Research Article: Radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis on the purported Aurignacian skeletal remains from Fontana Nuova (Ragusa, Italy)

Date Published: March 20, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Gianpiero Di Maida, Marcello A. Mannino, Ben Krause-Kyora, Theis Zetner Trolle Jensen, Sahra Talamo, Marco Peresani.


Proving voyaging at sea by Palaeolithic humans is a difficult archaeological task, even for short distances. In the Mediterranean, a commonly accepted sea crossing is that from the Italian Peninsula to Sicily by anatomically modern humans, purportedly of the Aurignacian culture. This claim, however, was only supported by the typological attribution to the Aurignacian of the lithic industries from the insular site of Fontana Nuova. AMS radiocarbon dating undertaken as part of our research shows that the faunal remains, previously considered Aurignacian, actually date to the Holocene. Absolute dating on dentinal collagen also attributes the human teeth from the site to the early Holocene, although we were unable to obtain ancient DNA to evaluate their ancestry. Ten radiocarbon dates on human and other taxa are comprised between 9910–9700 cal. BP and 8600–8480 cal. BP, indicating that Fontana Nuova was occupied by Mesolithic and not Aurignacian hunter-gatherers. Only a new study of the lithic assemblage could establish if the material from Fontana Nuova is a mixed collection that includes both late Upper Palaeolithic (Epigravettian) and Mesolithic artefacts, as can be suggested by taking into account both the results of our study and of the most recent reinterpretation of the lithics. Nevertheless, this research suggests that the notion that Aurignacian groups were present in Sicily should now be revised. Another outcome of our study is that we found that three specimens, attributed on grounds both of morphological and ZooMS identifications to Cervus elaphus, had δ13C values significantly higher than any available for such species in Europe.

Partial Text

The question of voyaging at sea in the Mediterranean during the Palaeolithic is still open, even when it comes to the Upper Palaeolithic [1]. One of the few claims for a sea crossing around the time of the first arrival of anatomically modern humans to Europe, coinciding with the inception of the Aurignacian culture, is that made on the basis of the Sicilian site of Riparo di Fontana Nuova. In his seminal book titled The Making of the Middle Sea, Broodbank [2] states that this claim possesses “one advantage over earlier claims of island occupation in the Mediterranean: it indisputably happened”. This view is shared by most authors that have dealt in detail with the issues of prehistoric voyaging at sea in the Mediterranean Sea [3–4]. The cultural and chronological attributions of the site to the Aurignacian, however, solely hinge on chrono-typological considerations resulting from the study of the lithic assemblage recovered during unsystematic excavations [5–12]. A more recent revision of the lithic assemblage from Fontana Nuova has typologically attributed it to the closing stages of the Upper Palaeolithic, specifically to the Final (or Late) Epigravettian [13]. None of the above-mentioned studies included absolute dating, which we have undertaken as part of the research presented here.

A total of 25 human (repository numbers 10207, 10210, 10211) and other faunal remains (no repository numbers available), listed in detail in the Supporting Information (S1 Table), were sampled for the present study at the Museo Archeologico Regionale ‘Paolo Orsi’ in Syracuse (Italy), where they remain available to other researchers. All necessary permits were obtained for the described study, which complied with all relevant regulations. As the attempt to extract collagen by Chilardi et al. [12] had failed, we exercised great caution in selecting the specimens to pretreat. It should be noted (as can be seen in the photos provided in the Supporting Information) that the preservation is quite homogeneous and that none of the specimens bears traces of consolidants or solvents. A detailed taphonomic study of the small faunal assemblage has not been undertaken, because according to Chilardi et al. [12] the bone surfaces are poorly preserved. Nevertheless, many of the bones in the assemblage bear traces of burning and green fractures, resulting from dismemberment and extensive processing of the carcasses.

The main outcome of our study is to have clarified the chronology of Fontana Nuova, demonstrating that the faunal and human remains, used by Chilardi and colleagues to back up their attribution of the site to the Aurignacian [12], actually date to the Holocene (9900–8500 cal. BP), when Sicily was occupied by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. An attribution of the lithic assemblage to the Aurignacian can now be rejected, not only due to the results of our radiocarbon dating, but also given that the lithic assemblage from this site has been re-assigned to the Late Epigravettian by Lo Vetro and Martini [13]. In fact, the finds only include 2 strangulated blades (both not intact, which makes their typological attribution more speculative) and 6 Aurignacian blades [7], representing a small fraction of the overall complex (ca. 6%), and do not include any animal bone tools, typical of the early Upper Palaeolithic culture in question. Given the similarity between Late Epigravettian and Mesolithic (‘Undifferentiated Epigravetian’) industries in Sicily (where some of the techno-typological features of the latter are rooted in the Epigravettian tradition) [13,55] and in the absence of a new study of the lithic assemblage, it is not possible to exclude that the site of Riparo di Fontana Nuova, as many others on the island, was occupied by hunter-gatherers of both cultures. However, this hypothetical possibility is not the most parsimonious interpretation of the radiocarbon data available for the site, because it would imply that: (1) its small and seemingly discrete assemblage is mixed, and that (2) collagen is preserved by chance only on bones of Holocene/Mesolithic age, whilst the remains that did not yield collagen are Late Pleistocene/Palaeolithic, or that (3) the lithics are mixed, but the fauna is not. Based on our experience on other prehistoric sites on Sicily, the kind of differential preservation of collagen necessary to support these hypotheses has never been recorded at sites occupied in both periods. Moreover, these hypothetical explanations contrast both with Bernabò Brea’s on-site observation that all the material originated from the discrete middle layer [14] and with the nature of the material culture and skeletal assemblages suggesting that Fontana Nuova was occupied infrequently and short-term [12]. The fact that all but two of the calibrated age ranges for the specimens dated in this study overlap at 2σ and that the overall modelled age range covers only a period of between 2060 and 1100 calibrated years is fully compatible with an infrequently occupied short-term site.

The AMS radiocarbon dates on collagen from ten skeletal remains retrieved at Riparo di Fontana Nuova assign both the fauna and humans to the Holocene. As these were used by Chilardi et al. [12] to argue an early Upper Palaeolithic occupation, we believe that the attribution of the site to the Aurignacian should be discarded. A late Upper Palaeolithic (i.e. Late Epigravettian) occupation cannot be discounted outright, although hypothesizing it requires a non-parsimonious explanation: either that the lithic assemblage is mixed but the bones are not or that by chance collagen was only preserved on bones of Holocene age. There are, thus, no longer credible claims for early Upper Palaeolithic sea crossings to large Mediterranean islands, which has important implications for our knowledge of prehistoric voyaging in this enclosed sea. As far as Sicily is concerned, our findings hopefully signal the end of speculation on the peopling of the island based on materials recovered from undocumented contexts and poorly-dated sites. Only new surveying and excavation campaigns will, thus, enable us to explore further when the largest Mediterranean island was first settled by anatomically modern humans.




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