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On the Entity and Antiquity of the Aurignacian at Willendorf (Austria): Implications for Modern Human Emergence in Europe

Abstract

The time of the Aurignacian’s first appearance in the archeological record lies at the heart of debates on the emergence of European anatomically modern humans. Based on a re-study of Archeological Horizon (AH) 3 of Willendorf II, it has been claimed that the Early Aurignacian was present in the loess plains of Lower Austria by 43.5 ka (thousands of calendar years ago), several millennia earlier than in western Europe. The claim rests on the argument that a refit set linking an area excavated 2006–2011 with another excavated 1908–1909 implies that the two stone tool collections derive from a single, homogeneous assemblage. Therefore, the dating of the 2006–2011 context would also date the Early Aurignacian diagnostics found in the 1908–1909 collection. Based on the published evidence, this argument cannot be supported. The 1908–1909 excavation extended way beyond the boundaries of the stratigraphic level in which AH3 was identified in 2006–2011: lens C8-3 of subunit C8. Northward, subunit C8 becomes internally undifferentiated and merges with subunit C7 above, within which a new horizon, AH3ab, was first formally recognized in 2006–2011. This evidence implies that “AH3” of 1908–1909 was a stratigraphically heterogeneous unit over at least half of the area then excavated and that the stone tools it yielded must be treated as a multi-component assemblage that conflates material derived from at least two different occupation horizons. In line with the chrono-stratigraphy of Europe’s Early Upper Paleolithic sequence, the few Early Aurignacian diagnostics found in the “AH3” collection of 1908–1909 must date to ca.39.1 ka, the calendar age of AH3ab. The single refit set linking the two collections shows that an earlier component, dated to ca.43.5 ka by the 2006–2011 work, is also represented in the collection from 1908 to 1909. However, in the absence of diagnostics, the technocomplex affinities of that earlier component cannot be ascertained. The association of the Early Aurignacian with modern humans in Lower Austria remains a legitimate inference but is valid for the ca.38–40 ka time range, not before.

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Notes

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    Kulturschichte 3 (Abb. 75): Ausgegraben in den Jahren 1908 und 1909, aufgeschlossen im Jahre 1955. Geostratigraphische Position in dem Schichtpaket von Lößlehmen und grauen Schichten und zwar als unterste der nun folgenden Schichten. Höhenlage 230,80 m über NN, 4,90 m über der Bahnstrasse und 1,20 m über Schicht 2. Ebenfalls nur im Südteil des Hauptgrabungsfeldes freigelegt, im Umfange von ca.20 m Länge und durchschnittlich 8 m Breite, konnte ihre Ausdehnung aber durch den Profilgraben 1955 auf das gesamte Grabungsfeld festgestellt werden. Ihre mittlere Mächtigkeit beträgt ca.18 cm. Im gesamten Aufschluß ist sie fast durchwegs—mit Ausnhame der Südwestecke—gut ausgeprägt, in der Färbung kenntlich. Stellenweise kommen kleinere Stellen dichter Holzkohle (bis zu 5 cm stark) vor, die von Obermaier als „Herde“gedeutet wurden. Über die ganze Schicht sind Gesteinstrümmer verstreut. Die Schicht fällt nach Osten und streicht nach Süden. Über ihr und unter Schicht 4 sind wiederum einzelne kleinere Straten, teilweise mit Kohlenanreicherungen festgestellt worden.

    Archeological Horizon 3 (Fig. 75): Excavated in the years 1908 and 1909, and again in the year 1955. Geostratigraphical position: at the bottom of the package of lehm and gray layers that overlie it. Elevation: 230.80 m above sea level, 4.90 m above the railroad, and 1.20 m above layer 2. Also found only in the southern part of the main excavation trench, in an area approximately 20 m in length and 8 m in width, its extent over the entire excavation area could however be determined by way of the 1955 profile. Its average thickness amounted to ca.18 cm. Across its total exposed area—the southwest corner excepted—it almost always appears quite distinctively, recognizable by coloration. In places, small, dense, up to 5-cm-thick concentrations of charcoal occur, which Obermaier interpreted as “hearths.” Scattered rock debris are found across the entire layer. The layer dips to east and strikes to south. Above it and below layer 4, small, separate, sometimes charcoal-rich strata could be observed.

    Kulturschichte 4 (Abb. 76): Ausgegraben während der Grabungen der Jahre 1908, 1909, 1913, 1927 und 1955, ist sie die mittlere der in den Schwemmlehmen liegenden Kulturschichten. Ihre absolute Höhe beträgt 231,15 m, d. i.,5,20 m über dem Bahnniveau und 0,35 m über Schichte 3. Sie ist nach der Grabung 1955 im gesamten Hauptgrabungsfeld und somit in ihrer ganzen Nord-Süd-Erstreckung abgedeckt und durch die Tiefengrabung 1913/I auch noch westlich am Berghang nachgewiesen. Sie fällt gleichmäßig von West nach Ost und streicht fast horizontal, sich nur im Nordteil etwas stärker gegen Nord senkend.Stellenweise zeigt sie mäßige Aufspaltung in einzelne Äste. In ihrer Lage is nicht plan, sondern ziemlich stark gewürgt und teilweise aufgewölbt, wodurch sie sich den Schichten 3 und 5 stellenweise sehr unterschiedlich nähert. Ihre Mächtigkeit beträgt dort, wo sie tatsächlich als regelrechte Kulturschichte ausgeprägt erscheint, im Mittel 10 cm. Am besten ausgeprägt ist die Schichte im Zentrum des Aufschlusses und in der Südwestecke, wo sie sich nach Obermaier eigentlich „als ein grosser, gleichmäßiger Feuerplatzvon schwarzbrauner Farbe, kompakt, speckig mit zahlreichen Holzkohlen erweist. Die Zwischenflächen sind eigentlich nur als Fundhorizont durch Silex-abspliße, Knochen und Kohleflocken ausgewiesen. Typen finden sich nur im Süden und Norden. Während der Grabung 1955 konnte im Nordteil des Grabungsfeldes ein Herd aufgedeckt werden, der aus einer flachen, Herdgrube bestand, welche mit Holzkohlen und Aschensubstanz gefüllt war. Am Rande der Herdgrube lagen sternförmig 6 im Durchshcnitt 2 cm starke, verkohlte Holzstücke, von denen 4 an ihrem äusseren Ende in aufrecht stehenden Astgabeln lagen. Auch diese waren verkholt.

    Archeological Horizon 4 (Fig. 76): Excavated during the excavations of the years 1908, 1909, 1913, 1927, and 1955, it is, among the archeological horizons contained in the colluvial lehm, the middle one. Its elevation is 231.15 m, i.e., 5.20 m above the railway level and 0.35 m above layer 3. With the 1955 excavation, the layer is now seen to exist over the whole of the main excavation trench and thus across its entire north-south extent, and by way of the 1913/I deep sounding could also be observed to the West, into the slope. It dipped evenly from west to east and struck almost horizontally; only in the northern part did it sink somewhat more sharply to the north. In places, it featured moderate splitting into separate branches. The layer is not level; in parts, it is quite strongly choked, or else bulging, whereby the distance separating it from layers 3 and 5 is highly variable. Where it does appear as a true archeological horizon, its thickness is, on average, 10 cm. The layer is best defined in the central part of the exposed area, and in the southwest corner, where it appeared to Obermaier “as a large, regular hearth” of black-brown color, compact, greasy, with numerous charcoals. The intermediate surfaces can only be identified as a find horizon through their flint chippage, bones, and charcoal flecks. Typologically defined items are found only in the south and north. During the 1995 excavations, a hearth could be revealed in the northern part of the excavation area; it consisted of a flat-bottomed pit filled with charcoal and an ashy substance. Around the hearth, there were six, on average 2 cm-thick, charred wood fragments forming a star-shaped arrangement, of which four lay on forked wood branches stuck at the feature’s outer rim. These were also carbonized.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Emmanuel Discamps, Erik Trinkaus, Francesco d’Errico, Lars Anderson, Will Banks, and Elise Tartar for fruitful discussions and comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. As usual, any errors or omissions are our own.

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Correspondence to Nicolas Teyssandier.

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Teyssandier, N., Zilhão, J. On the Entity and Antiquity of the Aurignacian at Willendorf (Austria): Implications for Modern Human Emergence in Europe. J Paleo Arch 1, 107–138 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41982-017-0004-4

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Keywords

  • Protoaurignacian
  • Early Aurignacian
  • Neandertals
  • Radiocarbon
  • Stratigraphy