Changing environments during the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition in the eastern Cantabrian Region (Spain): direct evidence from stable isotope studies on ungulate bones

Jennifer R. Jones, Michael P. Richards, Lawrence G. Straus, Hazel Reade, Jesús Altuna, Koro Mariezkurrena, Ana B. Marín-Arroyo*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)
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Environmental change has been proposed as a factor that contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals in Europe during MIS3. Currently, the different local environmental conditions experienced at the time when Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) met Neanderthals are not well known. In the Western Pyrenees, particularly, in the eastern end of the Cantabrian coast of the Iberian Peninsula, extensive evidence of Neanderthal and subsequent AMH activity exists, making it an ideal area in which to explore the palaeoenvironments experienced and resources exploited by both human species during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition. Red deer and horse were analysed using bone collagen stable isotope analysis to reconstruct environmental conditions across the transition. A shift in the ecological niche of horses after the Mousterian demonstrates a change in environment, towards more open vegetation, linked to wider climatic change. In the Mousterian, Aurignacian and Gravettian, high inter-individual nitrogen ranges were observed in both herbivores. This could indicate that these individuals were procured from areas isotopically different in nitrogen. Differences in sulphur values between sites suggest some variability in the hunting locations exploited, reflecting the human use of different parts of the landscape. An alternative and complementary explanation proposed is that there were climatic fluctuations within the time of formation of these archaeological levels, as observed in pollen, marine and ice cores.

Original languageEnglish
Article number14842
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 4 Oct 2018

Bibliographical note

This research was funded by the European Commission through a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant (FP7-PEOPLE-2012-CIG-322112), by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (HAR2012-33956 and Ramon y Cajal-2011-00695), the University of Cantabria and Campus International to ABMA. Radiocarbon dating at ORAU was funded by MINECO-HAR2012-33956 project. J.J was supported initially by the FP7-PEOPLE-2012-CIG-322112 and later by a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship (H2020-MSCA-IF-2014-656122). Laboratory work, associated research expenses and isotopic analysis were kindly funded by the Max Planck Society to M.R. The authors would like to thank Museo de Arqueología de Bizkaia and Centro de Custodia de los Materiales Arqueológicos de Gipuzkoa (Basque Government) for access to the collections. Annabell Reiner provided essential lab support in the MPI-EVA laboratories, and Sven Steinbrenner supported the mass spectrometry aspects of the project. Many thanks also to Reba McDonald and Megan Wong (UBC) for assisting with the sulphur analysis undertaken and Luis Teira and Lucia Agudo for their help with pictures and figures. Supporting data can be accessed in the Supporting Material file.


  • climate-change adaptation
  • paleoclimate


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