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Uneven Data Quality and the Earliest Occupation of Europe: The Case of Untermassfeld (Germany)

By Wil Roebroeks, Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, Michael Baales, Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke

Posted 31 Oct 2017
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/211268 (published DOI: 10.1007/s41982-017-0003-5)

The database regarding the earliest occupation of Europe has increased significantly in quantity and quality of data points over the last two decades, mainly through the addition of new sites as a result of long-term systematic excavations and large-scale prospections of Early and early Middle Pleistocene exposures. The site distribution pattern suggests an ephemeral presence of hominins in the south of Europe from around one million years ago, with occasional short northward expansions along the western coastal areas when temperate conditions permitted. From around 600,000-700,000 years ago Acheulean artefacts appear in Europe and somewhat later hominin presence seems to pick up, with more sites and now some also present in colder climatic settings. It is again only later, around 350,000 years ago, that the first sites show up in more continental, central parts of Europe, east of the Rhine. A series of recent papers on the Early Pleistocene palaeontological site of Untermassfeld (Germany) makes claims that are of great interest for studies of earliest Europe and are at odds with the described pattern: the papers suggest that Untermassfeld has yielded stone tools and humanly modified faunal remains, evidence for a one million years old hominin presence in European continental mid-latitudes, and additional evidence that hominins were well-established in Europe already around that time period. Here we evaluate these claims and demonstrate that these studies are severely flawed in terms of data on provenance of the materials studied and in the interpretation of faunal remains and lithics as testifying to a hominin presence at the site. In actual fact any reference to the Untermassfeld site as an archaeological one is unwarranted. Furthermore, it is not the only European Early Pleistocene site where inferred evidence for hominin presence is problematic. The strength of the spatiotemporal patterns of hominin presence and absence depend on the quality of the data points we work with, and data base maintenance, including critical evaluation of new sites, is crucial to advance our knowledge of the expansions and contractions of hominin ranges during the Pleistocene.

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