Palaeolithic Mollusc Exploitation at Riparo Mochi (Balzi Rossi, Italy): Food and Ornaments from the Aurignacian through Epigravettian

Article excerpt


The early Upper Palaeolithic of Europe is distinguished by the sudden appearance of art, ornaments, and a quickened pace of technological diversification (Bietti 1997; Gamble 1986; Hahn 1972; Harrold 1989; Kozlowski 1990; Kuhn & Stiner 1998b; Leroi-Gourhan 1961; Mellars 1989; Otte 1990; Palma di Cesnola 1993; White 1982). This study explores an important branch of that process through the analysis of the marine molluscs used as ornaments and food during the Upper and Epi-Palaeolithic periods at Riparo (Abri) Mochi, on the northwestern Italian coast. The stratigraphic sequence spans 36,000 to about 9000 years before present (TABLE 1). The ornaments from this shelter differ from those of inland European sites in having been made almost exclusively from marine shells. Carved ivory and soft stone pendants and modified mammal teeth generally dominate Upper and Epi-Palaeolithic ornament assemblages of the continental interior (Hahn 1972; White 1989). Shell ornaments were emphasized in coastal areas and where marine fossil outcrops were available (e. g. Taborin 1993a).

TABLE 1. Age ranges for the Epi- through Upper Palaeolithic faunal assemblages from Riparo Mochi, Italy.

Palaeolithic                                    associational
culture and layer               direct dating      dating

Late Epigravettian (layer A)         --           9000-12,000
Early Epigravettian (layer C)        --         17,000-19,000
Gravettian (layer D)                 --         24,000-28,000
Middle Aurignacian (layer F)         --         27,000-32,000
Early Aurignacian (layer G)     32,000-36,000         --

Associational dating is based on nearby sites that contain similar industries dated by radiocarbon technique. (Sources: Bietti 1990; Hedges et al. 1994: 347; Palma di Cesnola 1993.)

The long Upper-Epi-Palaeolithic sequence of Riparo Mochi presents a rare opportunity to examine the influence of natural patterns of availability on humans' choices of food and raw material for ornament-making at one rich coastal source. The steep, rocky topography in this stretch of the Riviera lent considerable stability to the local marine environment, despite dramatic changes in sea level over the last 36,000 years (FIGURE 1). The shelter was never far from the Mediterranean shore, due to the high topographic relief of the Balzi Rossi coast. These biogeographic and geologic constants eliminate the most common causes of variation in archaeological comparisons of shell ornaments and shellfish exploitation -- biogeography and climate-driven reconfiguration of shorelines -- making it possible to test hypotheses about human-caused variation.


The possibility that Palaeolithic ornaments, including those made from shells, signalled aspects of individual or group identity is frequently raised by archaeologists (Hahn 1972; Softer 1989; Taborin 1993b; White 1982; 1989). While Palaeolithic ornaments probably held considerable social significance, it is not clear just what we are seeing of early emblematic expression in piece-by-piece analyses of shells. Outside of decorated burials, disarray is the common condition of ornament assemblages, material fallen from use or forgotten. Upper Palaeolithic people's use of marine shells for ornament-making nonetheless can be examined for collector preferences. In cases where non-fossil species were emphasized, as at the Balzi Rossi sites, culturally imposed biases can be exposed by reference to natural standards of marine community structure and local species availability.

This presentation begins by introducing the full spectrum of marine mollusc species represented at Riparo Mochi. Next is a summary of assemblage formation histories, based on damage patterns and spatial associations of the shells to other archaeological materials across fine stratigraphic cuts. Four major categories of shell debris are recognized as a result -- food, ornaments, accidental inclusions with marine sponges, and co-resident species (land snails). …