The ERC PALEOCHAR teamwork started making experimental fires to provide a reference collection of burnt fats. Dr Tammy Buonasera works on molecular and isotopic biomarkers to characterize animal fats in archaeological context. The aim of these analyses is to determine what these fats are and which animals were consumed.
The PALEOCHAR project examines how Neanderthal diet, fire technology, settlement patterns, and surrounding vegetation at a local scale (individual sites) were affected by changing climatic conditions.
Our recent experimental and geoarchaeological work on Palaeolithic fire has led to the discovery of black layers from archaeological fireplaces as invaluable contexts of preserved organic matter.
The black layers typically documented in Middle Palaeolithic hearths represent the charred ground beneath the fire. Therefore, they can be considered as snapshots of living floors, rich in residues from human activity as well as from soils and vegetation of the natural surroundings.
Crucially, experimental data has shown that the average temperatures associated with black layers – below 300°C on average – are high enough for the charring of organic compounds and to make them unappealing to biodegrading soil fauna, but not as high as to destroy their biomarker chemical fingerprints.
Therefore, once charred, organic compounds may preserve well within sediment for indefinite periods of time as long as the sedimentary environment does not undergo strong diagenesis. The PALEOCHAR project will target this important window of organic matter preservation by exploring the black layers of intact Neanderthal fireplaces.