Multi-Isotope investigations of ungulate bones and teeth from El Castillo and Covalejos caves (Cantabria, Spain): Implications for paleoenvironment reconstructions across the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition

Jennifer R. Jones, Michael P. Richards, Hazel Reade, Federico Bernaldo de Quirós, Ana B. Marín-Arroyo* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


The Cantabrian region of Northern Spain was an important area of human occupation during the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic as the rich archaeological record demonstrates. The environmental conditions experienced by late Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) in the region during MIS3 are still poorly known, but are crucial to understand the role climatic instability could have had on the adaptations of these populations. In this study, a series of archaeological levels with Mousterian and Aurignacian artefact assemblages, dating between 49 and 35 ka uncal. BP, from the sites of El Castillo and Covalejos caves in Cantabria were studied using multi-isotope techniques including bone collagen δ13C, δ15N and δ34S analysis and a pilot study based on tooth enamel δ18O and δ13C. Results at Covalejos indicate a large range in δ15N values observable within both Mousterian Level D and Aurignacian Level B, suggesting the presence of different micro-environments within the local area at certain times during each temporal period. Within Aurignacian Level C and Mousterian Level J, the δ15N values range is much smaller, but shows consistency in the parts of the landscape being exploited during both times. Neanderthals and AMH appear to have been procuring animals from isotopically similar zones (isozones) when they occupied Covalejos. The variations in δ34S values between levels analysed at Covalejos also implies the use of a variety of hunting locations by both late Neanderthals and AMH. At El Castillo, δ13C and δ15N values show great consistency between levels, indicating that animals were being hunted from the same isozones when the site was presumably occupied by the two human species. The mosaic landscapes of Cantabria may have buffered the sharp environmental fluctuations that occurred during late MIS3 throughout Europe, providing suitable habitats for the key prey ungulate species that were routinely exploited throughout the Middle and Early Upper Palaeolithic. This environmental buffering may explain why this southerly, oceanic region was consistently occupied throughout this time of bio-cultural transition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1029-1042
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Early online date8 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2019

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. This research is also included within the HAR2015-70652-P project. Radiocarbon dating at ORAU was funded by HAR2012-33956 project. J.R.J was supported by a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship (H2020-MSCA-IF-2014-656122). Laboratory work, associated research expenses and isotopic analysis were generously funded by the Max Planck Society to M.R. We are grateful to the Museo de Prehistoria y Arqueología de Cantabria (Gobierno de Cantabria) for facilitating access to the fauna material analysed. Annabell Reiner provided essential lab support in the MPI-EVA laboratories and Sven Steinbrenner supported the mass spectrometry aspects of the project. Reba McDonald and Megan Wong at the UBC stable isotope laboratory were invaluable in their help with the sulphur analysis. James Rolfe and Louise Butterworth at Cambridge University are thanked for their laboratory and analytical assistance with the tooth δ18O and δ13C analysis. We thank Lawrence Straus for reading and editing the manuscript. We would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and feedback that helped to improve the manuscript.


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