CE27 - Culture, créations, patrimoine

The Exploitation of Cetaceans in the Paleolithic of Atlantic Europe – PaleoCet

Submission summary

The PaleoCet project will analyze the exploitation of whales by Paleolithic foragers in Europe by focusing on a key case: the northern Atlantic shore around the Gulf of Biscay during the Magdalenian, ca. 19-14 cal ka BP. This archeological context yielded the richest and most diverse evidence of seashore exploitation in the European Paleolithic, including the oldest evidence of a regular exploitation of whales known in human history: unworked whale bones, worked whale teeth, and, especially, over 100 objects carved out of whale bone. We will test the hypothesis that these large cetaceans as a means of subsistence were a major incentive for the development of true coastal economies, which are evidenced clearly for the first time in Europe at this period. This project will thus improve our understanding of the early human exploitation of the seashore and adaptation to marine resources, a central issue in current prehistoric anthropology because of its deep impact on human evolution.

Three obstacles limit our knowledge of the exploitation of whales in the Magdalenian: almost all the whale bones from that period are unidentified at species level, few of them are precisely dated, and the presence of whale-bone objects was not investigated outside the Pyrenees. To lift these barriers, the Magdalenian record of whale remains will be completed through a survey of collections from Cantabrian Spain, a region rich in sites close to the Magdalenian shoreline but where whale-bone objects have not yet been searched for. Simultaneously, the available record will be analyzed with two cutting-edge methods, recently developed and applied for the first time to this material: ZooMS, and 14C dating with ECHoMICADAS.

Collagen peptide mass fingerprinting (aka "ZooMS") is a rapid and cost-effective approach for taxonomic identification to species level with minimal sampling. It will be done on a systematic basis in order to confirm the macroscopic identification as whale bone, and to know which whale species were present in the Gulf of Biscay and available to Paleolithic people. This is fundamental for understanding the range of possible interactions between foragers and whales (mere scavenging or opportunistic killing?), since whale species vary a lot in their ecology and thus in how accessible they are to humans.

Radiocarbon dating with ECHoMICADAS is an AMS dating technology that makes it possible to decrease sample sizes to a tenth of traditional AMS dating, hence enabling the 14C dating of objects with high heritage value. It will be done on one part of the whale-bone objects to precise the chronology of whale bone carving and to assess if any chronological trend appears in whale exploitation within the Magdalenian, in the range of species exploited and in types of use. One part of the 14C program will be devoted to the precise quantification of the marine reservoir effect in this context.

The results of this project, including a photogrammetric survey of all objects, will be archived in a public database and disseminated through scientific communication media. But since these results are also likely to arise public interest, a particular attention will be paid to their communication towards the general public, notably through several public events.

Reconstructing the prehistory of whale exploitation is challenging because most prehistoric coastal sites have been lost to marine transgressions. This project confronts this problem by building up on recent scientific achievements and cutting-edge technologies, and bringing them to a higher degree of synergy. The results will also have implications for the study of past cetacean ecology: by documenting the whale taxa in the North Atlantic ca. 19-14 cal ka BP, this project will improve our knowledge of the evolution of cetacean populations and contribute to public awareness about the magnitude of environmental change, anthropic exploitation and loss of biodiversity since that period.

Project coordination

Jean-Marc PÉTILLON (Travaux de Recherches Archéologiques sur les Cultures, les Espaces et les Sociétés)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


TRACES Travaux de Recherches Archéologiques sur les Cultures, les Espaces et les Sociétés
AASPE Archéozoologie, archéobotanique : sociétés, pratiques et environnements

Help of the ANR 304,043 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: January 2019 - 30 Months

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