Two 'Oldowan' Assemblages in the Plio-Pleistocene Deposits of the Orce Region, Southeast Spain

By Gilbert, J.; Gilbert, Ll. et al. | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Two 'Oldowan' Assemblages in the Plio-Pleistocene Deposits of the Orce Region, Southeast Spain


Gilbert, J., Gilbert, Ll., Iglesias, A., Maestro, E., Antiquity


Stone artefacts reported from the Orce region (Grenada, Spain) indicate a first human presence in western Europe as early as the Plio-Pleistocene boundary, making a 'long chronology' for European hominids against the claims for a briefer human presence. Excavations of Barranco Leon-5 and Fuentenueva-3a in 1995 have produced two groups of lithic artefacts of 'Oldowan' type, seen as the most ancient of western Europe by faunal associations and palaeomagnetic study.

The first hominid colonization of Europe by Homo was much debated in the Paris 1989 symposium (Bonifay & Vandermeersch 1991). One conclusion regarding the oldest lithic artefacts was:

. . . les premiers peuplements humains de ces regions sont tres anciens, anterieurs au debut du Pleistocene ancien, dont d'un age superieur ou egal a 2 M.a localises dans le sad du pays. Cependant, ces plus anciens vestiges ne sont representes que par des objets isoles (mais, semble-t-il de typologie tres sore) bien situes dans series stratigraphiques bien datees (Localites de Cortijo de don Alfonso, Orce . . .).

The 1993 Tautavel meeting of European, Moroccan and Caucasian Palaeolithic specialists developed the 'short chronology' which recognized the first human occupation of Europe from after 500,000 years. ANTIQUITY published an article (Roebroeks & Kolfschoten 1994) which summarized the conclusions of the Tautavel meeting. The discovery of the Boxgrove tibia in England (Roberts 1994) provided new and important arguments which seemed to support this hypothesis. Clive Gamble (1994) remarked in Nature:

The case for even older archaeological sites of up two millon years old in southern France, Spain and Czechoslovakia looks weaker still: there are no widely accepted hominid remains and the human origin of the stone artefacts is disputed.

The ANTIQUITY and Nature articles both opposed the conclusions of the Paris meeting, and the Orce and Cueva Victoria findings were thus relegated to oblivion.

The finds of TD6 in Atapuerca (Carbonell et al. 1995) extended the age in the 'short chronology' to 750,000 years old, but nothing essential changed; these remains were classified as a primitive form of Homo heidelbergensis (later homo antecessor (Bermudez de Castro et al. 1997) and related to the Mailer mandible, still considered to be the oldest human fossil in Europe.

After the 1995 International Conference of Human Paleontology in Orce (SE Spain), Dennell & Roebroeks (1996: 541) modified the 'short chronology' in ANTIQUITY, confirming that at present a

'short' chronology is more reasonable than a 'long' one for northern Europe, and perhaps even for southern Europe outside Spain, if that was initially colonized via North Africa and not the Near East.

The Orce and Cueva Victoria sites, discussed here, demonstrate Spain's exceptional position.

General setting

The northeast sector of the Guadix-Baza basin, in southeast Spain [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], contains a continental sedimentary sequence over 100 metres deep. Sedimentation in this area was almost continuous between the Late Miocene and the Upper Pleistocene. These Plio-Pleistocene sediments form seven depositional cycles separated by unconformities. These cycles began with fluvial sediments and finished with lacustrine deposits. The deposition of one or other of these depended on the relative position of the lake level mainly in relation to global climatic oscillations (Ll. Gibert et al. 1997) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].

The deposit of BL-5 at Bartanco Leon is located in a unique bed of fine sand that belongs to the distal part of a small alluvial system, varying in thickness between 10 and 25 cm. Discovered by Josep and Lluis Gibert in 1979, BL-5 is a classical palaeontological site (first published by Agusti 1984). During a survey in 1983, the first lithic artefacts were discovered by J. Gibert and A. Iglesias (J. …

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