precursor to cultural change. These social transitions are neither linear nor can they be directly associated with concrete things, instead they are a gradual evolution in themselves to be observed as the origins of human social behaviour and culture as seen today.[2]

Gran Dolina, existing since the early and late Pleistocene period shows some of the first hominids to thrive in Savannah’s. They were one of the first societies to be a hunting and gathering society with innovative tactics and tools, showing the starting point of hominid social and innovative behaviors.

The subjects found at the Sima de los Huesos site reveal the emergence of important symbolic and social developments. They show the first potential signs of cooperative breeding, of lethal action taken against members of the same group, as well as probable mortuary behaviour.

Years ago, the developments that have been observed in Qafzeh cave in relation to social evolution may have been dismissed as the acts of “savages” or “barbarians” (aa). Today it is understood by scholars that these early symbolic gestures, such as the use of ochre and shells in decoration are not far from our modern understanding of sociality. In contemporary society, we may discern a new acquaintance's socioeconomic status from their wardrobe or table manners(AEC), while an inhabitant of Qafzeh cave may have been able to discover similar qualities about a person through ochre body paint or their ownership of certain shells.

The Shuqba Cave in the Judean Mountains was the first site identified of the Natufian Culture in the Levant, who are popularly credited as the origins of agricultural communities that were sedentary and transformed into the closest thing known as villages and the modern idea of houses roday. This important shift represents human behaviour to socially adapt to environmental changes.

Together, these sites can be examined to help us better understand what are thought to be key human characteristics; the ability to think symbolically and form complex social relations. Symbolic thought and the ability to impose meaning are central to human thought and our ability to interact with others. Our ability to cooperate and adapt in social contexts is in turn, a key factor in the incredible success of our species. By studying these sites we gain deeper insight on the origins of human social development.

SITE 1: Gran Dolina, Atapuerca Archaeology Site

AUTHOR: Christopher Ma

LOCATION: Gran Dolina, 15km East of Burgos, Spain

AGE: ~800kya (Early to mid Pleistocene period)


The 11 levels of Gran Dolina as seen from below
Homo Antecessor skull as displayed in the Museo de Prehistoria de Valencia.

Located in the Atapuerca Mountains near the city of Burgos in Northern Spain, the Atapuerca Archaeology site has been a source for archaeological findings from the Pleistocene period. One of the sites is a large cavern called Gran Dolina. Its 11 levels, named TD1 to TD11, is home to the discovery of a new species of hominids called Homo Antecessor. Dated between the early and mid Pleistocene period, Homo Antecessor, who are the predecessors of the Nerandalthals, resided within these caverns for shelter.

Surrounding the Atapuerca Mountains are several open savanna-like mountain ranges. In the article "One million years of cultural evolution in a stable environment at Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain)",  Jesus Rodriguez and collaborator authors (2010) stated that during the Pleistocene period, “extremely harsh conditions were absent” and that the “presence of Mediterranean taxa was constant and the dominant landscape was a savannah-like open environment, probably with small forest patches"[3]. The combination of stable weather patterns and vegetation diversity made the Savannahs an ideal place for the original boreal humans to live and thrive in. As the article "Twentieth Anniversary of Homo Antecessor (1997-2017): a review" by José Castro and collaborator authors (2017) mentions, "The Atlantic and Mediterranean climatic influences may have favoured rich biodiversity at the Sierra de Atapuerca, probably attracting the attention of hominins during the Pleistocene and Holocene''[4]. This gave the Homo Antecessor further reason to choose the cavern-like Gran Dolina as their residence, given the ability to benefit from both the shelter as well as to make use of this area while avoiding predatory threats.


The Atapuerca Archaeology site was first discovered in the 1970s as a mining railway system was being built through the area. This discovery was published by local Spanish newspaper El Eco Burgales and the first excavation occurred in 1981. Since then, the Gran Dolia has hosted repeated visits to discover the rich history found within its 11 layers. The most famous has been TD6, which, according to the journal article "Shedding light on the Early Pleistocene of TD6 (Gran Dolina, Atapuerca, Spain) The technological sequence and occupational inferences" by Maria Mosquera and collaborator authors (2018), consists of “10,880 three-dimensionally recorded remains, of which 9,452 are faunal (286 antler fragments, 445 teeth, 8,721 bones, and 443 coprolites), 91 are Celtis seeds 1,046 are lithic pieces, and 170 are hominin remains (26 teeth and 144 bones)"[5]. In 1994, the new species Homo Antecessor was named by archeologist Eudald Carbonnel in his report titled: "A Hominid From the lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca, Spain: Possible Ancestor to Neanderthal and Modern Humans" (1997)[6]. Homo Heidelbergensis was another possible origin for these fossils according to non-Spanish archaeologists due to their near identical appearance and origins.

In November 2000, Gran Dolina, along with the other archaeological sites in Atapuerca, was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.


Archaeologists have discovered a wealth of animal carcasses and hominid bones in the area, leading them to believe that the Homo Antecessor relied heavily on their social group system and communal hunting. According to the article "Carcass Transport Decisions in Homo Antecessor Subsistence Strategies" by Palmira Saladié and collaborator authors (2001), "The hominins that occupied TD6-2…transported large carcasses to the cave in their entirety, implying participation by groups of individuals in hunting parties. These individuals delayed their consumption of large amounts of food, instead of moving it to Gran Dolina, where it was shared with other group members"[7]. The size of the animal carcasses found in the area meant that hunters had to work together to take them down as doing so without communal hunting strategies would be virtually impossible. Furthermore, hunting such large animals also implied that such large amounts of food was necessary, most likely for feeding large communities, something that was relatively new for that stage of human evolution.

Lithic Core found in TD11, used to make a lot of the Mousterian tools found in Gran Dolina

At the same time, the evidence of hominid-inflicted damage to other hominid remains suggests that these early hominids had cannibalistic natures despite their communal societies. The article "Human Cannibalism in the Early Pleistocene of Europe (Gran Dolina, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain)" by Yolanda Jalvo and collaborator authors (1999) describes that "Most of the faunal and human fossil bones from the Aurora Stratum have human induced damage. Stone tool cut marks are frequent, and peeling...provides a specific breakage pattern together with percussion marks and chop marks"[8]. These findings show that despite working together, there were times where the hominids turned on their own, suggesting that at times, the Homo Antecessor would resort to cannibalism to survive in their environment, something that modern humans no longer practice.

Another element discovered in the caves was evidence of tool usage, as Lithic Mousterian tools and flakes made from minerals and animal bones were found amongst the remains. The article "Bone as a technological raw material at the Gran Dolina Site (Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain)" by Jordi Rosell and collaborator authors (2001) goes into greater detail regarding this, stating that "Soft hammers are used to produce several lithic artifacts that characterize the advanced Acheulean or earliest Mousterian assemblages"[9] and that "The presence of a bone hammer at TD10-1 suggests that these elements started to be common in Europe from MIS 9 onwards and particularly during the entire Middle Palaeolithic...represent one of the earliest pieces of evidence in this continent."[9]. Despite their cannibalistic nature, these hominids also had a sophistication to them, creating and using tools to adapt to and survive in a new environment. These tools also acted as the predecessor for more innovative equipment such as the more durable Levallois tools created and used by the Neanderthals.

SITE 2: Sima de los Huesos

Cross-section of the Sima de los Huesos

AUTHOR: Katy Lau

LOCATION: Sima de los Huesos is situated within the Sierra de Atapuerca, 15 km east of the Spanish city of Burgos.

AGE: ~450kya.


Sima de los huecos is a small chamber in the lowest level of the Cueva-Major–Cueva del Silo karst system of the Sierra de Atapuerca, nearby the Galería complex and Gran Dolina [10]. The fossils within the site most likely accumulated during MIS 12, and are estimated to be roughly 450,000 years old [11].

The MIS 12 was one of the most extreme glacial periods during the Pleistocene. Demuro suggests that this climatic context and associated aridification of the surrounding land may be a factor that caused the appearance of the Neandertal adaptations in the Sima de los huesos hominins[11]. Due to its high elevation, Atapuerca likely experienced snowmelt which may have in turn resulted in the transportation of the Sima de los huesos’ characteristic red clays into the cave. The prevailing MIS 12 climate would have had significant influences on the sedimentation taking place before and after the accumulation of bones within Sima de los huesos[11].


This site contains an incredibly complete collection of Homo heidelbergensis hominin remains which display a mosaic pattern of certain Neanderthal adaptations. They appear to postdate the Neanderthal-Denisovan split, and are at the beginning of the Neanderthal lineage[11]. These fossils constitute “around 80% of the Middle Pleistocene hominid remains in the world”[12], and represent a very complete population. They display a large age range, both sexes, as well as soft bones such as the hyoid and middle ear bones. Significantly, there are no signs of human habitation or herbivore bones at the site.

The remains were first found by T. Torres at Sima de los huecos in 1976 while he was sampling the sediment for fossil bears[10]. Beginning from the 1980s, expeditions were conducted to excavate disturbed sediments from the site. These expeditions recovered masses of mud, bone, and blocks of limestone, in which human remains were discovered alongside many other carnivore fragments It was later concluded that it was unlikely that carnivores are responsible for the human bones, nor were the hominins living in the Sima[10]. Additionally, the age-proportions of the remains do not fit the profile of what it would look like if they had died due to a natural trap/natural death profile. Thus, it is suggested that “this kind of composition must be both human and culturally biased since the beginning”[12].

The hand axe of the Sima de los Huesos


Cranium 17 of the Sima de los Huesos has been hit by two impacts that were not followed of healing

Three particular objects found in Sima de los Huesos are of interest to the study of social and symbolic behaviour. Within the assemblage, there are what appears to be the earliest evidence for possible compassion, for fatal injury caused by interpersonal violence, and for potential signs of mortuary behaviour.

Cranium SH14 is “the earliest documented case of human neurocranial and brain deformity in the fossil record to date”[13]. It belonged to a child whose abnormality would have been readily apparent even within his/her first year of life. Yet, the individual survived until at least 5 years old, receiving no less attention than others. Hublin suggests that the survival of this individual may have been due to the beginnings of compassionate social behaviour[13]. This opens up the possibility that cooperative breeding, that behavioural adaptation that has made our species so prolific and successful, may have appeared to some extent in Middle Pleistocene hominins.

While there has been evidence of violence between and in human social groups prior, Cranium 17 is the first evidence that has direct traumatic injury as a possible cause of death[14]. Various factors rule out the fractures as being self-inflicted, the result of a hunting accident, or due to sediment pressure within the Sima. “Thus, the most plausible explanation for the perimortem fractures on Cr-17 is as the result of intentional and repeated blows during a lethal act of interpersonal violence”[14]. Sala claims that the individual would have been definitively deceased before being deposited in Sima de los huesos, and this implies that other hominins intentionally placed the body in the chamber, that deposing of bodies was a social practice for these hominins[14].

Within Sima de los huesos, there was a single Acheulan quartzite handaxe unearthed. It is made of good quality, through complex techniques, and of a rock type that was “rarely selected for use at the Gran Dolina and Galeria situations”[12]. It is clearly not an ordinary tool, and it is the only subject accompanying an extremely unusual hominin assemblage. While erosion of the edges make it difficult to conclusively determine whether or not the handaxe saw actual use, it could not have been made to be used within the Sima itself as the pit was not an occupation site[12]. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that the handaxe was made, or at least left, in intentional association with the hominin remains. If this were true, then this would be a sign of complex symbolic behaviour from H. heidelbergensis, a full 300kyr before Neanderthals buried their dead. Human symbolism and mortuary behaviour may have begun emerging much earlier than previously broadly accepted.

SITE 3: Qafzeh Cave

AUTHOR: Baird Menzies

LOCATION: Qafzeh cave is located in modern-day Israel, near the city of Nazareth, in the hills of lower Galilee[15]. The cave is situated at 220 metres above sea level[15].

AGE: 115 +/- 15 Kyr[16]


Qafzeh cave is located in Israel, adjacent to the city of Nazareth[15]. Fossil records show that Qafzeh has been the home of a variety of taxa throughout its many thousand year history. The main species studied has been homo sapiens, but there is also clear evidence of the presence of red and fallow deer, which were likely a main diet of the homo sapiens who lived there[15]. The fossil record also shows that human habitation of Qafzeh was not continuous, but rather periodic, broken up by periods of significant hyena denning[15]. Other, less prominent species to be found at the  Qafzeh cave remains are: gazelles, goats, pigs, and  rhinos[15].

There is no preserved evidence of flora at Qafzeh, although an extensive study into the possibility of a vegetal diet has not yet been conducted[17]. There has also been some evidence of snails and freshwater bivalves present in the cave, but it is hypothesized that these were not native to the cave, but were carried by the human inhabitants to the cave as a food source[17].

The exact age of the remains at Qafzeh cave is difficult to provide with any certainty. A thermoluminescence analysis of burnt flint gives a mean age of 92 +/- 5 kyr[16], while micromammal-bearing levels suggest a date later than 85 kyr[16], and some scholars have stated their belief that the remains are even younger than that[16]. However, the most accurate readings, provided by electron spin resonance (ESR) analysis of tooth enamel suggest that the true age of the fossils present in Qafzeh cave are 115 +/- 15 kyr, with no systematic changes in age by depth of fossil[16].


Cast of child burial discovered in Qafzeh cave.

Qafzeh cave underwent its first major archaeological investigation in 1951, led by researchers Neuville and Stekelis[18]. The cave underwent a second investigation 30 years later in 1981, led by Vandermeersch[18]. Over the course of these two major excavations the complex Qafzeh cave was found to contain levels from both the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods[18]. The fossils discovered at Qafzeh are the earliest example of modern homo sapiens in the Levant.


The relevance of Qafzeh cave to social evolution, as well as human evolution in general has two central components. Firstly, the homo sapiens who lived in Qafzeh represented the first known group of modern homo sapiens to inhabit the Levant region. Although this is certainly significant, some scholars believe that the people of Qafzeh “represent a short-lived dispersal of African homo sapiens into the Levant”[18]. From this sentiment, it can be argued that the people of Qafzeh did not have a significant impact upon widespread human migration, or social culture, as they would have “either abandoned the Levant or become extinct”[18].

Conversely, a second, less pessimistic view of the relevance of the Qafzeh cave and its inhabitants is found in the possibility of symbolic use of objects. Humans often think about symbols as physical or verbal gestures but there are also situations in which “material objects are the symbol”[19]. The Qafzeh cave is home to a number of these material symbols in the form of shells and ochre. The shells “were used as decoration, either on the body, on garments, or on other types of perishable objects”[17]. The people who lived here would have used the natural holes[17](image in citation p.310) to string together these shells for various symbolic uses.

Scholars also believe that these shells may have distinguished some aspect of status[17]. Certainly there would have been some aspect of challenge involved in retrieving these shells, and that difficulty itself may have been represented through the act of wearing shells.

Moreover, there is significant evidence to suggest that ochre staining was used as a part of a “symbolic color system”[19]. Ochre staining at Qafzeh appears to have been done without a practical purpose, which suggests “that the phenomena of ochre is to be interpreted as a persistent tradition handed down through the generations of the use of the color red as an index for objects, ideas, or events”[19]. Ochre may have also been used to carryout activities such as body painting that is not visible in the fossil record[19]. The use of shells for decoration and the act of ochre staining provide evidence that modern humans in the Levant were capable of creating complicated symbols, indicating a high level of intelligence.

SITE 4: Shuqba Cave, Judean Mountains, Palestine

AUTHOR: Qayla Yusri

Distribution of Natufian sites in the Levant, c. 14500-11500 BP. Adapted from Ofer Bar-Yosef, "The Origins of Sedentism and Agriculture in Western Asia", in Colin Renfrew (ed.), The Cambridge World Prehistory, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 1414 Map 3.4.1.

LOCATION: The Natufian was a culture of Homo sapiens that centralised around the Levant of modern day Middle East, “encompassing the Galilee, Mt. Carmel, and the Judean Hills and Desert”[20]. For modern day contexts, that generally lies around the area of the Mediterranean Sea; major sites are in present day Palestine, Israel, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The coordinates for the Shuqba Cave are 31°58′53.953″N 35°2′32.673″E, 28km northwest of Jerusalem.

AGE: The Natufian, identified by D. Garrod in her 1930 excavations of the Shuqba Cave in the Judean Hills of the West Bank, is chronologically placed as a Mesolithic culture and assigned by Perrot as an Epipaleolithic culture, placing the culture to sit around the end of the last Ice Age, which is about 11,500 to 15,000 years before present.[20]


The Levant, of where the Natufian culture emerged and settled, covers “along the entire eastern Mediterranean coast and extending inland from southern Turkey in the north, through eastern Jordan and Syria and back westwards to the Sinai Peninsula”[21]. This grandiose expanse of land introduces a variety of diverse climates, landscapes and microenvironments; a large reason for the adaptive nature of Natufians across different environments and temperature fluctuations. As such, the Natufian presence in the Levant was coded to be around the beginnings and ends of major climatic events, namely the Last Glacial Maximum, Bølling-Allerød, and Younger Dryas. [21]

Bar-Yosef notes that the climactic crisis of the Younger Dryas prompted the shift from hunter gatherer societies to the reliance on agriculture, influencing the Natufians to increase in mobility and flexible scheduling of resources. As the Levant regained wetter conditions, the expansion of bodies of waters and cultivation of agricultural produce allowed for further expansion into large villages with “an entire biologically viable population, thereby reducing the need to maintain a mating network that stretched over long distances.”, encouraging the increase in highly connected organizational subsystems of society as well. [22][23]

Early Natufian culture suggested a pioneering concept of sedentary villages that promoted ritualistic behaviour[23], as evident from their collective and secondary burial traditions that indicated increasing group mobility over time as they adapted through “changes in temperature, vegetation, wildlife, and terrain over short distances.”[22]


Natufian homeland emerged from excavations in the 1950s revealed data that was interpreted as remnants of a village and perhaps one of the earliest records of the modern idea of a “house”, deviating from previously thought assumptions of “traditional way of prehistoric living”. Natufian dwellings included stone, limestone slabs, hearth, and built graves as defining features.” [22][23]

During the Late Epipaleolithic Natufian age, social complexity was on the rise as the Natufians adopted the beginning of a standardized food production from the emergence of their sedentary, increasing in size village life. [21]The evidence for sedentism came from the excavation of Natufian base camps, as well as seasonal camps. The base camps were found to be larger than those of previous local settlements, reaching 1000m2 or even bigger and at the very least, partially sedentary, suggesting year round hunting behaviour.[20]

Basalt & Limestone Mortar & Pestle, Natufian Culture Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel. Complete indexed photo collection at

The cultural influences of the Neolithic Natufians show as the discovered remains, including “architectural remains, bone tools, grinding utensils, ornaments, and ordered burials” exhibit the transition from Paleolithic ideas of nomadic hunting to structured, communal sedentism and farming. [20]However, as Maher et al. also  notes, these changes are not sudden or present a departure in knowledge or tradition, but already existing in Early and Middle Epipaleolithic, but merely developed as a paradigm shift in behaviour during the time of Natufian culture.[21]


It has been recognized that there is a lack of discussion around inter and intragroup social interactions of the Early and Middle epipaleolithic in the Levant as compared to the existing literature of Early Neolithic. Yet, Late epipaleolithic Natufian culture was significant to the evolution of social complex behaviour with the rise of sedentary village life coupled with the emergence of a different kind of food production.[21] These trailblazing behaviours relied on “different patterns of resource exploitation-namely, intensive and specialized collection, and possibly incipient agriculture” [20].

By deviating from traditional methods of social structures, the Natufian culture is credited with beginning a “new era in human social relations”, as seen from “the rise of social complexity, the emergence of sedentary village life, and the adoption of food production.” [21]Many scholars have emphasized the role of Natufian settlements as a pioneer in agricultural communities, especially as it strayed from habits of hunter gatherer routines. This potentially came about from a change in paleoenvironment impacting the lifestyle patterns of Natufians.[21][22]


Social behaviour is not a linear process from one point in time to another. Evolutionary challenges influence changes in behaviour and the relationships between both humans and the environment. The emergence of toolmaking and advanced tool use is important in the transition to applying symbolic value to many things; from items to relationships to major events. The social construction of communities allowed for the rise of symbolic behaviour and social organization, such as burials and social hierarchy.

Gran Dolina and the Homo antecessor sets the premise of what it means to be innovative, as well as a functioning hunting and gathering society in a new environment. Although known to be a cannibalistic society, evidence of them hunting as a group as well as eating and working as a group, shows early signs of cooperative social behavior. Using minerals and animal bones around them to make tools also demonstrates their ability to innovate and be resourceful, despite being in a new environment.  

Sima de los huesos shows that key characteristics of what we consider to be strictly human behaviour emerge much earlier than were previously thought. It grants insights into the beginnings of symbolic behaviour in early pre-modern hominins, and shows the process of development of increasingly complex social behaviour when considered in conjunction with later sites. The fossils found at this site hint at a wide range of pre-evolutionary group dynamics, and while mortuary intent remains up to debate, it appears that hominins were beginning to more deliberately dispose of their dead.

Qafzeh cave provides a unique insight into the beginnings of symbolism in modern Homo sapiens culture. The anatomically modern Homo sapiens who survived in this cave for generations have provided anthropologists with the evidence necessary to conclude that symbolic culture was a potentially crucial part of life for humans in the past, just as much as it is today. The use of shells and ochre demonstrate a system of intricate symbolism, indicating the existence of a developed, multi-faceted culture.

Food production was the core catalyst to influence the shift from hunter gatherer societies to agricultural societies, as seen in the nature of the Natufian Culture found in the Shuqba Cave of the Levant. As temperature changed from major climatic events, humans needed to adapt their lifestyle to both increase in mobility and take advantage of their changing environment to cultivate agricultural lifestyles, thus prompting the rise of sedentary villages.

As seen through the progression of societal behaviour in the sites listed above, early sites like Gran Dolina and Sima de los Huesos present more utilitarian behaviour, with practices such as nutritional cannibalism shifting towards lethal intra-group intent and the emergence of honouring the dead through burial traditions. Newer sites in the Levant like the Qafzeh Cave and the Shuqba Cave bring insight into the influence of symbolic value as an integral part of human social culture, as well as the role that it plays in influencing evolution in the direction that it has taken today.


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