- Paleoenvironmental reconstruction
One key area of research is understanding the environments that Neanderthals were adapted to. There are four main domains of data which can be used for this: floral remains, faunal remains, biomolecules, and geological sediments.
Among the floral remains, charcoal provides valuable information about the species of plant fuel that were available, in other words, trees. Pollen is another valuable source of information about past flora, and although it is best preserved in waterlogged environments, we hope to obtain some data from pollen found at the site.
Paleoenvironmental information also comes to us from archaeological fauna. Macrofauna refers to the size class of animal bones typically studied by a zooarchaeologist to reconstruct the animal-based portion of human diets. Although best suited to give subsistence information, macrofauna is nevertheless a key source of information about past environments. Whether Neanderthals were hunting red deer or reindeer gives us a valuable source of information about the types of environment (wooded versus steppe) in which they hunted. Microfauna consists in the small animals (voles, mice, reptiles, etc) that were captured and eaten by raptors, who then passed fecal pellets containing the bones of these tiny animals into the site. They are an extremely valuable source of information about paleoenvironments, as they are accumulated through natural agents rather than humans, and they generally are from a closer radius than the macrofauna.
European snow vole, Chionomys nivalis1
Identification of wood species by the anthracologist enables us to reconstruct what types of trees were growing on the landscape at the time.2
Common vole/Short-tailed field vole, Microtus arvalis3
European pine vole, Microtus subterraneus4
Geological sediments preserve much information about climate during the formation of each sedimentary layer within a site. Geoarchaeologists study the origins of these sediments to infer climate. For instance, a layer composed of clasts from the rock shelter roof might indicate freeze/thaw cycles. A layer composed of soil that washed in from upslope might indicate erosion following a warm period.
Finally, biomolecules have recently been able to give us valuable information about paleoenvironments. Organic chemists are able to extract plant waxes preserved in sediments, and on the basis of their molecular structure, infer whether they came from grasses versus deciduous trees (grasses tend to indicate cold, dry environments whereas trees indicate warmer, wetter environments). Furthermore, by quantifying the types of carbon and hydrogen isotopes in these molecules, the chemists can infer whether they were most likely deposited during a climatically wet versus dry regime.
1= Figure credit: Dodoni, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons2= Figure credit: Goran Ćulafić, “Ecological Context: The Surroundings of Crvena Stijena. Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction” in Crvena Stijena in Cultural and Ecological Context: Multidisciplinary Archaeological Research in Montenegro, ed. Robert Whallon (Podgorica: Montenegrin Academy of Sciences and Arts and National Museum of Montenegro, 2017), 28-44. Figure 4.23= Figure credit: Dieter TD, first upload in de wikipedia on 13:31, 28. Apr 2005 by Dieter TD, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons4= Figure credit: Vojtěch Zavadil, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons