Date Published: May 16, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Juan I. Morales, Artur Cebrià, Aitor Burguet-Coca, Juan Luis Fernández-Marchena, Gala García-Argudo, Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, María Soto, Sahra Talamo, José-Miguel Tejero, Josep Vallverdú, Josep Maria Fullola, Marco Peresani.
The Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe covers the last millennia of Neanderthal life together with the appearance and expansion of Modern Human populations. Culturally, it is defined by the Late Middle Paleolithic succession, and by Early Upper Paleolithic complexes like the Châtelperronian (southwestern Europe), the Protoaurignacian, and the Early Aurignacian. Up to now, the southern boundary for the transition has been established as being situated between France and Iberia, in the Cantabrian façade and Pyrenees. According to this, the central and southern territories of Iberia are claimed to have been the refuge of the last Neanderthals for some additional millennia after they were replaced by anatomically Modern Humans on the rest of the continent. In this paper, we present the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition sequence from Cova Foradada (Tarragona), a cave on the Catalan Mediterranean coastline. Archaeological research has documented a stratigraphic sequence containing a succession of very short-term occupations pertaining to the Châtelperronian, Early Aurignacian, and Gravettian. Cova Foradada therefore represents the southernmost Châtelperronian–Early Aurignacian sequence ever documented in Europe, significantly enlarging the territorial distribution of both cultures and providing an important geographical and chronological reference for understanding Neanderthal disappearance and the complete expansion of anatomically Modern Humans.
The Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe (ca. 45–35 ka cal BP) covers the last millennia of Neanderthal presence in the fossil record, together with the appearance of anatomically Modern Human populations. In SW Europe this is broadly represented by the Late Middle Paleolithic succession, the so-called transitional assemblages, including the Châtelperronian, Neronian, and Uluzzian, and the Protoaurignacian and Early Aurignacian assemblages. While there is general agreement that Neanderthals are associated with the Late Middle Paleolithic and Modern Humans with the Aurignacian, there has been intense debate about who was responsible for transitional industries such as those of the Châtelperronian and the Uluzzian [1–8]. Inferences from paleoanthropological [9–13], technological [14–17], and paleo-proteomic studies  seem to point out that Neanderthals were the makers of Châtelperronian artifacts. Notwithstanding, this statement is far from being universally accepted amongst researchers [1,19] and the debate continues. Be that as it may, during the Transition, Neanderthals and Modern Humans appear to have co-inhabited geographical zones over a fairly narrow time span, opening up the possibility of various kinds of interaction, ranging from population replacement [20–23], and biological assimilation [24–29], to indirect contact and technological diffusion between the species [30,31].
The Cova Foradada sequence provides important insights into the narrative of the Late Neanderthal–Modern Human substitution in southern Europe, including Mediterranean Iberia within the regions of interest for the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic Transition. The claimed appearance of both the Châtelperronian and Early Aurignacian industries provides the first unambiguous evidence of the occupation of a Mediterranean coastal environment, thereby extending the boundary of the Châtelperronian and Early Aurignacian transition southwards from the Pyrenean and Cantabrian mountain ranges.